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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

The Minke Whale by Isaac Kestenbaum

OBJECTMinke Whale

BODY OF WATERGowanus Canal

 

In the 1950s, US Navy submarines heard a strange underwater noise near Hawaii and southern California. A coiled chirping sound that sprang to a rapid crescendo, and then fell just as quickly. No one knew what it was.  The sound became known as a “boing.” Scientists later guessed it was a whale, but it wasn’t until nearly half a century later, in the winter of 2002, when a boatload of researchers in the Hawaiian Islands finally heard a boing and spotted a whale at the same time. The boing remained a mystery for so long in part because its source is one of the smallest of the whales, one that doesn’t make a big spout and doesn’t surface for long: a minke whale.

While small for a whale, Minkes still weigh up to 20,000 pounds and measure as long as 30 feet.  A couple hundred years ago, a Norwegian whaler named Meincke mistook these little whales for their bigger, more profitable relatives.  Meincke did this so often that the whales were named for him; this was in the time before everything had a name.  Minkes are also sometimes called “sharp-headed finners” and “pike heads,” because of their pointed snouts.  They often come up into the air head first, a move called “spy hopping.” Their huge mouths turn downward, but their eyes appear half-closed, as if they’re frowning drowsily.

In the spring of 2007, a huge storm hit the Northeast coast, bringing rain, snow and flooding.  It cancelled flights and drove people from their homes. New York’s governor deployed National Guard members to low-lying areas of Long Island.  And at some point during the storm, or shortly after, a young minke whale headed towards New York City.

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A news helicopter spotted the whale a few days later, on April 17, 2007, and reported that it was swimming in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn—an inhospitable place for any marine mammal. The Gowanus was once a lush wetland, but derelict factories and tanneries now line its banks, and the water is notoriously polluted.

But the reporter was mistaken.  The whale only went as far as the mouth of the canal, where it empties into Gowanus Bay.  Other television stations, blogs and newspapers picked up the story, many repeating the initial error, first reporting the whale was in the canal, then publishing corrections.

Canal or not, the press embraced the 12-foot-long whale.  It was reported that the whale “frolicked” in the water, and “delighted and surprised even the most hardened of Brooklyn residents.” The whale even received a nickname: “Sludgie,” after the perceived condition of Gowanus Bay, though at no point does it seem the whale was covered in sludge.  Sludgie is also a reference, perhaps, to Fudgie the Whale, a type of ice cream cake manufactured by Carvel.  Fudgie is made of layers of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, milk fudge topping, and lots of something called “crunchies.”

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Much longer ago, before the invention of crunchies, before news helicopters, and before old Meincke was misidentifying whales, Thor, the Norse god of thunder, went fishing with Hymir, a frost giant.  Thor was in disguise because the frost giants were sworn enemies of the gods, massive beasts with stone heads and ice feet.

Even incognito, Thor wanted to impress and intimidate Hymir. On the way to the boat, he tore the head off one of Hymir’s oxen to use for bait.  At sea, the strength of the giant and the thunder god rowing together quickly brought the pair well beyond Hymir’s usual fishing grounds. Still, before long, Hymir caught two huge whales and tossed them in the boat.  They could have been what we now call minke whales, or they could have been almost any kind of whale; this story happened before most things had names.

But then Thor pulled up Jörmungandr, the massive serpent that encircles the whole world.  Normally this serpent lived in the deep, with his tail in his mouth.  But something about that ox head was enticing.  Jörmungandr started thrashing, hissing and spitting poison, whipping the entire ocean into a tempest.  So Thor started pounding the serpent in the head with his hammer.  This was a scary scene—even for a frost giant like Hymir, who was so frightened that he cut Thor’s fishing line. Jörmungandr sank back to the dark bottom of the ocean, and put his tail back into his mouth.  When the fishing party returned, Thor carried the whales, Hymir, and the boat itself all the way back to the frost giant’s hall, where they feasted on the two whales.

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Minke whales are still eaten today, hunted in Greenland, Japan and Norway. No one paid attention to minkes until other whales were scarce.  There are close to 200,000 minkes in the Atlantic, but it’s possible that their population has been reduced by as much as half due to whaling.  Modern whalers use harpoons tipped with an explosive. Harpooners aim for the whale’s chest, hoping that the grenade will explode in their hearts.

Sludgie’s end was less violent.  Two days after it was first spotted, it tried to beach itself near an oil refinery at the mouth of the Gowanus Canal. A representative for the fisheries service later said: “it thrashed a little, then expired.”  The Army Corps of Engineers tied the whale’s corpse to a dock, with the intention of bringing it to New Jersey for an autopsy. But when the Army first tried to lift Sludgie into their boat, the knot failed.

Sludgie’s body returned to the ocean, just as Jörmungandr did.  Divers hauled the baby minke back into the air, but the serpent is still down there.  Maybe he knows that he’s destined to meet Thor again in a true battle at the end of the world.  Thor will kill Jormangundur, then turn and walk precisely nine steps before collapsing dead from the serpent’s poison.  Until that day, Jormangundur waits, bruised, but not defeated, in the darkest, coldest part of the ocean.  Far deeper than Gowanus Bay.  Above him swim minke whales, making indecipherable noises that we will never truly name.

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Isaac Kestenbaum has worked as a newspaper reporter, a teacher, an organic farmer and a sternman aboard a lobsterboat in his native Maine. A 2008 graduate of the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies, he now works at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, New York.