Jamaica Bay: The Jewel of New York Harbor

Jamaica Bay: “The Jewel of New York Harbor”

By Beth Simmons

Lady Liberty. Photos by Beth Simmons, exceept as noted.
Lady Liberty. Photos by Beth Simmons, exceept as noted.

My first time traveling to the Big Apple and I’m going on a tour of its National Parks? Really? Really. What most New Yorkers don’t realize is that they live in an estuary that is also home to wildlife. In reality it’s a blend of humanity and nature, city and water, that makes New York City what it is today, America’s metropolis.

An astounding total of 23 National Parks call New York Harbor home and to get better acquainted with these destinations, The New York Harbor Conservancy offers a boat tour entitled “Naturally New York.”

The National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy is the primary private partner of the National Parks of New York Harbor. Their job is to ensure the preservation of the environment and encourage economic development with the goal to have the “finest urban waterfront recreation and educational national park system in the world.”

My voyage began at South Street Sea Port where I looked for Pier 17 and awaited the water taxi that will host this exploration. The brisk air, cool breeze, and sunshine made for a perfect October day to spend out on the water and accordingly I chose an outdoor seat on the upper deck.

The voice of Tom Zeller, a native New Yorker of 12 years and writer for the New York Times, guided the first hour with an audio tape recording sharing the ecological and industrial history of New York Harbor.

Zeller is modest enough to join in person as well. When asked what he found personally intriguing about the harbor’s history he said, “The image of the oysters the size of dinner plates 100 years ago and the resurgence of fish and harbor seals. Initially, I didn’t even know there were harbor seals.”

View of Jamaica Bay with NYC off in the distance.
View of Jamaica Bay with NYC off in the distance.

Other environmental celebrities on board were Mark Kurlansky, author of The Big Oyster; Eric Sanderson, landscape ecologist and author of Mannahatta, and John Waldman, a biology professor at Queens College.

Setting out on East River the boat diverted our attention away from the skyscrapers and towards the open water. Within minutes Ellis Island appeared on our right, followed by the iconic Statue of Liberty.

For the first time, they are not postcards, photos, or images on the web, they are real, concrete, and in-person. The awe of seeing these iconic American symbols come to life is indescribable.

Green circles indicate the National Parks of New York Habor and yellow circles indicate other popular destinations.
Green circles indicate the National Parks of New York Habor and yellow circles indicate other popular destinations.

My senses are busy at work taking in the sights while listening to New York Harbor’s history.

First, a lesson in what its ecological landscape entailed hundreds to thousands of years ago. Its rich terrestrial grounds surrounding the harbors were covered with forests and its Native American inhabitants lived off its resources, eating wild berries, nuts, shellfish, and the aforementioned oysters the size of dinner plates.

It was New York Harbor’s ideal geographical location that caused European explorers to colonize what would become the New York City America knows today.

With its residents increasing every year, the waters became heavily polluted, causing fish populations to drop and other wildlife species to disappear. Yet December 2001 marked the return of harbor seals off Swinburne Island after their 100-year hiatus from the harbor.

The seals’ return to the water reflects its ecological improvements. The United State’s Clean Water Act of 1972 set the bar with maintenance standards to uphold our quality of water. Thanks to this act and increased environmental awareness, New Yorkers can now swim in the harbor, even take part in its Annual Manhattan Swimming Race.

NYC Habor Conservancy Park Ranger Dave Taft
NYC Habor Conservancy Park Ranger Dave Taft

Just think — there are 12,000 boats coming in and out of New York Harbor each year, with the majority carrying oil or cargo containers with the latest iPods or Heineken beer.

With all this traffic there is bound to be pollution, and yet the harbor maintains a a high level of water quality. This has allowed the reintroduction of species of fish into the harbor’s waters.

Historically, Manhattan was a body of land entirely surrounded by sewage and now it has lost the sewage and gained billions of fish. The East River has become a premier fishing destination if you’re looking to catch stripers, crabs, shrimp, mollusks, bluefish, or bass.

Back to the sights of the tour, we cruise past the tiny manmade islands of Swinburne and Hoffman. These islands were built using rock and debris, once used to quarantine immigrants with infectious diseases and later during World War II housing soldiers with yellow fever.

