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Dolphinmania

If the cetaceans that stranded themselves in the Hamptons were trying to tell us something, we’re a long way from getting the message.

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Approaching the checkpoint where the cop car was stationed earlier in the day, the mother of two turns off her headlights and drives the last hundred yards in darkness, out to the edge of the pier. She climbs out of the Range Rover and listens to the lapping of the water against the shore, straining to see the surface through the fog and sleet. Finally, she unwraps the fragrant package on the passenger seat and throws chunks of pink flesh as far as she can over the water. It seems to take forever to hurl all of the salmon chunks into the water, and before she is through, she drops one, which she can’t find in the dark and which she worries the authorities will find the next day. She would like to wait and watch, but she’s just broken a federal law and it’s freezing cold out here and her kids are alone at home, although if they knew where she was and what she had done, they would be proud of her. She was trying to save the dolphins.

When a pod of dozens of common dolphins appeared in Gardiners Bay in the second week of the New Year, they became a local sensation, a spectacle to brighten the bleakest season on the East End of Long Island, where the winters can seem endless and forlorn and someone inevitably lies down on the train tracks. After the animals swam in to Northwest Creek, a shallow inlet between Sag Harbor and East Hampton, word quickly spread. By Friday afternoon, when the schools let out, the locals began gathering at the edge of the creek—actually more of a cove, connected to Gardiners Bay by a narrow channel. Although dolphins are often spotted in the open waters around Long Island, it was the first time in memory that such a large group had come this close to land and lingered in the winter. The national media latched on to the story, and it spread throughout the world via the Internet.

The dolphins arrived just before the long Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. That Saturday, the parking lot that serves the boat landing was jammed with SUVs and BMWs, and the East Hampton police were setting up their orange witch hats at the intersection of Northwest Landing and Swamp roads. Despite the rain, the atmosphere was festive, even giddy. Children raced up and down the beach around the north side of the cove. The adults, too, seemed enraptured as they watched the dolphins surfacing and dipping. Cheers broke out when a young animal did a backflip. The nonprofit Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation put a hydrophone in the water; spectators took turns on the headphones listening to the clicks and beeps.

Maisie, my 12-year-old daughter, was spellbound, and even her twin brother, Barrett, admitted the dolphins were pretty cool. I saw an artist I had never seen in daylight, or without a drink in his hand, standing slack-jawed at the water’s edge. When he spotted me, he nodded serenely. “Incredible,” he said. It was the first time we’d spoken in years. The dolphins, old associates of Dionysus, seemed to have an intoxicating effect on everyone who saw them.

But while the popular narrative remained upbeat, the official narrative had turned dire. That morning, three dead animals had been discovered in the creek. It was clear to the experts like Rob Di Giovanni Jr., the Grizzly Adams–like director of the Riverhead Foundation, that this event qualified as a stranding; his team organized a rescue effort for Sunday. By that time, trained volunteers from Virginia to Maine had converged on the harbor—representatives of the Northeast Stranding Network, including the New England Aquarium (which sent a mobile animal ambulance outfitted with up-to-the-minute blood-analysis equipment and triage kits) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. As we watched our serendipitous local happening overtaken by bureaucracy, the severity of what we were witnessing fully sunk in.

Although we seldom realize it, the Hamptons are where civilization and nature slam up against each other in dramatic fashion. Next to $50 million beach homes lies a wilderness less known than the African savanna or the mountains of Alaska. “You stick your toe in the ocean and it could get bitten off by a shark,” says researcher Edwin Gardner, who worked for a decade at the Dolphin Institute in Grassy Key, Florida. “The sea is not just scenery. It’s unknown and maybe unknowable.”

The dolphins that swam into Northwest Creek were common dolphins—an unfortunate moniker for one of the more beautiful and less frequently encountered cetaceans. “This is the dolphin that you see in Greek art,” Gardner says. “It’s one of the prettiest dolphins—it has this hourglass pattern on its side.” In the Northeast, at this time of year, they rarely come closer to shore than 50 to 70 miles, but just a week before the group swam in to Long Island, some 30 of their kin stranded themselves on Cape Cod. The question is, why?


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