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The Real Dolphins of New York City

Our fishing columnist contemplates the meaning of dolphin sightings in New York City's waterways.

A dolphin's head superimposed over a photo of Newtown Creek, on a sunny day.

The site at Newtown Creek where a dolphin was recently spotted. (Hell Gate / Ádám Berkecz / Unsplash)

Not long ago, dolphin sightings were considered tragic occurrences in the waterways around New York City. In January 2007, a "frightened and disoriented" pod of common dolphins made its way to the shores of the Hamptons; they were a source of delight until several of them died, a morbid spectacle chronicled by Jay McInerney in the pages of New York magazine. ("Our close encounter with the dolphins started as something wildly exhilarating, and then it turned sad and frustrating, and eventually we just wanted to avert our eyes from the tragic finale," he wrote.)

These kinds of appearances became almost routine, and though they generated plenty of excitement, they were always tinged with concern—one large pod appeared to be "confused," according to Gothamist, and one "distressed" dolphin that was unlucky enough to find its way to Staten Island had to be rescued. Here they were, making their way down the East River and into Newtown Creek, New York City's second-most well-known polluted waterway, mere months before it was deemed a Superfund site by the EPA. 

"Sadly and typically, when these mammals come into urban inland waterways, it's because there is an underlying illness and the outcome is not a good one," one observer noted at the time, referencing "Sludgie," the young, malnourished minke whale who in 2007 wandered into the Gowanus Canal to die. "We hope this dolphin finds its way out."

The Post went with snark: "Dolphins may be among the smartest mammals in the animal kingdom, but how exactly did one end up in Newtown Creek?" 

Yet the dolphins clearly grasped something most New Yorkers could not fathom: New York City's waterways were becoming less polluted, and are currently the cleanest they've been in a century. We had blithely turned our shared home into what a public health committee described in 1918 as "a body of land entirely surrounded by sewage," only to belatedly realize the error of our ways. 

Consider the reaction to two recent sightings in New York City—one January afternoon, a lucky biker at Starlight Park spotted a pair of common dolphins swimming in the once-fetid Bronx River. "Yo, fucking crazy, bro," the 22-year-old cyclist whispered reverently in the video he posted on Instagram, writing in the caption, "SOMEBODY PLEASE EXPLAIN TO ME WHY TF IS THERE DOLPHINS 🐬 IN THE FUCKING PARK SHIT HAD ME SHOCKED." Two days later, another pair of common dolphins were seen swimming in New York City, this time (again) in Newtown Creek.

When Willis Elkins, the executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, got news that a pair of dolphins were in the creek, his first reaction was an awe-inspired, "Oh, my god." 

"If anyone knows anything about Newtown Creek, they know it's polluted," Elkins told me. "It takes a really long process to shift people's conception of it being a dead zone where nothing will live. It can be both—it can be polluted and an ecosystem."

Howard Rosenbaum, the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Ocean Giants Program, described these dolphin sightings to me as "atypical"—perhaps an understatement. "These common dolphins are typically found out in the New York Bight, in an oceanic habitat," he told me, though he added they appeared to be healthy. Of both the Bronx River and Newtown Creek, he said, "This is not their normal habitat."

Still, Rosenbaum, who has been a part of research efforts into the behavior of bottlenose dolphins in the region (tl;dr: like many other tourists, they come to NYC to eat), views these atypical dolphins as a sign that decades of revitalization and conservation efforts have been successful. The Bronx River dolphins (and to a lesser extent, the Newtown Creek dolphins) have also been hailed by both the City's Parks Department and by environmental advocates as proof that NYC's waterways are becoming healthier by the day. (In the case of Newtown Creek, the water is relatively cleaner, thanks mostly to upgrades made in the past decade to the neighborhood's wastewater treatment plant; the EPA has yet to begin cleanup of the Superfund site due in part to what Elkins rather diplomatically described as "the amount of influence" that parties like BP, ExxonMobil, National Grid, and Chevron "have over the process.") "It shows that the decades-long effort to restore the river as a healthy habitat is working," the Parks Department wrote of the dolphins. "The dolphins are just one sign of the success we've had improving water quality in the estuary," Rob Pirani, a program director at the Hudson River Foundation's NY-NJ Harbor and Estuary Program, told me. 

