Wednesday, June 15, 2016


A film by Jimmy Callanan   

So how was I involved with Physty? Here’s the story.

When I first met Michael years earlier he reminded me of Bluto in the Popeye comic strips. He was big, bushy and an ex Vietnam Vet and Navy diver. These are the guys who were SEALS before there were SEALS. He was ‘military’ and perhaps as different from me as possible....except since the war he had devoted his life to stop whaling and to teach people, especially kids about whales, marine life and the oceans.

So all of a sudden we had a lot in common.

Over the years he had seen my museum projects and so one year when he decided to create a marine museum on City Island in New York, he asked me to come up with some ideas for exhibits. City Island in the Bronx was a unique place that, at the time, I don’t imagine most New Yorkers even knew existed. It was a little Island connected to the Bronx by a little bridge and pretty much devoted to boatyards and seafood places. Anyway he bought an old wooden house and started to make it into THE NORTHWIND MUSEUM.

One of the first things he did was to find an old obsolete wooden tugboat in one of the Islands boatyards, bought it and proceeded to take a chainsaw and saw it right in half, from port to starboard. Then he somehow managed to transport the bow half down the main street of City Island to his museum where the plan was to graft it onto the front of the building. These Navy guys can do anything. It turned out great when it was finished.

One day I was trying to think of something creative and interactive to do with those big beautiful brass diving helmets that Michael had and I came up with this idea for fishtanks where the helmets could be attached to openings in the bottom and kids could get their heads inside. Michael came in, saw these drawings, literally ripped them off the wall with pushpins flying everywhere and said....”Let’s go build it!”

The next thing I know we’re standing in some junkyard with Michael buying a giant metal oil tank that he then started to cut and weld and make into the ‘DRY DIVE’ exhibit. It was great.

That’s what was going on when one evening on the nightly news there was a story about a ‘small’ whale that had almost come ashore at Coney Island in Brooklyn. There was some video of a police boat pushing something in the water back out to sea but it was at night and it was hard to actually see anything. The whole story seemed ridiculous. Whales beached themselves in Australia or Chile but not New York City. It was a short story and would have been easily forgotten except over the next couple of days the whale was sighted near shore again. Eventually the Coast Guard had managed to get a rope around its tail and tow it to a small empty marina on Fire Island. The sick baby whale was on the news for the next couple of days as marine vets and others tried to save its life.

The next day when I came to work at the museum I see everybody loading up the trucks with diving tanks and wet suits and everything else. What’s up?, I ask. My friend, co-worker and film maker Jimmy Callanan (that’s Jimmy’s film at the beginning of this story) throws me a windbreaker with NORTHWIND emblazoned across the back and says...."We’re going to check out the whale. Come-on."

I didn’t know it at the time but later Jimmy told me what had happened. It’s important for you to know that a whale coming to shore and being cared for isn’t a haphazard operation. It’s immediately a Federal Issue covered under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. And the Feds don’t fool around. In addition to the Feds and Coast Guard controlling the whole thing the State and Local Police were involved and of course veterinarians with marine experience and members of the Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation who were certified to deal with marine mammal stranding issues. Although Michael, like all of us, had seen the whale on the news and wanted to help, he felt that his presence might be unwanted by the ‘certified’ groups there. He just had a lifetime of experience, not printed credentials. That all changed when that night Dr. Jay Hyman, the lead vet on the scene called Michael and said....”Michael, why aren’t you here?”

So we arrive and there it is. A baby sperm whale. Clicking away. Look, you’ve seen the video so you already know Physty survives but at that moment I knew no such thing. In fact I don’t think I ever heard of a ‘beached’ whale surviving. For me to be this close to a real whale, a sperm whale at that, an animal of legend, and a baby to boot was a unexpected unique experience but I was aware that it might end up being very very sad. 

The whole rescue was an absolutely incredible effort by everyone there but the night Michael swam out, in the dark, to try to feed Physty that medicated squid was magical. I sat on the dock watching. The crowds had all gone home and there was only a few of us around. We had no idea what was happening under the water until Michael’s hand broke the surface with a thumbs-up.

I really had no particular ‘job’ there so I kind of got to be that ‘fly on the wall’ that people always talk about. I busied myself documenting things and collecting artifacts like the hypodermic needle that bent when they tried to take Physty’s blood sample. Depending upon how this turned out, this whole experience could be an interesting exhibit back at the museum and I wanted to be prepared.

Like I’ve said, you’ve seen the video so you know the Physty rescue was successful. However there’s a little part of the story that you haven’t heard before, and it probably started with that ride that Michael got on the back of the whale....

You see, even Michael realized later that that was the wrong thing to do. With Physty’s rapidly improving condition, the last thing the Feds wanted was for the whale to want continued human contact when they try to return it to the open sea. The surprise decision was made to release the whale the next morning. Michael thought this might be premature but it wasn't his decision.

That evening we all stayed in one room at a motel in the area. My job that night, under Michael's direction, was to draw up these plans to show where all the boats were to be stationed in the morning and the course the whale had to follow if it was to make it successfully back to the open ocean. There were a lot of sand bars on which the whale might beach itself on its way to the sea. Nobody thought this would be easy.

