Archive for the ‘Sea Mammals’ category

Coney Island Dolphin Is Reportedly Free

November 15, 2013

News 12 Brooklyn is now reporting that the Coney Island dolphin has been found dead. A necropsy is being conducted to determine the cause of death. It may be that an existing illness or injury led it to wander into the creek. We’ll have to wait for necropsy results to to find out. Of course, marine animals die all the time, whether from illness (natural or human-caused environmental toxins), injury (again from either natural causes or man-made dangers like ship propellers), congenital defects or old age.  They just don’t usually do so in front of urban onlookers and camera crews.  I’ll also be interested to know if the death has anything to do with the virus that has killed hundreds of Atlantic bottle nose dolphins.

Dolphin in Coney Island Creek. Image: News 12 Brookyln

Dolphin in Coney Island Creek. Image: News 12 Brookyln

Yesterday morning (Thursday,11/15/13), a dolphin swam up Coney Island Creek and became trapped in the shallow waterway. City police and other officials were on the scene, but declined to intervene. Interventions can be extremely stressful and risky for wildlife.  In consultation with The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation and the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the decision was made to wait for the late afternoon high tide in hopes the animal would swim back out to the Atlantic of its own accord.

The dolphin has not been seen today and, according to News 12 Brooklyn, NYPD now believes it swam out to sea sometime during the night.

The past year has seen several dolphins turning up in NYC waterways, including in Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus Canal in January, in the East River in March, and swimming up and down the Hudson River in April.

I was thrilled to spend a couple of hours last spring, watching and photographing the East River dolphin.

East River Dolphin, March 13, 2013. Photo: Melissa Cooper

East River Dolphin, March 13, 2013. Photo: Melissa Cooper

I also enjoyed watching the watchers of the East River dolphin.

Happy Dolphin Watcher.

Happy East River Dolphin Watcher. Photo: Melissa Cooper

I don’t know what the presence of the dolphins signifies. Is it a sign of the improved health of the harbor and Long Island Sound? After all, whales, seals and dolphins are now regular inhabitants of the waters just outside the city and are increasingly spotted within city limits.  Or is it a sign of illness, perhaps connected to the dolphin virus that has killed hundreds of East Coast bottlenose dolphins and that, according to yesterday’s Washington Post, has now been detected in four humpback whales?

I don’t have answers. Anyone?

NYC Dolphins in Hudson River

April 9, 2013

Two days ago, on Sunday April 7th, a reader named Jane posted a comment on a blog post from last summer:

“I was out riding my bicycle this afternoon and took a break on a bench along the Greenway at about 96th Street … and saw two dolphins leap out of the water, one following the other!”

I contacted Jane on Sunday evening to find out more. She wrote that she had never heard of dolphins being spotted in NYC, and was stunned.  Apparently her friends did not believe her, so she searched the internet “to prove I’m not crazy!” That’s how she found this blog.

Jane saw the dolphins swimming north around 3:30 or 4:00 pm. Apparently, they stayed the night, because on Monday morning, according to CBS News, two dolphins were spotted off Inwood Hill Park. They were later reported swimming south toward the George Washington Bridge.

Two dolphins were spotted in the Hudson River near Inwood Hill Park Monday. (Credit: CBS 2)

Two dolphins were spotted in the Hudson River near Inwood Hill Park Monday. (Credit: CBS 2)

CBS News quoted John Lipscomb of Riverkeeper on the recent appearances of dolphins, “What we’re seeing right here under our noses is the wilderness; it’s like having the Serengeti off of 125th Street. It’s awesome, and it reminds us of the beauty of all of this life.”

I was down by the river twice on Sunday, but saw no dolphins, although last month, I had the marvelous experience of watching the East River dolphin in action.

For more on NYC’s dolphins:

Watching NYC’s East River Dolphin
Dolphin Spotted in East River
Watching the Watchers of the East River DolphinKeep Wild Dolphins Wild
Hudson River Dolphin
Hudson River Dolphin is Dead

Keep Wild Dolphins Wild

March 19, 2013
Dolphin in NYC's East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Dolphin in NYC’s East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

In light of the continued presence in the East River of at least one dolphin, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation reminds us that dolphins “are wild animals and should be treated as such.”

It’s only natural to feel a thrill at the sight of a magnificent, intelligent and charismatic wild animal right off the bustling shores of our huge city. We want to take photographs and shoot video to share our awe at the beauty and power of a free-swimming whale in our urban waterways.  We may feel the urge to get closer to the animal, whether to get a better shot, to feel more spiritually connected with another species, or just to heighten the thrill. But as we marvel at the animal’s presence, we must be sure that our impulses are moderated by respect for the dolphin’s independent existence and concern for its welfare.  This means: KEEP YOUR DISTANCE and DO NOT FEED THE DOLPHIN.