Decades of legislation and government action, most notably 1972's Clean Water Act, as well as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988 and restrictions on the harvesting of menhaden, or bunker, a small, extremely oily fish that's often described as "the most important fish in the sea" due to its critical role in the foodchain, have created, as Pirani put it, a "functional ecosystem" that "attracts larger animals like dolphins and whales, who can once again find food sources in the estuary." 

In 2012, regulators at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, urged on by recreational sport fishers as well as environmental advocates, instituted menhaden catch limits for states along the East Coast, in a move to restore a fishery that had by some estimates declined by 90 percent in a thirty-year period. Since then, stocks have recovered to the point that schools of bunker regularly make their way into the Gowanus Canal

It's not just dolphins that have returned to frolic and feast in our shared watery home. In 2008, it was such a novelty to see a seal in the city that the New York Times saw fit to blog about it, back when they still blogged about NYC. Today, there are so many seals that flock to NYC for the winter ("New York is like their Miami resort," one NYC park ranger remarked a few years ago) that the Parks Department now leads seal-watching tours. Humpbacks and other whales have come back, too. 

But this is only a partial success story. According to the NY-NJ Harbor and Estuary Program's data, while water quality indicators, like increased levels of dissolved oxygen, have improved over time, both the harbor and in particular the Bronx River have a ways to go. ("The areas where fish are most consistently stressed are the Hackensack River and the Bronx River and Western Long Island Sound," the group's 2021 water quality report notes; fish kills still regularly occur in the Bronx River, often after sewage pours into the region's waterways.) 

And New York City and the rest of the state has a mixed record when it comes to environmental stewardship of our waters; in the early '80s, the City—the "nation's largest sludge dumper," according to the New York Timessued the EPA in order to continue dumping millions of tons of sewage sludge into the Atlantic every year, only reaching an agreement to stop the practice in 1988 when the Ocean Dumping Ban Act was passed, a move driven at least in small part due to the fact that just the year before, hundreds of dead bottlenose dolphins had washed ashore in states stretching from New Jersey down to Florida. 

Warming water temperatures may also play a role in driving dolphins our way, especially during the winter. I reached out to the NOAA and asked whether climate change and warming temperatures were pushing dolphins outside of their previous habitats. According to the NOAA's Andrea Gomez, the agency's studies "indicate that many cetacean species are showing a northern shift in overall distribution." Gomez added, "This could be a result of environmental changes, such as warmer water temperatures and shifts in prey species." 

Gomez also noted that there is "an increase in sightings of bottlenose dolphins further north in the winter months" and that "sightings of bottlenose in NY and NJ waters during the winter have become more frequent over the past decade." (She hesitated to issue any definitive statement, however, telling me that "further research is needed to fully understand what is driving these distribution shifts.")

More dolphins—along with whales, seals, and other marine life—means more chances they'll have a lethal encounter with humans. "There's more work to do," Rosenbaum said. "We have to be aware of the threats and potential impacts these animals face in their normal habitats"—threats that include increased ocean noise pollution, fishing line entanglement, and ship collisions. The New York Marine Rescue Center's Maxine Montello told me that while her group, based in Long Island, has seen a "strong stranding trend of dolphins and whales throughout the year," she believes that's "correlated to more and more people overlapping and seeing them," a result of more people spending time outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. "With everybody getting outside and getting back to nature, that has a huge effect," Montello said. "Animals are being reported to us more often, so it seems like it's increasing in that sense." 

More research is needed, but we can make a guess about what's led, at least in part, to the scores of dead whales spotted on the East Coast in recent years, so many that the NOAA has declared it an "unusual mortality event," with almost one-third of those deaths occurring in the waters off New Jersey and New York. In December, a dead sperm whale was found on the sands of Rockaway Beach, in a month that also saw three dead humpback whales wash onto the shores of Amagansett, and several cities in New Jersey. January has been nearly as deadly. The NOAA's post-mortem analyses of many of these whales found that "40 percent had evidence of human interaction"—they had either been hit by a ship at some point during their lives, or been entangled in fishing line. 

Rosenbaum hopes that these dolphin sightings might "raise the interest and awareness of our wider civil society to the issues that whales, dolphins, and other marine life face in their normal environments." He added, "It's phenomenal that we can actually be talking about this, compared to what people once perceived about the waters of New York."

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