Photo: Doug Kuntz

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?

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.

On the second weekend, the onshore crowd had seriously diminished. “I don’t want to watch them die,” Maisie remarked when I asked her if she wanted to come along with me on Saturday. On Sunday morning, two more lifeless bodies were recovered from the creek and the rescue operation was officially terminated. Over the course of the next few weeks, Di Giovanni and his colleagues will be conducting blood tests and autopsies, looking for answers.

One of the earliest recorded dolphin strandings, recounted by Aelian in the second century A.D., involved a love story between a young man from the town of Iassos and an amorous dolphin. They became inseparable until one day the boy fell while riding the dolphin and fatally impaled himself on the spike of the animal’s dorsal fin. Out of grief, the dolphin beached himself and expired. To date, Aelian’s story is as plausible as any narrative that science has come up with about dolphin strandings.

If the Northwest Creek incident proved anything, it’s that, like the ancient Greeks, we’re drawn to dolphins because we think we know them—as if they were aquatic, communal, pacific versions of ourselves. But most of this, as Gardner made clear to me, is completely in our heads. 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. Whether the event can be linked to global climate change—to which the president daintily alluded last week—or to pollution or sonar experiments, we hated being helpless spectators, and like my friend who went on the midnight salmon run, many of us desperately wanted to do something about it other than just wring our hands and wonder if, in their strange behavior and all those clicks and beeps, the dolphins may have been trying to tell us something. And we couldn’t help worrying about our kids, who will be inheriting the question.