Here is an amusing Public Service Announcement sponsored by the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association):

Most problems with wild animals – whether raccoons, geese, squirrels, pigeons, coyotes, bears or dolphins –  arise when the animal learns to associate humans and their habitations with food.  We landlubbers may not be accustomed to thinking of dolphins in this way. But dolphins that come to associate humans with food are more likely to approach boats and be injured, sometimes fatally, by entanglements with fishing hooks or lines or collisions with propellers.  According to NOAA, “feeding wild dolphins disrupts their social groups which threatens their ability to survive in the wild. Young dolphins do not survive if their mothers compete with them for handouts and don’t teach them to forage.” And from the point of view of human safety, dolphins bite. Powerfully. If those reasons don’t move you, maybe this will: It’s against the law.

For more information on wild dolphins and their interactions with humans, visit NOAA’s website, Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins.

For more on issues of feeding wild animals in NYC, read How Our Trash Kills Our Hawks, How Many Raccoons Live in Manhattan, Anyway?, New York Rats and Garbage, and Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to his Friends.


Pedestrian Bridge to Randall’s Island.

Meanwhile, I recommend a walk along the East River or up the 103rd Street pedestrian bridge to see if you can catch a glimpse (from a respectful distance, of course) of NYC’s marine visitors.

I haven’t heard any reports today, so don’t know for sure if a dolphin still swims the river from the 90s to 103rd Street between Queens and Manhattan. Should you be lucky enough to see it (or them), please call Riverhead Foundation’s sighting hotline at (631) 369-9829.

Oh, and then let me know by leaving a comment here on the blog or sending an email to: Thanks!

Are There Two Dolphins in NYC’s East River?

March 18, 2013

The North Brooklyn Boat Club has posted a video and photos of the East River bottlenose dolphin, taken from the back of a canoe.

Members of the Boat Club are “very sure” that they saw not one, but two dolphins. I was first alerted to this video and the possibility of multiple dolphins by Vladimir Brezina, Out Walking the Dog reader, scientist, kayaker and blogger extraordinaire. Vlad, who was out on the river himself this weekend, posted the video in a comment on one of my earlier dolphin posts where he also informed me that some boat club members believe it is possible they saw three dolphins. It can, of course, be hard to tell since a dolphin can cover quite a large expanse underwater, popping up fairly far from where it was last sighted.

In a Twitter exchange this morning with Out Walking the Dog (@Wildlife_of_NYC),  @NorthBKBoatClub confirms “simultaneous sightings in two locations” (one on the Queens side of the river, one in the original location on the Manhattan side) with the second dolphin appearing to be “smaller and darker.” This is fascinating news, indeed.

Read more at Gothamist.

Is it possible that the river offers some kind of superb fishing right now that is drawing the dolphins? Human fishermen regularly fish the East River. Almost exactly a year ago, I photographed this gentleman on Randall’s Island. He told me he was fishing for Blackfish.

Fishing for Blackfish on Randall's Island.

Fishing for Blackfish on Randall’s Island.

Some fish are essentially resident, while others, including striped bass and bluefish, migrate to the East River in the spring. As the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) eloquently states in Saltwater Fishing in NY, “In general, fish move.” And fishermen, of course, tend to follow the fish. As Ludacris puts it, admittedly speaking of something other than fish, “When I move, you move.”

In addition to humans and dolphins, East River fishermen include seals (the Boat Club reported one on Saturday in Hallett’s Cove in Queens) as well as a variety of ducks, mergansers, cormorants, and gulls.

If any of you readers are fishermen or marine biologists, tell me what you think. Is it possible that these are healthy dolphins that have followed a run of fish into a fairly enclosed area and are having a days-long feast?

Watching The Watchers of the East River Dolphin

March 16, 2013

On Wednesday afternoon, I watched the dolphin swim and dive in New York’s East River. That afternoon, I also enjoyed meeting and watching a wide range other watchers.

But first … Friday’s Dolphin Update from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation:

After 24 hours of no sightings, we received a report of the bottlenose dolphin in the East River this afternoon. The first report came in at approximately 2 PM. The dolphin does not appear to be in distress and continues to be free swimming and utilizing the east side of the river near the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. While NOAA encourages you to enjoy the presence of the dolphin, please remember that bottlenose dolphins are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. We are continuing to collect sighting information for monitoring and are ready to respond in the event the animal becomes stranded. Please report any sightings to Riverhead Foundation’s Hotline at 631-369-9829.

(If you are just learning about NYC’s dolphin, you may want to read my earlier posts here and here.)

The first watchers I met were these police officers who had been asked to check out the dolphin. The three of us headed up the 103rd Street pedestrian bridge to get a better look south over the river.


Here’s a more formal portrait.


Soon a photography class from East Harlem’s Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation headed up the bridge, led by teacher Benjamin Caraballo. The class was taking their first outing with cameras.


Students from Innovation High School

Turns out Ben is a wildlife photographer and biologist, who was delighted to learn of the dolphin. He and the class headed back down the ramp to the river walk to try for a closer view of the animal.


Teacher Benjamin Caraballo and a photography student.

