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.