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A Brief History of Dolphins Turning Up in New York City

The city's waterways have also been known to host sharks and whales.


"Does anybody have a canoe?"

So asked a distraught police officer on the edge of Brookyln's Gowanus Canal this morning, The New York Times reports. The officer had responded to a call about a dolphin, as basically all of Twitter has no doubt informed you by now. The sea mammal in question appears to have been stuck in the canal since early this morning. Onlookers say the dolphin seems like it's struggling to swim through the filthy 1.8-mile waterway.

Officials say they will wait until the canal hits high tide around 7 p.m. before trying to help. At that point, they'll see whether the dolphin is able to free itself.

It couldn't have gotten stuck in a worse place. For years, the Gowanus has been a dumping ground for industrial waste and sewage spill-off. According to New York magazine, business men were describing the canal's water as "almost solid with sewage" 1910.

The canal was fitted with a 6,200-foot underground tunnel the next year. Fresh seawater was flushed in until 1961, when the pump broke. (Legend has it "a city worker dropped a manhole cover on it."). Officials left the pump broken until 1999; its bottom hasn't been dredged since 1975.

The canal has proven a particularly fertile ground for bacteria. New York reports (emphasis ours):

Cholera, typhoid, typhus, gonorrhea: They’ve all been found in the water. A team of biology professors at New York City College of Technology have also studied a curious white goo oozing along the bottom, which turned out to be a mix of bacteria, protozoans, and various contaminants. The microbes appear to have evolved resistance to the filth, and the scientists have been trying to figure out whether their disease-fighting mechanisms could be adapted for medical use.

But despite it's nasty reputation, a stray wild animal or two has seen fit to wander in over the years. In 1952, a shark swam into the canal; it was shot by a police officer. A minke whale was beached in the canal in 2007 and died.

It's also not the first dolphin to make its way to New York.

In 2012, a dolphin washed up on the beach in Far Rockaway, Queens. For hours, police poured water over the dolphin to keep her alive while a rescue crew rushed in from a marine biology center 60 miles away. By the time they got there, it was too late. The dolphin died while being hoisted onto a stretcher.

That same year, a dolphin made its way into the Hudson River. Onlookers said the dolphin swam from 90th Street to the George Washington Bridge. A different dolphin was found dead Pier 59, at the end of 18th Street later that week.

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.