Friday, January 25, 2013

The Gowanus Dolphin


Sewage discharge pipes and a lost dolphin

Update: I'm sorry. According to The Times and other sources, the dolphin died before 6pm. Vince was there at the time and he later wrote this post, which is far more to the point than mine, below. 

This is the most-photographed, and  perhaps the saddest, dolphin of the young year. News of its presence in the notoriously polluted Gowanus Canal spread fast after a morning tweet by Red Hook Lobster was picked up by Gothamist, and then The Times.

The canal is a twenty minute walk from home and I was reluctant to go and have a look, thinking it would 1. make me very sad, 2. make me yet another useless gawker and 3. be freezing (it is snowing as I type).

Union Street Bridge

I went. I was sad, I was yet another useless gawker, and it was freezing. News crews packed the cold steel drawbridge at Union Street and so I slid down a side street, not realizing that the poor dolphin - a short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) - would be right there, in front of me, in the horrible chalky muck of the stagnant canal.


It surfaced often, every few seconds, for air, and never left the area right at the end of Sackett Street, moving in sluggish circles and stirring up inky sludge in its wake. The water appeared to be very shallow and there was dark, silty muck on the dolphin's beak and head. The dolphin was very near the landlocked and foul end of the canal, and it was incongruous to see a marine mammal so close to the enormous storm water pipes that deposit raw sewage in the waterway after heavy rains.

Short-beaked dolphin surfacing

More and more people had arrived. They were all quiet and respectful.  As we watched the dolphin an explosion of feathers on the opposite bank caught our attention. A Cooper's Hawk (thank you, JPLatimer for correcting my ID - see comments!] had struck a pigeon in an industrial lot across the road.

Red tailed hawk

It missed, and settled on an upturned tire. Ten feet below it the dolphin surfaced again. Only in New York?



After about an hour the dolphin seemed to be moving more easily than it had at first, more swimming and less wallowing in place, possibly because water levels had been rising due to the effects of an incoming tide - high tide is at 7pm tonight.

View from the Union Street Bridge: dolphin is on left past the bare tree.

Vince went off to see the dolphin, too, very sadly, and reported when he was walking home at 6pm that there was still no sign of a rescue operation. I know. One dolphin. A rescue operation. Our collective guilt at having created this horrible environment. He has worked with dolphins closely in his diving life and could not understand why the animal was not being guided out of the waterway by a small rowing boat. He insists that they are intelligent enough to sense that kind of help, and to follow.


I spoke to a Parks ranger on the scene, who explained that she was there to "monitor the animal's well being" but that this was not a park, so not their jurisdiction.


There was talk of the Riverhead Foundation trying to rescue the dolphin, but no boat, seven hours after the first sighting was reported.


I don't know - we'll find out soon, I suppose. The floating barricades on the canal (to contain surface pollutants or oil?)  might have been hampering the dolphin. The water was very low and it might not have been able to swim beneath them and out.


It is still snowing. The canal will look pretty tomorrow. 

Where will the dolphin be?

Postscript: When Vince was there the dolphin had moved right beneath the Union Street Bridge. So it had managed to swim beneath that floating barrier. I feel so bad. There we were with our cameras, taking pictures of it as it was dying. And dying such an undignified, dirty death. The only comfort in it is that everybody there wanted to help, and no one knew how. 

Updated 01-26-13, the day after: In the City Room section of The New York Times Andy Newman reports on The Hard Decision not to Rescue an Ailing Dolphin, and publishes excerpts from an interview with Robert DiGiovanni, the Riverhead Foundation's director.

31 comments:

  1. I am using Estorbo-lingo here.
    Like Vince, I cannot understand why a boat has not gone out.Would the Ranger let her cousin drown just because it wasn't her park?(And it looks to me as if this dolphin may need cleaning, too)
    Forgh!

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  3. Unfortunately this kind of thing doesn't happen only in New York. Must we spread our filth on everything?

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    1. Of course, I know. Its just that, as humans, we are drawn to the drama under our noses.

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  4. just in case, for next time;
    Riverhead Foundation (http://riverheadfoundation.org) via their hot-line at 631-369-9829.
    I keep this number on my cell ever since I had a similar experience on Long Island. This is why these organizations exist.

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    1. Thank you, Lily H. They knew about it, from early on...

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  5. oh well, I just read the Times article. So sad indeed. I have to agree with Vince on this one.

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  6. A good time to go hug your cat.

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  7. Just for the record, it's a Cooper's Hawk, not a Red-tailed. Nice photos, though.

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    1. Thank you very much for the correction.

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  8. Devastating. We are so incredibly detached from nature.

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  9. We are always hesitant when we do not know what to do or have the tools for a rescue, but worse, we feel so incapacitated when the problem is so much bigger than ourselves. Somehow we have to advocate for--well, ourselves, along with stray dolphins. And vote, and not believe the propaganda of our moneyed classes.

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  10. Who do we think we are? Utterly disgusting that no-one got in a boat or in the water to lead this intelligent being to safer waters. Anyone could have, or tried at least. You do not need to belong to an 'appropriate organisation' with a hotline number to save a life. I do not understand the paralysis that descends at times such as these. HOW can the better option be to just stand and take photographs? Not having a go at you Marie, thank goodness you were there to bring it to our attention.
    Know what I'd have done, and it wouldn't have involved a camera.

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    1. Well, half the media outlets in the city were there re. attention. I understand how you feel. But what would you, as an "ordinary" person have done? No boat, no dry or wet suit. Temperatures well below freezing, and more than a mile of very hazardous waterway to more open water.

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    2. I'm just saying that we, the city of New York, have people who are equipped for emergency rescues of humans in all weathers and conditions, so I think it could have been translated to an animal. But no one had the balls to say, Do it.

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    3. Sorry, Jelli. None of us know what we would do. We only know what we would want to do. There is a world of difference between the imagined and the actual. Just ask those who knew Kitty Genovese.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_effect

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  11. I still can't believe it; it's a crime.

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  12. Just visited Vince's site. Between the two of you, I can't breath. So much opportunity, and so little will. I'm talking about the humans.

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  13. I think this post should be re-named "The curse of the pink elephant".

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  14. This is so very sad...

    Not to take away from this story, but on the flip side, did you read about the diver that assisted a dolphin who had fishing line stuck on its fin? There was a video as well. I think it happened recently, maybe in the past week or 2. Just something (hopefully) uplifting.

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  15. That is really sad. We have incidents with seal pups coming up on beaches, but locals watch them from a distance until marine rescue comes by.

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  16. How awful...surely something could have been done to help the dolphin find its back out to open water.

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  17. MikeW, Marie: Being Search and Rescue trained and experienced, having worked with animals exotic and domestic, and simply having a brave and resourceful spirit, I was not merely imagining what I'd like to see done, I was working through practical and logical solutions. This is a waterside location - a boat could have been found, an attempt made... We can put men into space. Like you say, Marie, its having the balls to say 'Do it' x

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    1. Good for you and your brave and resourceful spirit. The rest of us are in awe.

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    2. Pity we didn't have you, jelli.

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  18. My words weren't meant as a 'look at me' - hope you didn't think that. Just a frustrated comment on a sad event...x

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