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The 5-Ton Underdog

Our Town downtown

April 23, 2007

For two days, a baby whale stuck in the Gowanus Canal was New York’s Rudy
I wander past the DO NOT ENTER signs into Sunset Industrial Park in Brooklyn as Tuesday fades into evening, just in time to miss all the action.
A small truck, property of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research & Preservation, is pulling out. A woman in a red windbreaker who looks like she was born to save whales rolls down the window in response to my knock. She fields my questions in the pauses of her cell phone conversation, hands me a brochure for the Riverhead Foundation, says she’ll be back at first light tomorrow and we part ways.
I don’t know where I’m going, exactly. The guys at the lumberyard a few blocks away, where I first trespassed, told me that yes, they had seen the whale earlier, and yes, he was still popping up every now and again, and yes, there was a way to get out onto the pier, but that the entrance was probably closed at this hour.
But Sunset Industrial Park, at 20th Street and the Gowanus Canal, never really closes, which is disturbing when you think of it from a national security perspective but lucky if you want to see a whale.
A Hasidic Jew is walking aggressively, talis flying out behind him, on a path that will intersect mine.
“Where is the whale?” he wants to know. “My neighbor tells me I have to come out and I will really see something.”
Around the corner? I pick up my pace so we can walk together.
We pass Pepsi trucks and SoBe trucks and trucks that carry either shredders or shredded office documents, and find ourselves on the end of the pier, with a clear view of the concrete-carrying tanker I recognize from television footage shot earlier that day.
There’s a young guy there, shuffling his feet and talking to his editor on his cell phone. This is Jimmy, the unofficial whale tour guide of the evening, a.k.a. a reporter from the Daily News.
He’s gotten good at giving the breakdown: Minke whale, 15 feet, probably disoriented, possibly by the storm, last sighting was over there, but he hasn’t surfaced in a good 45 minutes; earlier in the day there were divers, news copters, the whole nine yards.
As curious carfulls start rolling in after the evening news, Jimmy begins thanking people for coming, apologizing that the whale seems to have disappeared, offering cigarettes. The Hasidic Jew takes one; I take a drag of Jimmy’s.
“Thanks for having us,” laughs a real estate broker, then drives off.
Wednesday, I return to the pier around noon to find a man in a welding mask producing lots of sparks with a blowtorch. Save for that guy, the pier is deserted. The elusive whale has moved! – but only a few blocks north.
There’s a crowd gathered there at the sea wall, of warehouse workers and TV news crews and marine biologists and, on the far shore, tugboat operators – one still in his long underwear – to observe the first whale ever to brave the Gowanus Canal. Comparatively speaking, he’s a little guy (or she’s a little lady), whose back has been scratched up pretty bad. He or she is not making any noise – a hydrophone picked up nothing – but that is neither a good nor bad sign. Whales, unlike dolphins, are not particularly talkative.
There are quasi scientific where-will-the-whale-breach-next games being played and a feeling of camaraderie that extends even to the policemen on the police boat that is coaxing the whale southward, toward the harbor (but without much result since the whale can easily just swim around the boat).
The crowd migrates south as the whale circles back to the spot near the cement tanker where it was first spotted. Then the group settles down, some sitting Indian style on massive cement blocks, others with legs hanging over the edge of the pier. Cameras hang around necks. There’s not much to take pictures of. Everyone has gotten pretty used to the sight of our friend’s grayish-black hump and fin. The pace of this waiting game reminds me of baseball.
The senior biologist from the Riverhead Foundation, Robert Di Giovanni Jr., says that eventually they might try to be more forceful about herding the young whale out of the canal by creating a “wall of sound,” but that would require more boats and high tech equipment and permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“We need to give it a couple more tide cycles before we do anything,” says Giovanni.
I take off around 3:30, looking forward to tomorrow: the fact that the whale made an absolute total of zero progress between yesterday and this afternoon suggests this show could go on indefinitely.
That night, John Quadrozzi, Jr. sends me an email. Quadrozzi – whose sweet demeanor is not what one would expect from the owner of a cement importing company – is the guy who first spotted the whale from his cement tanker, and he has been returning regularly in his black SUV to check on it. He also happened to be the one who first spotted the seal in 2003 that would be named Gowanda.
“It is with much regret that I am informing you, our Minke whale friend passed away this evening. He/she beached itself on some rocks along the Hess Terminal and died shortly thereafter.
“Unlike Gowanda who also paid us a visit back in 2003, was rescued and then set free, the Minke’s fate leaves us on a less positive note. However with all the bad news of the past few days… we can all look back and some day recall, in the midst of it all the little Minke whale who came to the Gowanus Bay, made us all smile and laugh a bit.”

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