On the river walk, a young father and son in matching cammies watched the dolphin.


The gentleman below rushed excitedly to the railing, phone camera at the ready, saying “Where is it?” After I pointed it out to him, he said, “I need a photograph of it.” “And I need a photograph of you,” I said. He gave me a big grin.

Happy dolphin watcher.

Happy dolphin watcher.

I talked a long time with a very nice woman whose grandfather was a New York City tug boat captain, and who knew the area well. I didn’t get a picture of her, but I did get a picture of “her” ducks.


Ruddy duck armada.

She has run along the river for years, and has gotten to know the lovely little ruddy ducks that gather here.


Note the electric blue bill.

These fishermen, according to my new friend, are always out.


“He’s sick. He’s gonna die,” the fishermen declared of the dolphin with great finality, citing the terrible pollution of the East River.


“Then I wouldn’t eat that fish you catch,” muttered my new friend under her breath. Here is a fisherman of another species, that was swimming and diving far below the surface of the river.

I believe this is a Common merganser.

I believe this is a Common merganser.

A little later, I talked with Tara who was taking a friend’s dog for a walk. Like most of the watchers, Tara was thrilled with the presence of the dolphin but concerned for its safety. She told me how much she loves working in the summers at an equestrian center on Randall’s Island that I didn’t even know existed. She said they even give lessons to neighborhood kids who can’t afford to pay.


Tara and her friend’s dog.

After a few hours, it was time to go. Bye bye.

Wave bye-bye.

Wave bye-bye.

Watching NYC’s East River Dolphin

March 13, 2013

I spent a few hours this afternoon watching a dolphin in the East River off Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Dolphin in NYC's East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Dolphin in NYC’s East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that? Did you say, a dolphin in the East River?”

Dolphin in East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Dolphin in East River. Photo: Melissa Cooper

That’s right. As of two hours ago, a dolphin was swimming in the East River. I first heard about the dolphin this morning, when a reader wrote in to report spotting it near 96th Street. (Thank you, Samantha!) It seems to have spent most of the day swimming in the same general area off the East River Drive.

During the time I watched, it stayed on the west side of Mill Rock, a small uninhabited island.

Dolphin at northern end of Mill Rock. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Dolphin at northern end of Mill Rock. Photo: Melissa Cooper

It stayed south of the 103rd Street pedestrian bridge to Randall’s Island.

Pedestrian Bridge to Randall's Island at 103rd Street and the East River.

Pedestrian Bridge to Randall’s Island at 103rd Street and the East River.

It stayed north of the sanitation station.

Dolphin near 96th Street.

Dolphin near 96th Street.

It stayed east of the Triborough, er, I mean, the RFK Bridge.

Dolphin in front of RFK Bridge. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Dolphin in front of RFK Bridge. Photo: Melissa Cooper

The Riverhead Foundation believes the animal to be a bottlenose dolphin. The Foundation is gathering information about the dolphin, but is not immediately alarmed. According to their Facebook page, four other cetaceans have been reported in the East River since 2010, and all four were able to find their back out without intervention. Let’s hope this creature, too, follows the turn of the tide back out into the harbor.


Check back soon for more on the New York dolphin and on New Yorkers watching the New York dolphin. And meanwhile, keep me posted on your urban wildlife sightings!


For more on NYC’s cetaceans:

Dolphin Spotted in East River
Hudson River Dolphin
Whales in NYC
Hudson River Dolphin is Dead

Dolphin Spotted in East River

March 13, 2013

Update with photos:
Watching NYC’s East River Dolphin.

A reader has just reported seeing a dolphin this morning in the East River at 96th Street. She found my post about last summer’s Hudson River dolphin, and called the Riverhead Foundation to report the sighting. Within the last hour, it has been reported swimming in circles between the Randall’s Island pedestrian bridge and Mill Rock. (Thank you to everyone who is keeping me informed!)

Dolphins and other large marine animals occasionally turn up in both the Hudson River and the East River. Here’s hoping this is a healthy animal that finds its way out of the river, either south into New York Harbor or north into Long Island Sound.

Major waterways in NYC. Julius Schorzman, Wikimedia Commons.

Major waterways in NYC. Julius Schorzman, Wikimedia Commons.

I’m reprinting below a bit of info from my post on the Hudson River dolphin in case anyone else spots the dolphin today.

If you are lucky enough to spot the dolphin, please call  the Riverhead Foundation right away at (631) 369-9829 to report the time, location and behavior of the animal.  Assuming the dolphin is still around, the marine wildlife experts of the Riverhead Foundation will try to ascertain whether it is healthy or in need of assistance.  Should the animal show signs of distress, the Foundation is well equipped to care for it with the goal of releasing it back into the wild.

As always, knowledgeable wildlife experts urge people to leave the animal alone, and NOT FEED IT, advice which seems to be a surprisingly difficult instruction for our species to heed.