Now covered in grass and surrounded by rock, these islands are uninhabited by people, allowing wildlife such as the harbor seals to take residence and sunbathe at their leisure.

Mother and son use their binoculars looking out onto Jamaica Bay's Wildlife Refuge
Mother and son use their binoculars looking out onto Jamaica Bay’s Wildlife Refuge

The conclusion of Tom Zeller’s historical tour shifts gears to the New York Harbor National Park Rangers, Dave Taft and Colleen Scully. As the boat takes us into the heart of Jamaica Bay, Taft and Scully share facts about its environment.

These two are extremely knowledgeable on New York Harbor’s marshland and its animal inhabitants. On the spot, Taft and Scully point out which landmasses and specific wildlife surround us at each moment.

If you ever fly into John F. Kennedy’s International Airport and if you’re lucky enough to have the window seat, check out the aerial view of the Jamaica Bay’s wetlands.

The wetlands are a 9,158-acre reserve; the largest open space of New York City and considered to be the “lungs of our metropolis” because they serve as a natural water filter.

Hundreds of birds live in and migrate to the wetlands including herons, egrets, ospreys, black ducks, American oystercatcher, gadwall, gull-billed tern, American redstart, and the list continues to over 300 species.

JFK airport’s commercial transportation coexists with the large population of birds, which creates problems on both ends.

New York National Park Ranger Colleen Scully explains, “There are the hazards of bird strikes causing problems with jets and the airport inhibits flushing of the bay by adding petrochemical fuels and using sediment to build borrow pits used to create more land near the airport.”

“They’ve used tall grass, which keeps sea gulls away because they’re less likely to go where there’s tall grass.”

Art Deco Bathhouse at Jacob Riis Park. National Park Service Website.
Art Deco Bathhouse at Jacob Riis Park. National Park Service Website.

The idea of urban naturalism acknowledges environmental issues in an urban landscape, which is highlighted to encourage public consciousness among New Yorkers and its visitors.

Other notable places off the harbor shores include the beautiful Art Deco bathhouse at Jacob Riis Park, the historic airport where the famous aviator Amelia Earhart took flight at Floyd Bennett Field,

Brooklyn’s Canarsie Pier, oceanfront beaches of Breezy Point Tip, and secluded and former military base, Fort Tilden. Learn more about these attractions.

The New York Harbor Conservancy hosts other boat tours including “America’s Frontline: The Military History of New York Harbor,” “America: Who We Are,” and “Gateway to America.”

Floyd Bennett Field was the first Municipal Airport in New York City. National Park Service Website.
Floyd Bennett Field was the first Municipal Airport in New York City. National Park Service Website.

All of these tours include a 60-minute audio recording on the subject matter. There are also kayaking and walking tours available for an even more intimate experience with the harbor’s environment.

A second “Naturally New York” boat tour is scheduled for Spring 2011. If you’re interested in attending stay posted and buy tickets in advance, the tours do sell out!

The Gateway National Recreation Area of which these New York Harbor Parks are a part of has lots of events for visitors.

There are fun activities for the whole family from coastal clean ups, foliage arts and crafts for kids, hawk watches, and Jamaica Bay lecture series. For more information visit their website.

New York Wildlife Refuge in Fall. National Park Service Website.
New York Wildlife Refuge in Fall. National Park Service Website.

On the subject of the public’s awareness and involvement in maintenance of Jamaica Bay, President and CEO of the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy,

“Right now there’s huge campaigning going on for Jamaica Bay,” Marie Salerno says. “There are lots of park sites in the harbor and by making people aware of this, New Yorkers will care about their surroundings.”

If you’re looking to get involved with the environmental cause of the harbor, the Conservancy is always looking for and welcomes volunteers as well as private sectors interested in raising money for the harbor’s preservation.

After what felt like a fraction of the allotted three-hour boat tour, we were back where we started from, the South Street Port. Gazing up at the tall buildings I readjusted my eyes to New York’s commercial landscape.

Salerno describes the effect of the boat tour experience perfectly, “Water is a stage in and of itself and it makes your forget about the vast city around you.”

Further information

National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy

National Parks of New York Harbor

Gateway National Recreation Area

Beth SimmonsBeth Simmons is a former editorial assistant with GoNOMAD.She lives in Boston.

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