Nick Banko paused during a bike ride in New York City’s Starlight Park on Monday afternoon when he saw something unusual in the Bronx River.
Banko said he couldn’t believe what he was seeing: dolphins.
“I told myself, ‘Hold on, let me go to the dock and get closer,’” said Banko, 22. “When I did, it was like they almost sensed my presence. Both of them passed through the surface of the water, showing their fins once more.”
Banko quickly took a video of the dolphins, then posted it on Instagram with an all caps caption.
“ALRIGHT NOW I NEED SOME ANSWERS IF YOU FROM THE BRONX & KNOW THIS PARK SOMEBODY PLEASE EXPLAIN TO ME WHY ME IS THERE DOLPHINS 🐬 IN THE ... PARK .. HAD ME SHOCKED”
“It’s true — dolphins were spotted in the Bronx River this week!” NYC Parks posted. “This is great news — it shows that the decades-long effort to restore the river as a healthy habitat is working. We believe these dolphins naturally found their way to the river in search of fish.”
“We encourage you to welcome these dolphins to the BX!” a parks spokesperson wrote later in a statement. “Make sure that they’re comfortable during their visit by giving them space and not disturbing them.”
Two days later, there was another sighting of two dolphins in Brooklyn, although no one is certain if they were the same pair. People immediately started sharing videos of them on social media.
“We’re gonna need a bigger canoe!” one man noted on Twitter.
“There was no wildlife in the Atlantic Ocean off [Long Island] and N.J. when I was a kid,” posted another Twitter user. “Now there are seals, dolphins and yes, sharks, not to mention osprey and other birds. Environmentalism has had enormous successes.”
One person surmised that New York dolphins probably sound different from other dolphins.
“FUN FACT: The dolphins communicate with each other using a series of clicks and whistles in a distinctly Bronx accent,” he wrote.
“I know I’m one of those simple types from Kansas, but you got dolphins in your river and that’s not normal, is it?” added a man from Wichita.
Dolphins occasionally make an appearance to feed on Atlantic bunker fish in New York City’s waterways, according to wildlife experts. They have been more often seen in the New York Harbor, where the Hudson River meets the salt water from the Atlantic off the lower tip of Manhattan. Sightings as far north as the Bronx are less common.
“It’s not every day you see them, but we did have some sighted in 2017,” said Adriana Caminero, an urban park ranger with NYC Parks, recalling when students in a youth development program snapped photos of a lone dolphin in the Bronx River.
Over the years, there have been other sightings of dolphins in the New York City area.
In 2012, a bottlenose dolphin was spotted in the Hudson River near West 120th Street, and in 2013, a couple of dolphins were spotted swimming in the East River. New Yorkers have also seen a humpback whale in the Hudson, and a fisherman caught a shark there in 2015.
Two days after Banko took a video of the dolphins in the Bronx, several people witnessed two dolphins swimming in Whale Creek, a tributary of Newtown Creek, near the Grand Street Bridge in Brooklyn, prompting the Newtown Creek Alliance to post a photo and short video of the marine mammals on Instagram.
“It’s a good sign to see dolphins in our waters — it’s a sign that the river is much more healthy now than in the past,” Caminero said, noting that it took years of activism to clean up the Bronx River after decades of pollution and dumping.
Most people think of the 23-mile waterway as a freshwater river, she said, but further south it’s more brackish as it becomes part of the Long Island Sound. The river is restocked with fish every year by NYC Parks, Caminero noted.
“I’ve personally seen schools of bunker fish at Starlight Park — they’re a staple of the dolphins’ diet,” she said. “So it’s actually not unusual that they would be drawn there.”
After the dolphins were spotted in Whale Creek, people worried they might be poisoned by toxins, oil and sewage in the water. The adjacent Newtown Creek is a Superfund site that won’t be cleaned up until 2032.
“It’s insane the state hasn’t cleaned up this creek,” a resident of Queens wrote on Instagram.
“This is frightening because of their safety/health (toxins, pollution) while also beautiful at the same time,” another person posted.
Both of the recent dolphin sightings are reminders of the importance of keeping waterways clean to increase wildlife activity, said Willis Elkins, executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance.
“Despite the improvements in water quality around New York City in recent decades, we still have a long road ahead to clean up historic toxins and eliminate the billions of gallons of sewage overflow that pose real risk to humans and marine wildlife alike,” he said.
While big improvements have been made in the Bronx River, there is still work to be done, added Caminero.
“Here in New York City, it’s really important that we properly dispose of our litter, because even something small can be washed into our waterways,” she said. “Fishing gear left behind can also be dangerous — fish and other animals can become entangled in fishing lines.”
She encourages those who want to view wildlife in or out of the water in New York City to keep their distance from the creatures.
Although the dolphins might have moved on, there are other opportunities to observe animals in the wild, she noted. Urban park rangers will treat the public to a free seal-watching expedition in the Bronx’s Pelham Bay Park on Saturday.