The Life Aquatic

At New York City’s Harbor School, students use Gateway National Recreation Area’s maritime environment as their classroom—and preparation for life after graduation.


By Jennifer Bogo


The wind picked up, blowing gray clouds over lower Manhattan, when Julian Perez and Gabriel Soto left the Beaux-Arts landmark ferry terminal and headed for the R train. An hour and a half and three trains later, the two teenagers emerged on a narrow island community in Jamaica Bay, Queens. They walked 10 blocks to Broad Channel American Park, skirted a baseball field, and joined a handful of other students at a cargo van parked along a beach littered with Corona bottles and plastic grocery bags. A feral chicken pecked horseshoe crab eggs from the sand.

It was 3:30pm, two days before the end of the school year, and they still had classwork to do. They zipped into their wetsuits.

Once amphibious in neck-to-ankle neoprene, the students gathered around Joe Gessert, their teacher and safety dive officer, for a routine briefing. He pointed out the pylons of the six-lane Cross Bay Bridge, and then named the nearest hospital and hyperbaric chamber. “Watch out for lion’s mane jellyfish,” said Liv Dillon, the other diving instructor. “There’s vinegar in the van if you get stung.”
Samuel Matias wandered over from a group of men fishing for bluefish and striped bass along the rocky shoreline. He smoked a cigarette, watching with interest. “Man, that’s cold!” he said, flinching, as the students waded into Jamaica Bay’s waters, in Gateway National Recreation Area.

Actually, it was relatively warm, about 70 degrees. The students, all juniors at Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, had begun diving in 50-degree water nearly a month and a half earlier. They were helping the National Park Service look for existing oysters, the first step in the restoration of reef habitat to the bay. They were also learning problem-solving and other life skills. A public high school, Harbor School uses New York City’s maritime environment to teach students and, ultimately, prepare them for college. It also fosters a unique relationship with an ecosystem that New Yorkers rarely pause to consider. “Most people only experience what’s on top of the water,” says Perez, who’s 16, “and I get to go underneath.”

Learning by Doing

There are 581 high schools in New York City and about 60,000 eighth-graders faced with the choice of which one to attend. To help them rank their first 12 choices for a citywide lottery, the Department of Education sends them each a thick book outlining their options. It’s daunting. Some students, like 16-year-old Justin Rosales, know they want to attend Harbor School the moment they flip to its description. Others, like Perez, find it at a high school fair. Some have a guidance counselor choose the school for them, and others just end up there.

Even among the city’s highly specialized offerings, Harbor School is distinct. Students attend the usual classes—social studies, science, history—but as sophomores they also choose a career and technical education class in one of six marine fields: ocean engineering, marine systems technology, vessel operations, marine biology research, aquaculture, and scientific diving. That’s how they spend their afternoons (and sometimes evenings and weekends).

The students graduate with a professional credential that gives them a running start at an entry-level job or university program. But the hope, says the school’s co-founder, Murray Fisher, is that their maritime experiences will also blossom into a sense of stewardship. “Maybe it’s played out in their career choice; maybe it’s played out by not littering when walking down the street,” he says. “Maybe it’s not played out at all. But it’s very hard, in my experience, for people not to have an environmental ethic if they’re not just on and around the environment, but actually doing stuff in it.”

Of the school’s roughly 420 students, the 42 divers embody this philosophy the most literally. Harbor School is the only public high school in the United States with a scientific diving program recognized by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. On a practical level, that means its students get certified in best diving practices and learn how to conduct scientific research underwater. In the process, they incorporate a lot of other lessons.

“The kids have to read an enormous amount of material, much of it way outside their grasp, to get their scientific diving certification,” says Dillon. They also have to work through complicated formulas to figure out, for example, how long air will last at different depths, temperatures, and pressures. It makes sense to them because it’s applicable, Dillon says. “They’re intrinsically more motivated to read and write and do math.”

Diving with a Purpose

The teenagers slipped beneath the surface of Jamaica Bay, and for several long minutes, only the orange flags they’d left floating in their wake interrupted the flat, wind-whipped plane of water. Then Justin Rosales emerged, dripping, and trudged toward the shore. In one hand he carried an oyster toadfish in a mason jar, and in the other a hermit crab in a drinking glass. This is his 43rd dive, and all of them, he says, have been in low-visibility conditions—which rather than lament, he credits with giving him a “keener eye.”

The students regularly spot vibrant marine life: sea robins, blue crabs, comb jellies, horned blennies, even sea horses. During nesting season, this stretch of beach supports 2,000 amorous horseshoe crabs. But so far, none of the students found what they have been tasked with searching for: native oysters.

Massive oyster beds once lined Jamaica Bay, an 18,000-acre wetland estuary almost the size of Manhattan, and stretched along the eastern shore of Staten Island to Sandy Hook in northern New Jersey, which together form the three main units of the Gateway National Recreation Area. At the fishery’s peak in the early 1900s, Jamaica Bay produced an estimated 700,000 bushels of oysters per year. But overharvesting, dredging, and sewage from a burgeoning population soon began to decimate it. A cholera epidemic that contaminated the city’s wastewater officially ended the oyster fishery in 1921, and the 1938 hurricane covered any remaining beds with sediment.

