From Bad to Awful: Gowanus Canal Dolphin Dies

Clouds of brown-green goo rise from the bottom of Brooklyn’s polluted waterway as the stranded cetacean clung to life.

The bleeding dorsal fin of the dolphin trapped in Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal. (Photo: David Kirby)
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, 'Death at Seaworld,' was published in 2012.

UPDATE: According to CBS New York, the dolphin has died.

When I got the call that a dolphin had been spotted in the Gowanus Canal, two blocks from my home in Brooklyn, I knew this wouldn’t be a happy story. Anyone who knows anything about Brooklyn knows that the waterway—a narrow inlet of New York harbor—is one of the most putridly contaminated bodies of water in the world. In the summer, you often must plug your nose as you cross the murky green soup.

And anyone who knows anything about dolphins knows that, when they are spotted alone, disoriented, in a tiny, polluted canal, something is seriously wrong with them.

It was, to be sure, surreal to see a dorsal fin slowly moving through the clay-colored water, so close to the bars and cafes of Park Slope. The animal, an adult common dolphin, looked stuck in the thick toxic mud, but was actually able to move around in the three feet of water that fills the canal at low tide. Clouds of brown-green goo would rise from the bottom as the stranded animal moved about.

At one point (see video) he or she lay listlessly against the rough concrete bulkhead of the canal, scraping the dorsal fin and bleeding into the water, which is likely filled with infectious pathogens, not to mention heavy metals, PCBs and a host of toxic sediments likely dating back to the 19th century.

News choppers buzzed noisily nearby (but not right over, thankfully) the sad scene: a lone, sick, injured animal surrounded by tons of media, and dozens of neighbors and onlookers standing in the frigid air. Two different animal rescue units were onsite, but they were only “observing” the dolphin, not yet helping it.

“The dolphin is not beached. We want to wait to see if the animal can swim out on its own at high tide (approximately 7 p.m. EST)," Julika Wocial, a marine biologist from the Riverhead Foundation animal rescue group, told me. She said that trying to move the animal carried risks to the dolphin, and to its potential rescuers.

Other officials onsite said it was against federal law to even approach the marine mammal without permission from NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

Wocial said that, if the dolphin is removed from the canal, it will be taken to their rescue facility on Long Island and rehabilitated for release back to the ocean, noting that her group had successfully released five other dolphins. Her group does work with SeaWorld, the New York Aquarium and other captive display facilities, but had not been contacted by any of them yet.

Common dolphins, in any case, are not suitable candidates for captive display.

The dolphin seemed to be in deep distress and disoriented. Dolphins travel in family pods and are almost never found on their own, so I suspect this animal was in trouble before it wandered into the Gowanus Canal. I do wonder if there was any unusual shipping activity in the harbor lately, or even perhaps Navy ships deploying sonar in the area, which might have disoriented the animal.

For now, the official response seems to be watch and wait, though to my eye, it looks like this dolphin needs immediate veterinarian attention. Let’s just hope the canal does not freeze over, so we don’t have a repeat of the stranded killer whales found in the Hudson Bay ice two weeks ago.

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