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Meet the Many Creatures Who've Swum in the Gowanus Canal

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One of the filthiest canals in America, the Gowanus is full of mercury, pesticide, typhus, and something called black mayonnaise—as well as the occasional extremely lost (or just very unfortunate) waterborne critter. What follows is a comprehensive chronicling of the unlucky life forms that have found their way in (and, less frequently, out) of one of America's stankiest waterways. So dive into everyone's favorite super-fun Superfund site, and rest assured that we don't mean literally.
—Hannah Frishberg

Going way back now, back to a time when the canal was far cleaner, Dutch travelers reported spotting foot-long oysters in the waters during the 1600s

Human Children
Circa 1930
According to Eymund Diegel, a Gowanus expert affiliated with Proteus Gowanus: "Local children would almost certainly have swum at the mouth of the Canal at the turn of the century. The 'Staten Island paddle' was a local children's expression where the smallest child would be thrown into the scum-covered water, and with one hand over his mouth, they would use the other arm to clear floatables off the water to allow his playmates an unobstructed swimming line to the clearer offshore water." Yeesh. If this sadistic pastime still exists, please let the tipline know.


When tourists get lost, the NYPD tend not to use them for target practice - not so for extremely confused sharks who accidentally end up in the Gowanus. In 1950 this poor guy just swam a bit too far upstream, but the NYPD decided to use him to improve their shooting skill as hundreds of onlookers watched from the bulkhead. Ain't nobody messes with Brooklyn.

July 2003

2003 tells the story of survival for one mammal. The very lucky one-year-old harp seal became a celebrity after surviving in the Gowanus for a time. Whether or not it gained superpowers from the experience remains unclear.

The Creatures of 2007

In 2007, many a creature found its way into the infested estuary. A 12-foot minke whale appropriately named Sludgie swam into the canal in April, found its way onto the shore, and passed into the mammalian netherworld. Dead but not forgotten, Sludgie's skull made an appearance at the TEDx Gowanus conference in January, 2013 as part of an interactive exhibit by Proteus Gowanus.

Later that year, in July, a tiny jellyfish (the little guy went unnamed, but Gunky or Gloppy seem like solid monikers) was spotted in the surface oil, swimming southward under the 3rd Street Bridge. Hopefully, he made it out alive.

May 2011

2011 saw the introduction of the Superfund Site's unofficial mascot, GoGo Gowanus, the lovingly named muskrat who was spotted eating mussels and building a nest of weeds in the filthy waters.

January 2013
Last winter, a parasite-ridden dolphin swam into the Gowanus to die. After spending hours slowly dying under the Union Street Bridge, the porpoise passed and was later given a necropsy by the Riverhead Foundation, which revealed the 7-foot blubber lubber hadn't eaten in days.

Eymund Diegel has the scoop on mere mortals who have caused ripples on the Superfund site's filmy surface. "We had the TEDx harbor diving team doing a swimming demonstration in the Gowanus Canal this winter, as have Ludger Balan of Urban Divers and apparently President Obama's security diving team has also checked it for explosives using both robot and human teams. I have heard rumors of drunken project kids daring each other to jump in, but whether this has actually happened is shrouded in the mists of controlled substances and late night hallucination," he explains.

But wait, there's more depth here. Continues Diegel: "We have had dumpster pools set up next to the Gowanus. We have had to fish out an occasional dredger at the 2nd Street dock who has slipped while getting out of canoes, and gotten their feet (and more) wet. Captain Brooklyn apparently got his superpowers by falling into the Canal. With the ongoing water quality improvement being spearheaded by the Gowanus Canal Swim Team and the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club we do hope to see recreational skinny dipping coming back as part of the August Battle of Brooklyn reenactment exercises. The target date for that would be 2026, the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution."

To those who have brave the Canal's waters, kudos. (Delivered with a shudder.) To those swimmers of the future, both animalian and human: brace.
· All Gowanus Canal coverage [Curbed]