The oyster reefs didn’t bounce back for the same reason Harbor School’s students can’t dive for 72 hours after a quarter-inch of rain: The city’s combined-sewer overflow system sends untreated waste into the surrounding water during heavy storms. (“The kids are very in tune with the ebbs and flow of the sewer system,” says Dillon wryly.)  But the estuary’s water quality has been improving gradually, and a healthy oyster population could help clean it further by filtering plankton—perhaps enough to reestablish the vigorous eelgrass community that once supported bay scallops and much higher fish populations. That’s the goal of the Park Service, but before it can reintroduce oysters to Jamaica Bay, it first must determine whether any of the city’s native oysters (or their hybrids) still persevere there.

“When the national park does any restoration within its boundaries, it’s supposed to try to be true to the original population type that existed because it’s adapted to the local environment,” says George Frame, a National Park Service biologist at Gateway. “We have to make sure we’re not going to replace what’s already here and surviving with something new and different.”

Just as the Park Service embarked on a three-year project to search for remnant oyster populations, Dillon and Gessert contacted the agency to see if it had any diving needs in Gateway National Recreation Area. With the help of student divers, the project could expand from the low-tide line to deeper waters. “We couldn’t have conducted this survey without them,” Frame says.

In the past two years, the students have found a dozen and a half oysters—as well as two bay scallops, which the Park Service assumed had disappeared completely. Biologists at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn are now genetically comparing the oysters to those from hatcheries elsewhere along the Eastern seaboard. If their DNA is distinct, the oysters may be endemic to New York. If it’s not, they may be escapees from aquaculture experiments, and the Park Service can go ahead and introduce a strain it thinks is most appropriate—not just for the ecosystem that exists now, but for a future environment shaped by sea-level rise and global warming.

Leaving a Legacy

When Harbor School first opened its doors in 2003, it occupied the fourth floor of an old high school in the landlocked Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Now, the school sits in the center of the marine environment its students study, on Governors Island, a 172-acre former Coast Guard base in New York Harbor. To reach it, the students commute every day by ferry, then walk past a stone fort built in 1811. The island’s military history dates back to the Revolutionary War and 22 acres now make up Governor’s Island National Monument.

While the National Park Service lays the groundwork for restoring oysters to Jamaica Bay, the Harbor School and other organizations have blazed ahead with artificial reefs in New York Harbor. The school recently embarked on a 20-year effort, called the Billion Oyster Project, to reintroduce oysters there. Students from all six career and technical education tracks work together to determine which type of artificial reef will best support oysters in the fast-current, low-light, heavily dredged environment—information that will ultimately help implement the comprehensive restoration plan for the Hudson River estuary, which calls for establishing 5,000 acres of oyster habitat by 2050.

The project aims to culminate in oyster-planting days, when vessel operations students pilot boats, maintained by marine systems tech students, to the study sites; scientific diving students install baby oysters (or spats), raised by aquaculture students, on reefs built by ocean engineering students; and students in the marine biology program monitor the sites’ water quality.

But the kids also can see past their individual roles to the reefs’ longer term societal value: Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, they pressed the case for oyster reefs as wave buffers to the New York Times. “For thousands of years, oysters protected coastal regions from strong waves and storms,” they wrote. “If we bring oysters back to New York Harbor we…make our city more resilient to rising water levels and warming oceans.”

April Mims, NPCA’s Northeast program manager points out that 10 national park sites encompassing nearly 27,000 acres lie in the New York/New Jersey harbor (all of which were affected by Sandy). Since Hurricane Sandy, NPCA has emphasized the importance of building a stronger, more resilient shoreline, and investing in aquatic systems. “The fate of this region, and the national parks and all its resources, is inextricably linked to the health of the water,” Mims says. “It’s really important that these young people, who are the future stewards of national parks, and who live in Brooklyn and surrounding communities, are getting this education in aquatic restoration and learning how to preserve and protect our watershed.”

School co-founder Murray Fisher now runs the New York Harbor Foundation, a nonprofit he established in 2010—the year the school moved to Governors Island—to help support the school and the Billion Oyster Project. “Every major city in this country is on a major water body, with the exception of Las Vegas,” he says. “Most of those water bodies are degraded and most of them have large populations of urban youth that feel disengaged.” In fact, those cities all have better access to their waterways than New York City, he says. Fisher wants to see a maritime school in every coastal city, “but aligned with a restoration project, giving kids responsibility for monitoring, surveying, and restoring their local ecosystem.”

So far, Harbor School’s experiment in education has been a “resounding success,” according to the New York City Department of Education. The school has received three straight As on its own annual report cards—which measure a school’s contribution to student achievement—and its graduation rate is higher than the citywide average. In 2012, 86 percent of its students graduated (compared with 24 percent of seniors at the high school in Bushwick it replaced, which served the same ethnically diverse demographic); 73 of those 75 students had been accepted to college.

Annais Rodriguez is one of the students graduating in the class of 2013. She trained in marine systems technology, and on her very last day of high school ever, she could still be found in the marine-tech workshop, fiddling with the switch on a remote-control boat that she’d taken apart and reassembled in a custom fiberglass hull. She’d grown up fixing cars with her dad, and Harbor School introduced her to working on vessels. Next, Rodriguez hopes to go to SUNY Maritime College to learn how to captain and maintain boats—a profession that never would have occurred to her before. Harbor School melded her love of engineering with a new appreciation of water. “And now,” she says, “I want to make a career out of it.”

Jennifer Bogo, articles editor at Popular Science, has traveled from the Arctic to the Antarctic to find and write science stories.

This article appears in the Fall 2013 issue.

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WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Jimwilson3570

September 21, 2013

This is a great idea. Getting our younger generation involved in not only diving but learning why there is a need to protect our local environments and indigenous species. Bravo to the school.

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