Oh, and once you’ve contacted the Riverside Foundation, don’t forget to contact me!  I’m guessing the dolphin has returned to the harbor, since I haven’t heard of any sightings since Sunday. But I’d love to know more about the NYC dolphin – or any other interesting wildlife encounters you may have.  You can always reach me by leaving a comment on Out Walking the Dog or you can email me at

And remember: keep your eyes peeled as you walk the city. You never know what you might see out there.

Hudson River Dolphin Is Dead

June 21, 2012

I just received word that the Hudson River dolphin was found dead early this morning (Thursday, June 21st) near Pier 59 on West 18th Street, not far from where it was seen swimming in circles four days earlier.

Photo: DNAinfo/Matthew Katz. Click photo to view article at

Until today, I had not heard of any further sightings after Sunday  afternoon.

According to, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation has retrieved the body, which showed no obvious signs of trauma, and will perform an autopsy within the next few days to determine the cause of death.

Poor little dolphin. Yes, little.

The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin can weigh 800 pounds, according to the National Aquarium.

Photo: The Dolphin Place (click to visit website)

But according to Matthew Katz of DNAInfo, the NYC dolphin weighed just 150 pounds. It seems likely that it was a young animal, perhaps one that became separated too soon from its mother.  The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is raising an orphaned dolphin that is now “almost one year old and weighs in at 150 pounds.”  We’ll know more after the Riverhead Foundation has examined the animal.

Dolphins are highly social animals that travel in groups called pods and have a complex range of whistles, squeaks, and barks that they use to communicate with each other. Young dolphins nurse for 18 months or more, and may stay near their mothers for several more years.

As with many wildlife species, the mortality rate in the first year of life is high.  Nature has a way of reminding us that life is not for the faint of heart.  But hey, how many alternatives do we have?

Hudson River Dolphin

June 20, 2012

A dolphin was spotted on Sunday afternoon (June 17th) in the Hudson River.

Photo from (click to go to article)

Lucky people out for a Sunday stroll saw the animal heading south from Harlem to Chelsea, with sightings reported from 120th Street to 14th Street.  According to, which has been a terrific source for wildlife sightings in the city, a woman reported seeing the animal (probably a bottlenose dolphin) swim in circles for about half an hour near the pier at 14th Street.

Dolphins have been seen on other occasions in both the Hudson and the East River. The lower Hudson is, after all, a saltwater estuary, a body of water where salt water and fresh waters mix daily with the tides.

Waterways of New York City by Julius Schorzman; Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the whales of New York Harbor, marine mammals that have occasionally made their way into the lower Hudson include harbor seals, gray seals, a harp seal near Haverstraw, and, I kid you not, a 1000-pound manatee.

Still while the sight of a dolphin is not all that rare, the sight of a bottlenose dolphin swimming solo is apparently quite unusual.  Fortunately, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, which I first encountered after finding an adorable gray seal pup on Flying Point Beach on Long Island’s south fork, is on the job.

If you are lucky enough to spot the dolphin, please call  the Riverhead Foundation right away at (631) 369-9829 to report the time, location and behavior of the animal.  Assuming the dolphin is still around, the marine wildlife experts of the Riverhead Foundation will try to ascertain whether it is healthy or in need of assistance.  Should the animal show signs of distress, the Foundation is well equipped to care for it with the goal of releasing it back into the wild.

As always, knowledgeable wildlife experts urge people to leave the animal alone, and NOT FEED IT, advice which seems to be surprisingly difficult for our species to heed.

Oh, and once you’ve contacted the Riverside Foundation, don’t forget to contact me!  I’m guessing the dolphin has returned to the harbor, since I haven’t heard of any sightings since Sunday. But I’d love to know more about the NYC dolphin – or any other interesting wildlife encounters you may have.  You can always reach me by leaving a comment on Out Walking the Dog or you can email me at

And remember: keep your eyes peeled as you walk the city. You never know what you might see out there.

6/21: Sad Update on the Hudson River Dolphin:
The dolphin was found dead this morning near Pier 59 in Chelsea.

Baby Birds and Animals: To Help or Not to Help

September 15, 2011

Last Saturday night, a reader left a comment on my blog, wondering what to do with the fledgling bird that he had found on a busy midtown Manhattan sidewalk.  He left a message with the Wild Bird Fund, but had not yet heard from them and was looking for someplace to take the bird.  Wild Bird left him a message, suggesting that he drop off the bird but, as my reader later reported, the little bird did not survive long enough to get help.

Making the decision to remove a bird that can’t yet fly or feed itself from a midtown Manhattan street seems like a pretty good call.  But it’s not always so easy to know whether to intervene.  Our hearts go out to a fellow creature in distress or a baby animal that we fear has been abandoned.  But rehabilitators and others who work with wildlife stress that the impulse to help is often misguided.  I know from my own experience that compassion needs to be guided by an understanding of wildlife biology and behavior.

