Gowanus dolphin

Officials watch as the stranded dolphin surfaces on Jan. 25. (Photo: Michael Heiman/Getty Images)

Update (Jan. 29): The Gowanus Canal dolphin apparently had bigger problems than just filthy water, according to Kimberly Durham, rescue program coordinator for the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.

"The animal definitely painted a picture of being a compromised individual," Durham tells MNN, based on preliminary results from the necropsy. "It was thin, it had some ulcerations on its tongue and on its stomach, and it had a completely empty GI (gastrointestinal) tract. It also had kidney stones, and evidence of parasites in the liver and GI tract."

It was an older male dolphin, she says, but not geriatric — maybe 25 to 30 years old. The empty GI tract means it hadn't eaten recently, and along with issues like parasites, kidney stones and ulcers, this points to chronic, pre-existing health problems.

"We didn't find any of the kind of lesions you'd expect to find if it was exposed to bad water," Durham says. "That's not to say the water isn't bad. But I think it was kind of destined, whether it was in the canal or on Jones Beach. This was a very unhealthy individual; the issues that we found are issues you would find in an older animal."

The investigation still isn't complete, though. Tissue samples have been sent to a lab for histopathology, and Durham is also anxiously awaiting the toxicology results. "A lot of people are saying this animal's death is because of water quality, so I'm looking forward to getting the toxicology results to be able to say definitively," she says.

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Forensics investigators are trying to determine what killed a common dolphin in New York City's Gowanus Canal late last week, potentially offering closure to a story that captivated millions of people in Brooklyn and around the world.

Although the postmortem examination was conducted Sunday, it may be several weeks before full results are available, a representative from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation tells MNN.

The dolphin was first spotted in the canal Friday morning, presumably after swimming in from the Atlantic Ocean and becoming trapped at low tide. It swam more than a mile into Brooklyn, where a crowd gathered to watch as it struggled through mud, trash and mysterious black sludge. On top of its labored swimming, many onlookers also noticed blood coming from its dorsal fin. Reports spread quickly on social media and international news outlets, rocketing the animal to online stardom in just a few hours.

Unfortunately, though, fame couldn't save its life. The dolphin died around 6 p.m. Friday, not long before the high tide that many hoped would help it swim back to sea.

The dolphin's death drew familiar scrutiny to the noxious Gowanus Canal, which was classified as a Superfund site in 2010 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Calling it "one of the nation's most extensively contaminated water bodies," the EPA notes the canal is plagued by coal tar, heavy metals, PCBs and other pollutants, thanks to decades of industrial dumping, stormwater runoff and sewage outflows.

The sad ending also led to scrutiny of the Riverhead Foundation itself, which some people criticized for not pulling the dolphin out of the water before it died. But many experts are defending the would-be rescuers, noting the dolphin appeared to be sick or injured, and that little could be done to save it by that point if it couldn't stay alive until high tide.

"The option that gave the animal the best chance for a positive outcome was waiting," Riverhead CEO and senior biologist Robert DiGiovanni told Reuters on Saturday. "If an animal wasn't going to be able to survive through the next tide cycle, then it was an animal that was compromised and wouldn't make it." 

See amateur video of the dolphin's ordeal below:

Related dolphin stories on MNN:

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