Off the shore of Greenpoint on this sunny Tuesday afternoon, three dolphins were spotted swimming in the East River. Yes, dolphins! You can breathe easy, fellow pandemic-weary New Yorkers—for what better omen exists for welcoming the spring.
Cailin Doran, a 26-year-old actor, was spending the afternoon at the WNYC Transmitter Park in the Brooklyn neighborhood when she saw the plucky cetaceans swim past.
At first, she thought it couldn’t be dolphins. She grew up in California, seeing the marine mammals frequently. “But then up against the Manhattan skyline, it was like my brain couldn’t put the two together,” the Upper West Sider said.
A small crowd gathered to take pictures, mesmerized by the moment, she said.
“They were just playing and just hanging out, and they got really close to the rocks,” she said. “I couldn’t believe what I was actually seeing. It just felt so weird.”
The sightings may be rare as far as news headlines go. But the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation notes that 90 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises can be spotted “some regularly and some very rarely” in the New York Bight, the triangular estuary between Long Island and New Jersey. Bottlenose dolphins are the most common sightings, according to the department.
It is not clear what species of dolphins were seen Tuesday. Howard Rosenbaum, director of the Ocean Giants Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society and a senior scientist at the New York Aquarium, suspected they were “common dolphins,” which paradoxically would make the sighting unusual. Bottlenose dolphins and harbor porpoises are more frequent visitors in the harbor estuary, according to a two-year acoustics monitoring program.
A spokesperson for the New York Marine Rescue Center, Maxine Montello, said the organization received reports of free swimming common dolphins.
The videos the group reviewed “did not show any erratic behavior or any injured individuals,” Montello said. Montello encouraged dolphin spotters to call the center’s hotline to report sightings at 631-369-9829. In 2013, dolphins were spotted in the East River near the Upper East Side, Astoria, and down at Greenpoint, where Tuesday’s sighting was. Earlier that year, a dolphin trapped in the toxic muck of the Gowanus Canal died.
Rosenbaum cautioned any preliminary over-excitement about the sighting, despite the “awe-inspiring” nature of the moment.
“Hopefully, this is a group of animals that has been able to freely swim into this area and will freely swim out of the area and are not in distress,” he said. “We don’t know if there are other members of their pod that are in there as well.”
He said the dolphins may have been chasing prey, but it’s not clear from the short clips posted on social media. Extreme low-tide conditions or if a dolphin is sick or disoriented could pose dangers.
Doran said the dolphins played near the Greenpoint pier about 20 minutes before splashing away.
Editor's note: This article was updated with additional information about dolphin sightings in New York.