When I found a seal pup alone on a Long Island beach last spring, I was quite sure it was too small to be on its own.  After watching it for a while, I feared that it was in distress, either ill or injured.  Seeing no sign of another seal, I wondered if it had been abandoned by its mother.  Concerned, I alerted the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Mammals.  They had already received several calls about the pup but, swamped with calls about stranded seals, they weren’t able to come to evaluate it.  Luckily, it was a cold day, and there were no people or romping dogs nearby.  I waited and watched for a couple of hours, then left the little seal on its own on the empty beach.

When I returned to the city, I called and spoke at some length to a biologist at the Riverhead Foundation who assured me that the seal sounded like a healthy, normal Gray seal pup and was probably just resting.  Gray seals are weaned by the time they are two or three weeks old, she said, and the pup I saw was probably at least two months, and completely independent.  Doing nothing – and keeping my distance while I did it – was the right thing to do.

Of course, doing nothing isn’t always the right thing to do.  Late last spring, I spotted a sweet fledgling on my street.

It was in a large planter right outside the doorway of a neighboring building.

Across the sidewalk in a nearby street tree I saw adult birds watching – probably parents, I thought.  The baby bird was not in a particularly safe spot – it was a couple of good hops away from the street, but for the moment, it was off the street, near vegetation for hiding, and out of the way of dogs and pedestrians.  I left it where it was.  Early the next morning, I was shocked to find its little body lying in the center of the sidewalk, neatly decapitated.

Note:  I’m trying hard not to get sidetracked with the intriguing question of what animal killed the bird and made off with its head.  It’s not relevant to the question we’re considering here of when to intervene to help a wild animal.  But I can’t help myself.  It’s just too bizarre.  There are not that many predatory species on our street to put into the murder line-up.  Known neighborhood predators include raptors (kestrels and red-tails), raccoons (but I’ve not seen one outside the park in over two years),  stray or feral cats (but I’ve never spotted one on my street), dogs (many, but usually attached to a human and not known for such tidy bites), humans and, my personal choice, rats, the kings of the night.  Who do you think killed the bird?  Please leave a comment.

So should I have “rescued” the bird, and taken it to a rehabilitator?  Maybe.  I asked Wild Bird Fund that question on their Facebook page, and they answered: “Since the fledgling was not injured and it was in a decently safe place, you did the right thing leaving it there. So many fledglings are kidnapped from their parents by “rescuers.””

The truth is, outcomes for fledglings are often bad, whether you intervene, as my reader did, or do nothing, as I did.  Even under completely natural circumstances, millions of baby birds do not make it to adulthood.  Had I known about the Wild Bird Foundation at the time, I might have decided to take the bird in.  But would that have been the right decision?

Wild bird experts, including the NYC Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology agree with the Wild Bird Fund that, when possible, fledglings should be left alone unless they are in obvious danger or clearly orphaned.  Many bird species leave the nest days before they can fly, or fly well.  During this risky period of development, the parents continue to watch over and feed the young birds who are easy prey for natural predators as well as those most efficient, human-introduced, non-native killing machines known as cats.

So how do you know what to do the next time you find a baby bird?  Here is a terrific flowchart on how to make a decision.  Scroll down for instructions on how to safely transport the bird, if it is in need of help.

View this document on Scribd

Good luck to the late-summer fledglings, and to all the migrating birds already making their way south.

Seals and Silkies: Two Faces of Truth

May 19, 2011

Silkies: Faroe Island stamp

Some readers, I am learning, visit Out Walking the Dog for the bits of natural history behind my glimpses of wildlife in the city, while others prefer to focus on the sense of mystery and joy engendered by those glimpses. For me, it is all water from the same well; both the science and the poetry, far from being mutually exclusive, arise from wonder and feed each other.

In my last post, I talked about spottting seals on NYC and Long Island beaches and piers. I referenced experts, who emphasize giving seals plenty of distance and leaving them alone so as not to stress them.

There is another good reason not to become entangled with a stranded seal: it may be a silkie.

Gray Seal. Click the photo to visit the Irish Seal Sanctuary

Silkies, also called selkies, are seal-people, well-known in the mythology of northern Atlantic cultures including Ireland, Scotland and the Faroe Islands.  Silkies sometimes have love affairs with mortal men or women, and these are often tragic and always sorrowful, as Joan Baez sings in The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a haunting Scottish ballad.

In The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a silkie transforms into a man to become the lover of a mortal woman.  Later he disappears, and she bears a child.  One day, as she sings to her baby boy, the silkie reappears to tell her who he really is.

I am a man upon the land
I am a silkie on the sea
And when I’m far and far from land
My home it is in Sule Skerry.

The silkie tells the girl that he will come again one day to fetch his little boy “and teach him how to swim the foam.”  He then confides a terrible vision of the future:

And ye shall marry a gunner good,
And a right fine gunner, I’m sure he’ll be
And the very first shot that e’er he shoots
Will kill both my young son and me.

