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Cause of Gowanus Canal Dolphin Death Still Unknown

Trapped marine mammal could have died of injuries or from the toxic waters of the Superfund site, or both

Update, Tuesday, Jan 29:  Preliminary reports about the necropsy performed by the Riverhead Foundation say that the dolphin did not die from the toxic waters of the canal but was already severely ill and had not eaten in days.


Last Friday, New Yorkers (and the rest of the world) watched in horror as a lost and injured male dolphin trapped in Brooklyn’s notoriously toxic Gowanus Canal struggled all day to survive and finally gave up the fight.  The canal — once nicknamed “Lavender Lake” for its dreadful pollution — is a designated Superfund site and a continuing stain on the upwardly mobile Brooklyn community’s efforts to reinvent itself.

Gowanus Dolphin Photo by Flickr user pardonmeforaskingThe trapped male dolphin swam around in the canal all day and died in the evening
before the high tide, that might have allowed it to escape, rolled in.

Passers-by and residents of the developing residential area spotted the dolphin at 9:30 a.m., bobbing up-and-down in the canal and apparently bleeding from a dorsal fin wound. Soon after, more onlookers gathered. A local man climbed down to the water surface to pet and console the mammal as the New York Police and biologists from the Riverhead Foundation, a local marine rescue organization, debated an intervention.

Bringing the 345-pound, seven-foot dolphin out of the water and into freezing temperatures could have ended its life instantly, officials said, as they waited for the 7:10 p.m. high tide in the hope that once the waters were high enough the dolphin would swim back into the ocean. If the mammal didn't make it out at high tide, then police and biologists said they would attempt a rescue the following morning.

“(The plan) didn't really seem to exude a great sense of urgency on their part,” said William Laviano, a local resident. “Evidently the water was too shallow, but that didn't make sense to me. … It may have been that there were booms that it could only pass at high tide.”

Laviano and others took iPhone videos, snapped photos, and cheered as the dolphin, covered in a black mucous, surfaced for air every few seconds before it succumbed to injuries about 6 p.m. The animal’s death disheartened progressive Brooklynites, who have taken great strides in refurbishing the community, especially after Hurricane Sandy caused the canal to breach its barriers in October.

Many wondered why rescue officials had decided to leave it alone until high tide instead of removing it from the foul water. The media and Twittersphere exploded with recriminations.  Global newspapers ran headlines like: “Injured dolphin trapped in New York canal dies after rescuers refused to help because water is ‘too polluted’ to go in” (London’s Daily Mail).

In an interview with The New York Times, Robert DiGiovanni of the Riverhead Foundation explained that rescuing the dolphin would have been complicated. From NYT:

“The foundation weighed many factors, Mr. DiGiovanni said, among them the risk of the animal injuring itself in the process of being captured; the daunting logistics (including federal permission) and lead time required for safely removing a dolphin from water; the very low survival rate, under 10 percent, of dolphins who are taken in for rehabilitation; and, yes, the possible danger to staff members of exposure to the canal’s toxic goo, the subject of a $500 million Superfund cleanup.”

Onlookers Photo by William LavianoOnlookers took iPhone videos, snapped photos, and cheered as the dolphin, covered in a black
mucous, surfaced for air every few seconds. Many wondered why rescue officials weren't removing
it from the foul water.

The dolphin incident occurred days after the federal government held two public meetings to discuss a $500 million plan to clean up the Gowanus Canal. The plan includes constructing massive, $78 million catch basins that would hold raw sewage, and dredging 10 feet of highly contaminated refuse on the canal floor, then covering it with a protective cap of sand, clay, and gravel. The cleanup will commence after a two-year design phase, but will not be completed until 2022, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Yesterday, experts from the Riverhead Foundation conducted a necropsy to determine the dolphin’s ultimate cause of death, but the results may not become public for weeks.

The dolphin’s death isn’t the first marine mammal casualty at the infamous canal, whose revival has long been planned and hyped, but has never really taken off. In 2007, a baby minke whale, nicknamed “Sludgie”,  separated from its mother during a Nor’easter, ended up in the canal and died after hitting submerged rocks near an oil facility.

Built in the mid-1800s, the Gowanus Canal absorbed the runoff of foundries, coal yards, and paint and ink factories on the edges of New York harbor, and was described as “almost solid” with sewage by a local industrialist in 1910, according  to New York Magazine. The city initially solved the problem by fitting a 6,200-foot underground tunnel with a seven-foot propeller to flush the Gowanus with fresh seawater. The pump broke in 1961 and the Gowanus neighborhood, by then blighted by crime and neglect, ignored the situation until 1999, when the EPA declared it a Superfund site, making it eligible for federal cleanup.

The industrial plants along the canal dumped in just about every pollutant: coal tar, heavy metals like mercury and lead, as well as PCBs and pesticides. Cholera, typhoid, typhus and gonorrhea germs have all been found in the water. "People occasionally fall or jump in the canal and I've never heard of anyone suffering anything more serious than a bad rash,” Laviano said.

In recent years, some cleanup has resulted in a surprisingly thriving Gowanus ecosystem, which hosts oysters, white perch, herring, striped bass, crabs, jellyfish, and anchovies.

The widely-held belief is that the dolphin died as a result of other injuries, but the canal’s toxicity probably didn’t help. Laviano, like many Brooklynites, did not think the worldwide attention focused on this 1.5-mile stretch of waterway would change Gowanus’ prospects.

“This is obviously not the first incident of a foreign animal making its way into the canal and momentarily drawing a lot of adoration and attention to it,” Laviano said. “The Gowanus Canal is an infamous environmental catastrophe and an EPA superfund site, so it already enjoys plenty of notoriety, which does little to accelerate the clean-up.”

Adrian Brune
Adrian Brune is a shoe-leather journalist who has written for The Nation, the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine and various other national publications, including a well-received blog for the Huffington Post. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, less than a mile from the Gowanus Canal. Her work can be seen at

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awful for the precious dolphin, while nothing was done, call in the celebrities and any riches, they all seem to thrive in NY, think about the mammals that get stranded in there from time to time…

By Maria Blevins on Wed, January 30, 2013 at 6:23 pm

this is disgusting new york!!!!  have some empathy!!!!!

By deanna on Tue, January 29, 2013 at 9:48 am

There is no excuse good enough to allow this sentient being to perish in our own human filth. This is a tragedy that could have perhaps been averted had they of taken him out of there. Yes, he ran the risk of dying had he been removed, but I believe that his risk of dying upon removal was much less than the certainty of his death leaving him in that crud. I’m disgusted that he was left to suffer for so long and I’m sad for him. We should be better at this than we are.

By Carrie on Mon, January 28, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Very sad. I would have jumped in and done my best. Sad that NY had no resources - hard to believe.

By Jennifer Ryan on Mon, January 28, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Pathetic!!! When if not at that very moment would have been a better time for mankind to Stand up for nature?????  Frick!!!! This is soooo frustrating.  It’s about time and certainly very disappointing that the foundation didn’t do enough for what it represents and helped the dolphin!!!!!!!

By Nicole on Mon, January 28, 2013 at 4:06 pm

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