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Dolphinmania

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My daughter, echoing the consensus along the shoreline of Northwest Creek, thinks she knows. “It’s because of global warming,” she says, citing her science teacher. The experts, citing a lack of sufficient data, are more reluctant to make the connection and point to other possible causes. “There’s been a tremendous amount of bait fish off Montauk and in the bays,” Di Giovanni told me when I went to visit him at his office in Riverhead. The foundation shares quarters with the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium, located behind an unpromising, somewhat cheesy façade that seems to have been inspired by The Little Mermaid. With a full-time staff of ten and many more volunteers, the foundation is devoted to research, education, and the rehabilitation of marine wildlife on the East End. Marine biologist Chuck Bowman, the volunteer president of the foundation, showed me around the facility, where several sea turtles, two seals, and a juvenile bottlenose dolphin were convalescing in fiberglass tanks. The dolphin, named Ariel and instantly recognizable as a relative of Flipper, was rescued from the Sag Harbor Yacht Club. Her rehabilitation is expected to cost $150,000.

“Why can’t you feed them, Goddamn it,” said one man, waving a clenched fist.

The Sunday morning before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as high tide approached, eight rescue boats hit the water. The volunteers tried to herd the animals, making use of banged metal pipes and so-called pingers, which are essentially beer cans suspended by rope in the water beneath the boats. The objective was to annoy the dolphins into leaving the creek via the narrow channel, which, at high tide, was theoretically deep enough—at least four feet—to accommodate the animals. But the dolphins would not take the exit.

Watching the action, the amateurs speculated freely about what was causing the dolphins’ strange behavior; one suggested that they had been disoriented by the Navy’s notorious experiments with sonar. When the rescuers finally quit for the day, the crowd ruthlessly second-guessed the operation. Joe Zakowski, a retired Sag Harbor builder with milky blue eyes and a chin full of gray stubble, insisted he had a better plan. “I know how they could get them out of there. Nets. If they just had the right equipment, is all.” (Gardner refuted that one, explaining that netting is exceedingly risky for both man and dolphin.)

What about feeding them, then? An adult common dolphin consumes something like 25 pounds of fish a day, and after several days, the Northwest Creek food supply was undoubtedly gone. Surely, the crowd thought, a bit of food would buy them time to find their way out of the creek. Unfortunately, the federal government forbids feeding wild dolphins, largely because in the eighties, there were these popular feed-the-dolphins cruises that were clearly altering the animals’ behavior. All of the scientists I talked to had good reasons—disease transmission, erosion of natural survival skills—dolphins shouldn’t be fed by humans. Chuck Bowman, who seemed to be the calm center of the storm all week, came close to being peevish when the feeding question was raised yet again. “Frankly, we couldn’t think of a way to come up with hundreds of pounds of live herring daily.”

None of this seemed to convince the people on shore. At one point toward the end of the week, I witnessed a shouting match between volunteers of the Riverhead Foundation and a hulking middle-aged man who leaped out of his Lexus and demanded to speak to someone in charge. “Why can’t you feed them, Goddamn it,” he demanded, waving a clenched fist. “They’re starving to death out there. What’s the matter with you people?”

The combination of tides and wind kept the boats on the dock Monday. That night, a strong north wind raised water levels in Gardiners Bay, the perfect high-tide circumstances for an attempt to push the dolphins out of the creek the next day. On Tuesday morning, Di Giovanni led the small flotilla into the creek where they eventually succeeded in herding between eight and twelve dolphins out through the channel, an operation Di Giovanni compared to threading a needle in a rocking boat. By their estimate, of some twenty dolphins in the creek, half were rescued on Tuesday. It’s quite possible that some of the animals escaped on their own earlier in the week, since most of the civilians who were on hand Friday and Saturday, myself included, estimated the number of dolphins to be far higher.

On Wednesday, the weather was too rough to send the boats out. Another attempt on Thursday was unsuccessful. On Friday morning, Di Giovanni went out on the water and returned after a few hours with three half-frozen carcasses, which seemed all the sadder for looking like smiling rubber toys. He’d seen two live animals up in the shallow backwaters of the creek, but he didn’t hold out much hope for them. The hydrophone had gone silent.


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