In another silkie story, a fisherman watches a seal come ashore, take off its seal skin, and become  a beautiful young woman.  He hides the skin, without which she cannot transform back into a seal and must live as a woman. They marry, have children and live together for years. She gradually forgets her past life, although she is drawn to the sea by a powerful yearning.

Drawn to water. Photo by Melissa Cooper

One day, while her husband is out fishing, she comes across the skin in its hiding place and knows again the truth about who she is. Putting on the skin, she is a seal again and swims joyfully away into the waves.

photo by southgeist/

Still she misses her loved ones, and appears forever after in the waters close to shore, hoping to catch a glimpse of her husband and children.

Photo by NatureFramingham; click photo to see more.

Silkie stories riff on the profound connection between humans and animals, on our yearning to know what animals know, see what they see and, finally, on the sadness of our separation from the natural world. Of course, we are animals and part of nature, but we’re often the last to remember.

The Secret of Roan Inish: see it.

John Sayles’s wonderful 1996 movie, The Secret of Roan Inish, is a magical retelling of a silkie story.

And Neil Jordan’s 2010 film, Ondine, tells the story of a contemporary Irish fisherman, played by Colin Farrell, and the mysterious (and rather bizarrely fashion-conscious) seal-woman he brings up in his net.

You never know about seals. You just never know. Their lives and identities remain mysterious.  So keep your eyes open for seals as you walk along the water’s edge or on the beach. But let them be. Yes, let them be.

Encountering Seals in NY: What to Do

May 17, 2011

Gray seal pup on Flying Point Beach in Watermill, NY. Photo by Melissa Cooper.

Since my encounter earlier this spring with a lone gray seal pup on a Long Island beach, seals have been swimming through my thoughts.  Such encounters are on the increase in the New York area.  Over the past few years, seals have turned up all along NYC beaches and piers, including Coney Island and even Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus Canal (that seal was rescued, rehabilitated and released into Long Island Sound by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, about which more below).

A couple of weeks ago, a gray seal came ashore on a tiny beach in northern Manhattan.  In 2008, a juvenile seal hauled out on a dock in the 79th Street boat basin on the upper west side.

NYC seal, 2008. Photo: Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times

Last year, a young harbor seal perched atop a Hudson River piling at around 64th Street.  Although New Yorkers may not realize it, the Hudson is tidal. This seal rode the high tide to its perch, and must have had to wait out the hours until the water again rose to meet it.

An unknown photographer sent this to the NY Post in March, 2010

Five species of seal may be spotted in the waters around New York and Long Island: Harp seals, Harbor seals, Gray seals, Hooded seals and, very rarely, Ringed seals.  Harbor seals, once abundant here and currently making a comeback, are the most common., followed by Grays.

Here is a lovely 2009 video from the Wildlife Conservation Society of an annual count of harbor seals in the area beneath the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York Harbor.  New York Aquarium Curator Paul Sieswerda attributes the increase in sightings to the clean-up of the Hudson. “The water has been so much improved,” he says, “that the fish are back, and the seals find plenty of food to live off of.”

If you are lucky enough to spot a seal hauled out on shore, please give the animal plenty of space. Seals come ashore to rest and warm up on sun-warmed sand or rocks.  The presence of humans (and their dogs) can stress and exhaust the animals, making them more vulnerable to disease and predation.  CRESLI, (Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, Inc) recommends keeping a distance of at least 50 yards.

When I saw this little seal with its head down, looking like a hunk of blubber, I worried it was ill or injured.

Shhh. Gray seal pup sleeping. Photo by Melissa Cooper.

In fact, it was simply resting.  This points up an important issue: If you’re not trained in seal behavior, don’t make assumptions and please don’t do anything to “help” the seal. Don’t splash water on it, don’t feed it, and don’t try to help it back into the water. Leave it alone. Most of the time, the animal is fine, and is simply doing what seals do.

Occasionally, an animal may be sick, injured or entangled in a fishing net.  If you have any doubts about the welfare of any marine mammal or sea turtle, please call the 24-hour NYS Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program (631-369-9829).

That’s what I did when I worried over the baby seal.  Even on a Sunday, the answering service took a description and the location, and relayed the information to a biologist at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.

The Riverhead Foundation conducts marine research and, when necessary, rehabilitates sea creatures.  Many ill and injured seals have been successfully rehabilitated and released to the wild. This wonderful and moving video from Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre in British Columbia shows a young seal tentatively leaving its carrying case and then rushing joyfully (anthropomorphic or not, it is the only word) into the waves:

When you call the hotline, be patient. On the day of my seal encounter, I waited on the beach, hoping to be there when the rescuers arrived.  Some time later, I called back, slightly impatient, only to learn that the foundation’s single van must cover all of Long Island, from Brooklyn to Montauk.  There had been several sightings that day, and the van had gone to check out a seal on Coney Island.

Two days later, I called the Foundation and spoke with a very helpful biologist. She said they had received several calls about the Flying Point Beach juvenile, and that the descriptions indicated it was a normal, healthy young seal.  She told me that Gray seals are weaned at the age of two or three weeks and that this seal was probably around two months old and completely independent.

