Editor’s note: This article is a part of series that tells the story behind photographs from Newsday’s archives.
Sam Sadove still remembers the first time he learned about Physty the whale, more than 35 years ago.
A motorist driving on Oak Beach Road in Oak Beach reported a dead pilot whale had washed up on the shore in the early hours of April 16, 1981, recalled Sadove, who at the time was the founder and director of the now defunct Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation.
He rushed to the scene in Oak Beach with Jay Hyman, a Nyack marine veterinarian. When they arrived, Sadove said he was shocked by what he saw lying just off shore.
“Not only was the whale not dead, but it also was not a pilot whale,” he said.
A 25-foot-long sperm whale was writhing in about 3 feet of water and struggling to breathe, said Sadove, then 25.
“Its physical condition was deteriorating,” he said. “Its skin was covered in abrasions and it was going into shock.”
As the tide began to recede, Sadove knew they needed to act fast.
“We were approaching a point of no return,” he said. “The longer it sat on the beach, the further into shock it was going to go. And if we didn’t get it off soon, we were not going to get it off without causing very serious damage.”
The plan was to secure a loop of thick nylon rope around the whale’s tail and use a boat to slowly tow the creature into deeper water. The tail of a juvenile is “extremely strong” and standing nearby was “very dangerous,” Sadove said.
“I guess I was younger and dumber back then,” he said. “I remember Jay and I looking at each other and we sort of just decided, ‘OK, let’s give it a shot.’ ”
The two men donned wet suits and waded into the water. Sadove remembers touching the animal just as they had secured the line around its tail.
That moment — as Sadove placed his hand gently onto the whale’s side at the beginning of what was to be a legendary rescue — was captured by a Newsday photographer. The photo ran in the next day’s issue of Newsday and hangs on the wall of Sadove’s office in Camarillo, California, where he now lives. The original story characterized the effort as the first successful rescue of its kind in the U.S.
Not long after the photo was taken, Sadove said the whale’s thrashing had thrown him into the waves.
The men eventually anchored the rope to a Coast Guard surf boat and the whale was slowly towed 1 1⁄2 miles east to a boat basin at Robert Moses State Park, where it was diagnosed with pneumonia. Over the next week and a half, biologists force-fed the whale squid stuffed with antibiotics. The whale slowly recovered and was released on April 25, 1981, as thousands of people cheered it on from the dock.
They named the whale Physty (pronounced “feisty”) — a play on words of the animal’s scientific name, Physeter macrocephalus, the largest of the toothed whales.
“As scientists we try not to anthropomorphize, but we felt like he had a desire to live,” Sadove said. “It was feisty in our view.”