The plans that I drew up that night

We, of course, didn't have the benefit of Google Earth at the time but now when I see the path the whale had to negotiate and the many sandbars that there were in its path I would have been even more worried. Here's how it looks from the satellite.

Dawn. We head over to the building where the Feds and Coast Guard were having their final planning session. Michael went in as Jimmy and I waited outside. By the way, I had stayed up all night finishing up the charts and was very tired but I had nothing else to do so it didn’t matter. Or so I thought. Anyway when Michael came out he had this very strange look on his face. 

“What?” I asked.

“They’re putting me in charge of the operation" he answered.
“That’s great.” I said.
“No, you don’t understand.” Michael said. “The military never puts a civilian in charge of an operation. It’s because they’ve decided that if the whale beaches itself on a sandbar again, they are going to run it over with the (Coast Guard) Cutter, drown it, and say that the whale didn’t make it.” 

The people in power had decided that they were not going to repeat another very expensive week like this. It would end today, one way or another.

Michael thought he was being set up and then he said "I’m not going!"

Wow! This day suddenly had taken a big quick ugly turn for the worse. I was stunned. I just said ‘Michael, no matter what, the whale has a better chance with you there than without you.” He looked at me and said “You’re right." He turned around and went back in.

I didn’t have time to figure out what had just happened because right then they all came out and the whole operation began. Everyone was moving. This next part is a bit embarrassing personally but so what. Like I said I was really tired so when Michael told me I’d be piloting the boat he’d be on, I promptly stalled the outboard a couple of times and was immediately replaced. The gate  to the marina was opened and the boats and the whale all headed away. I had expected to be on the big Coast Guard Cutter but it too was already pulling away. I wound up standing on the dock  watching them all move away frustrated, tired and alone. 

I figured we wouldn’t know about the whale for some time so, dejected and exhausted I headed back with the crowd to my car in the parking lot and ran into the last thing I wanted at that moment, the biggest traffic jam ever. The little causeway could’t possibly accommodate all the cars that had come to see the whale released. We sat bumper to bumper inching along when suddenly the radio announcer burst in with the bulletin that Physty the whale had successfully been returned to the open sea and was now on his way ‘home’.

I swear, one by one every horn in every car went off and as I looked around every one was smiling and shouting as kids hung out of their car windows waving and cheering their little heads off.

And just then it seemed that the traffic started to move again and I too was on my way home, laughing out loud, happy as a clam.


In the days following Physty’s release Michael got a lot of press including being on a currently hit tv show called ‘That’s Incredible’. I took a couple of days off and on one of those days I got this invitation from the Smithsonian Institution. They had seen my museum projects and they were inviting me to discuss something they thought we might create together. The Smithsonian! I didn’t know it at the time but soon I’d be designing a gallery game for them about marine archeology called ‘Fathom’.

A couple of days later when I showed up at Northwind Michael did something I never would have expected. He apologized to me. He said we should have practiced with the pilot boat before the last morning because that’s what the military does...practice. I really appreciated that but at that moment I was more interested in showing him my letter. He read it and then grasped my shoulders. I think he may have actually picked me off the ground a little. “Stanny, the museum of the country...and they want you! I’m so proud of you." Michael, the ultimate patriot.

So that was that. I went off to Washington D.C. but not before I designed a Physty exhibit for Northwind. Its centerpiece was a full size, tactilely accurate model of Physty that we kept wet for everyone to touch. It was built in two parts. If you imagine the floor as the waterline, the head emerged as one section and twelve feet behind it the tail emerged. It was the called ‘Braille Whale'.

I may have wandered a bit off track here but let me tell you this. I had a front row seat to an amazing relationship between a man and a whale. It was based on touch and trust and it was simply beautiful.

So I say here, Bravo! Michael Sandlofer, bravo!”


Unfortunately, this year Michael passed away. I had a chance to talk with him when he was in the hospital and to tell him again how much I cared for him and how beautiful his work with animals was. I treasured my time with him. He was very complimentary too, telling me how I was always there to whisper some smart idea into his ear but, truth be told, he had more real ‘smarts’ in his little finger than I have in my whole head. Physty was only one of the episodes in Michael’s life. There were many others. The animals have lost a great friend.

But his work goes on. Thru Sharon, his wonderful wife and his daughter his dream of building a sanctuary for wolves in South Carolina continues. They continue to educate people, most of all kids about the truth and value of these misunderstood animals. You should check out their website at and please, if you can help support Michael’s vision please do so by contributing to:

The Wolf Pack Project

Trinity Heritage Ranch
2630 Trinity Rd
Lynchburg SC. 2 9 0 8 0

One final thought. Since this episode Physty has been spotted far offshore at various times healthy and swimming strongly. He’s easily identified by those rope scars on his tail. You’ve seen Jimmy’s movie and read my story but if you believe that whales are intelligent creatures that can communicate with each other then you have to believe that Physty, the sperm whale, has one hell off a story to tell, and while he might not know Michael’s name, he sure will never forget him. 


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