Whatever connection I feel with wildlife, I must acknowledge the limits of my imagination, particularly when it is shaped only by human emotions and experience without the expanding influence of scientific knowledge.  Now, with even a small amount of research under my belt, I may be able to more accurately interpret the behavior of  the next seal pup I encounter, and not assume it is lonely, abandoned and in need of care when it is, in all likelihood, doing just fine.

Check back later this week for a more mysterious reason to leave seals alone.  Just know, they may not be what you think they are.

Spring in Three Cities

May 9, 2011

I spent a good chunk of April out of town, and am happy to be back on my island home, now in full  leaf-out.

Biblical Garden at Saint John the Divine.

Oh, yes, it’s spring, at last.

A peacock blossoms in a garden of Saint John the Divine.

Flowers are popping, and animals, too, are busting the confines of their lives.

In April. a baby pigeon rested in front of a flowering tree.

We’re all border crossers, every one of us animals, our lifetime of crossings prefigured by our natal departure from a watery womb world or hard-shelled egg into the dangerous but seemingly limitless possibilities of earth and air.  It’s never more evident than in springtime.

Baby birds are cracking out of eggs

Morningside Park gosling

Raccoons are emerging from dark holes and hollows

Riverside Park raccoon emerges from retaining wall den.

Turtles are leaving their watery homes to lounge on warm rocks

Morningside Park turtles relax in the sun.

and seals are coming ashore in New York City, including a small beach in northern Manhattan.

Gray seal on beach at Dyckman Street and the Hudson River. Photo by Corey Kilgannon/The New York Times.

(Read about my April encounter with a gray seal pup on Long Island here.)

In April, I worked in two midwestern cities, Indianapolis and St. Louis. Most of the time I spent in that strange, indoor world of theater rehearsals, a world that knows no seasons.  But in each city, I managed one small adventure and found wildlife surprises.

One morning, I played hooky from the Bonderman Symposium at Indiana Repertory Theater to explore the city’s amazing collection of war memorials. (Visit my other blog, The Red Animal Project, to read an ongoing series about how we remember our war dead, including a look at the Indianapolis War Memorial Plaza.)

A robin gazed over the city from atop the head of a majestic lion at the War Memorial Museum and Shrine.

Indy robin and lion.

 Trees clad in bridal gowns lingered along the paths of War Memorial Plaza

and a charmingly awkward American coot slowly revealed itself

Downtown coot

then strolled alone in an expanse of green.

No water here.

In St. Louis in the last days of April, I spied the first bird of the morning just steps from the hotel door.

Oh. So sad.

A gorgeous rose-breasted grosbeak.

Lovely, but dead.

The killer loomed above the tiny victim: a wall of glass.

Bird killer.

In the U.S. alone, collisions with man-made structures, particularly high-rise buildings, kill somewhere between 100 million and a billion birds a year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Solutions to the problem range from decals to dimming lights on high-rises, particularly during fall and spring migrations. If you ever notice a dead bird on the sidewalk, look up. If the bird lies beneath a building, please take the time to contact the building manager about the problem. If you live in a big city, you can volunteer with your local Audubon chapter to monitor collision deaths and advocate for changes in building codes and policies, such as Project Safe Flight.

Other top human-caused killers of birds are poisons and cats. Yes, cats. Pet cats take an enormous toll on wildlife. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but it is clearly in the high hundreds of millions each year, if not well over a billion. Pet owners, please accept this inconvenient fact, and keep your cats indoors.

Indoor cat goes hunting.

Back in St. Louis, I headed toward the Mississippi River, and discovered the city is a hot bed of cardinals. The fact that the hotel is half a block from the baseball stadium might have something to do with the extraordinary number of sightings.

Welcome Cardinal Nation!

Cardinals perched

Two cardinals guard a baseball.

Cardinals dressed up in baseball caps

Cardinals swung bats

and cardinals kept score

The park by the river was a dazzling green, and filled with robins and brilliantly irridescent blackbirds.

Irridescence on parade

Sparrows on the steps to the river took a wildly active dust bath.

Rollin' in the dirt

And then, at last, there was the river

Bursting its banks, covering walkways and ramps, the Mississippi is spectacular, unpredictable and dangerous.

I loved working in other cities, and I love being home in New York, New York.

Trumpeter brings soundtrack to my block.

I Find a Gray Seal Pup

April 12, 2011

Two weeks ago, Esau the dog and I were walking down the road to beautiful Flying Point Beach in Watermill on the south fork of Long Island.

Long Island

On the way, we encounter a flock of mostly headless mute swans on little Mecox Bay.

Mute and headless swans

The beach is empty.  Empty of humans, that is. Shorebirds dart about on toothpick legs while herring, black-backed and other gulls swoop overhead.

