It’s not easy being a harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) in the often muddled and murky waters of New York Harbor. It’s a small aquatic creature. Less than six feet in length, making it one of the smallest cetacean species in the North Atlantic. Unlike its cousin the bottlenose dolphin, harbor porpoises don’t crave attention. It’s a shy animal, regularly elusive and reserved.
You would never know that during the colder months of the year the harbor porpoise is a native and common creature of New York Harbor. Yet bad things can happen in a busy and bustling harbor.
Research in the Netherlands has shown that underwater noise from ships and construction equipment can interfere with a harbor porpoise’s ability to use echolocation to locate prey and may even oust them from otherwise suitable habitats. Toxins such as PCBs, which are ingested by small fish and then eaten by porpoises might affect reproduction and immune function. Marine debris including plastics and ship strike incidents also pose major threats to the long-term survival of harbor porpoises.
Some of these threats could have been the reason for one harbor porpoise to have a difficult few days downstream from New York City during the first weekend of April.
It started on Thursday. A young female porpoise was likely in pursuit of a school of herring or bunker, their favorite food, in Raritan Bay. She followed the fish into Waackaack Creek in the Borough of Keansburg, not far from the Henry Hudson Trail. Then the poor critter got disorientated, remaining in the creek and unable to find it’s way out.
It could also be this harbor porpoise become ill from toxins in fish and was seeking shallow waters to try to make it easier to breathe. Dolphins, porpoises and whales don’t breathe through their mouths or noses, since they could drown while feeding. Instead, they breathe through a blowhole located on top of their heads. Sometimes a sick cetacean will seek shallow water to make the rise to the surface easier to blow out old air and get fresh air inside its lungs.
No doubt this little female porpoise (only about 3.5 to 4 feet long) appeared stressed as it swam back and forth in a circle from one bridge to another crossing the creek. Swimming too close to the creek’s rocky bottom caused cuts and scrapes on its skin.
With each high tide there was hope the porpoise would swim back into the bay. It never happened. Instead the porpoise would just swim back and forth, over and over again.
It didn’t help either that by Friday afternoon some concerned people in a canoe tried to chase the poor animal out of the creek. It accomplished nothing, but to make the young porpoise even more agitated. A very bad sign, because a marine mammal could go into cardiac arrest when highly stressed.
People need to learn to respect wildlife. It’s illegal to pursue or get too near a porpoise. In fact, under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, it’s against the law to harass any marine mammal or disturb a marine mammal by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, which includes migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering. Watch or observe from a distance, but never get close, bother or disturb a wild animal.
Eventually, federal wildlife officials at NOAA determined the young female porpoise was not leaving the creek on its own. Something had to be done soon before the animal starved or caused injury.
By Saturday morning, staff from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center located in Brigantine, NJ was on site to help safely remove the animal into the Atlantic Ocean. At the edge of the Sandy Hook peninsula, the little female porpoise swam away, happy to be sure out in the open water. Hopefully swimming north to spend the summer with other harbor porpoises in the Gulf of Maine or the Bay of Fundy, far away from a hard luck weekend in New York Harbor.
If you see a marine mammal or sea turtle that appears injured, entangled, sick, or being harassed by a person, in New Jersey call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center at 609-266-0538. In New York, call the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at 631-369-9829. These two organizations have the authority to help stranded or sick marine mammals and sea turtles. Wildlife experts with the help of trained volunteers will determine if an animal is in need of medical attention, needs to be moved from a populated area, or just needs time to rest. Please also consider donating money to these two non-profit organizations. It takes lots of money to properly care for a sick animal.