Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Whale watch in the Gowanus Canal

Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal isn't exactly teeming with wildlife the way it was in 1630, when the Dutch government first began to take an interest in Brooklyn real estate. A network of creeks in the area once drained a network of wild salt marshes and meadows; nearly four centuries of European settlement have paved the banks and straightened out the watercourse into one channel surrounded by auto shops, oil tanks, scrap yards and all-you-can-eat PCBs.

But if you think that the Gowanus Canal is the antithesis of nature, there's at least one baleen whale that would disagree:

This critter swam into the Gowanus Canal yesterday and immediately became a New York City celebrity (the local tabloids dubbed it "Sludgy the Whale"). What makes the story even more incredible is the fact that the heavy rains associated with the Patriot's Day storm had overloaded Brooklyn's sewers and sent thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the canal (see The New Watersheds, my post on New York's sewer system that I wrote while working as an Urban Park Ranger last summer).

Sludgy didn't swim into the Gowanus to make a point, but that won't stop me from making on on her behalf: for all the concern that exists in our cities for our natural environment, and for all of the laments over the loss of "wild nature", we too often disregard the wild places that still exist right under our noses. Who knows how many whales might visit Gowanus if those famously progressive environmentalists who live in Park Slope cared more about the watershed in their own brownstone back yards?

The Gowanus Canal might not have made a great impression on this particular whale, but perhaps the water will be in better shape for the next cetacean who wanders in.

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