Juvenile gull on the prowl

As we walk, I scan the ocean for wildlife.  I always look for seals – or floating bowling balls, which is what seal heads resemble when they peek out of the water.  I used to see seals in Casco Bay when I lived in Portland, Maine and in the waters of Long Nook Beach on Cape Cod.  But in decades of walks on Flying Point Beach, I have never spotted a seal, although I know they are out there.

Three gorgeous, punky-crested red-breasted mergansers swim by.

With a better camera, you would see how beautiful these  merganser boys are. 

Further down the beach, I spy an unusual lump.

Beach lump: what is it?

We walk lumpward and the lump reveals itself to be … a seal pup.

Is it all right?

It is a few feet long, and remarkably fat.

I  scan the water in hopes of seeing a mother seal bobbing just offshore. Nothing. Has the little guy been abandoned? Is it injured or ill?  Not wanting to frighten the seal, I keep my distance, and examine the pup through binoculars.  The little seal seems to sleep.


It perks up and looks around.


It rolls over onto its back and wriggles around, as if to scratch an itch.

Oh, hello.

Sometimes it gazes right at Esau and me. It rubs its nose with a flipper and sometimes seems to be playing peek-a-boo. I worry about its flippers.  Are they moving properly? I can’t tell.

I use my cell phone to call a rescue hotline operated by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Mammals. A woman from the answering service tells me that several people have already called to report the Flying Point seal pup. I ask when a biologist will arrive to assess its health. She has no idea.

“But it may be injured or abandoned,” I say. “Surely someone will come soon.”

The woman explains that the Foundation handles all of Long Island from Queens to Montauk. With only one van. The van has gone to Coney Island to check out a seal, and has several other stops to make on the way back. There’s no telling when or if anyone will come to Watermill.

I call the Southampton police station to see if they can help. The policeman says no one there has the training to evaluate a seal (fair enough). He affirms that the hotline is the best resource.

So I wait and watch, accompanied by my patient dog.

I wonder at the strange tug of kinship with a fellow creature, a baby, alone and possibly in distress. And  yet how different we are. I don’t know how to interpret the seal’s movements. What is it saying when it gazes at us or when it covers its eyes with a flipper, the way my old dog Lucy used to do with a paw?

The sun goes down, and my fingers start to freeze. A friend brings gloves to the beach  and stays to wonder at the little lump, seemingly on its own in an expanse of sea, sand and sky.

No one comes. After a long while, we walk away.

In the morning, I return to find … nothing. The seal is gone, and the ocean has claimed the spot where the little animal rested.

Click here for a follow-up on the seals of NYC and Long Island. To read about the seal-people known as silkies, click here.

Whales in NYC!

January 31, 2011

You know, within a few tens of miles of Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera of NYC, there are the largest animals on this planet, crooning and singing arias and magnificent songs, just offshore. And if you went to the very top of the Stature of Liberty, looking out onto the ocean south of NY Harbor … you’d be looking onto the stage on which the animals are singing. They’re right there.

– Christopher Clark, Director of the Bioacoustic Research Program at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology

There are whales right here in New York Harbor. And seals and dolphins and a wealth of marine life.  Wildlife is returning not just to the skies and parks of the city, but to its waters.

Spouting humpback whale

Tom Paladino of American Princess Cruises in Queens has been leading wildlife-watching boat tours into the waters of New York Harbor and beyond. In a recent article in the NY Daily News, Paladino reports a tenfold increase in whale sightings in recent years, and says he saw dolphins virtually every day from June to September.

The Daily News posted a nice video of whales and seals seen from one of Capt. Paladino’s boat.

Six different species of whale have been identified in New York waters: Humpback, Minke, Fin, Sei, Blue and the endangered North Atlantic Right whale, of which fewer than 400 still exist.

Eubalaena glacialis (North Atlantic Right whale) with calf

In 2008, the Bioacoustic Research Program at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology placed acoustic devices in the waters around NYC  to monitor and study the whales.  Yes, the famed ornithology lab has a pioneering acoustic wing that studies animal communication with a focus on birds, elephants and whales.  According to an article in the Daily News, a group of 30 to 50 fin whales appears to have taken up full-time residence just past the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge; Photo: Andreas Praefcke

Thrilling as this news is, it’s also worrisome.  The waters around New York Harbor are filled with boat traffic, placing the whales in danger of collisions, a leading cause of injury and death.

The New York bioacoustic study was short-lived, but Christopher Clark, Director of the Bioacoustic Program, is trying to raise money for further research as well as for a monitoring system to warn ships of the presence of whales.

Listen to NPR’s joyful 2008 interview with Clark as well as to the sounds of New York’s whales:

(click on the arrow to listen)

If you walk by the rivers, keep your eyes open for sea mammals.

Last March brought a dolphin to the East River

Photo by Bill Hannan of FDNY Marine Company 6

and a seal to the piers along the Hudson.

Seal at 64th Street and the Hudson River.

As native New Yorker Fats Waller so eloquently put it, “One never knows, do one?”

Fats Waller

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