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Secrets of the Deep

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Firefighter Frederick Ill III and U.S. Coast Guard diver Dave Boles.
Illustration by Mark Nerys  

Illustration by Mark Nerys  

14. A Piano and a Dead Giraffe
The Army Corps of Engineers, charged with the task of scooping up floating debris, once fished out a grand piano. Another time, they found the corpse of a giraffe that had fled a circus.

15. A 1968 Lincoln Continental
A group of commercial divers spotted the vehicle in 1978 off Coney Island, where it lay, belly-up, twenty feet off the end of the old Steeplechase Pier. “It was probably a polluter for the first twenty years—oil coming up and all that,” says Lenny Speregen. It’s rotting, but “the frame is still there, and the engine block. And the tires, believe it or not.”

16. A 350-foot Steamship
The Princess Anne, a steamship of the Old Dominion line, ran aground off Rockaway Point in February 1920, snapped in half, and sank. Since then, enough sand has shifted that the ship’s remains are mostly buried under the beach.

17. Rats
“One time, I was coming up under a pier,” says Speregen, “and I heard a crash and then something scratching on my helmet. And the guys were saying Go down! Go down! It was a wharf rat, about twelve inches long. It scuttled off. If you get a bite through your glove, you’ve gotta bring the rat up. Even though you’re gonna get the rabies shots either way, you want to know that the rat died.”

18. Less Water Than You Think
This whole bright-red section of the map is less than ten feet deep. Much of it is five feet deep or less—shallow enough to stand in. Yellow and green areas are deeper; dark blue is deepest.

19. The Abyss
The deepest spot in this part of the river—96 feet to the bottom—is found here, just south of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

20. 2,200 Tons of Silt
The harbor’s water is brownish, but not chiefly because of pollution. It’s brown because the Hudson carries an average of 2,200 tons of sediment per day from upstate (more in the autumn and spring, much less in the summer). For divers, all that silt obscures almost everything. “I always say, gimme a foot of viz”—visibility—“and that’s a great day,” says the NYPD’s John Drzal. “Even with a light, you can see just enough to gauge how much air you have left.” It’s a lot like going into a fire, adds Frederick Ill III, a diver from the FDNY’s Rescue Company No. 1. “Except that when you’re on the bottom, and you’ve gotta get out, you’re on your own.”


Illustration by Mark Nerys  

21. Toilet Paper, and All That Goes With It
When there’s a rainstorm, far more water goes into our drainage system than sewage-treatment plants can handle. So the overflow pipes open wide, and all our wastewater—including the untreated effluvia of 8 million people—goes straight into the ocean. The day after a storm, the harbor is brown and thick with stirred-up silt that is shot through with human waste. Sometimes you can see shreds of toilet paper. When divers emerge from the harbor on those days, their suits have to be scrubbed down with bleach or kerosene before the men can strip them off.

22. Out-of-Date Channels
This groove in the harbor bottom is Ambrose Channel, which is the main shipping route into New York Harbor. It’s maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers at a depth of 45 feet. That’s not enough for the biggest new super-container ships, which require 60-foot clearance, and the Corps is finishing up a decadelong project to deepen the channels and tap those ships’ estimated $20 billion worth of commerce. Some of our dredged material contains a century’s worth of pollutants, from mercury to DDT—substances not a lot of places want. At one point, mud was being hauled to a dump in Utah, at the cost of $118 per cubic yard (plain old dumping is about $5 per). Some of it now goes to Texas; some becomes the sandy fill in concrete.


Illustration by Mark Nerys  

23. 1,600 Bars of Silver, Weighing 100 Pounds Apiece
In 1903, a barge in the Arthur Kill—the oily, mucky arm of the harbor between Staten Island and New Jersey—capsized, spilling its cargo of silver ingots. It carried 7,678 bars; about 6,000 were recovered soon after. The rest are still down there. At today’s prices, they’re worth about $26 million. Every now and then, someone tries to find them. So far, no luck.


Illustration by Mark Nerys  

24. Ice-cream Trucks
Reefs, because they are good places for edible plants and small animals, attract schools of fish. In 1969, in order to build a new artificial reef, the Department of Environmental Conservation dumped a bargeload of scrapped Good Humor trucks off Atlantic Beach, where they were eventually joined by (according to the DEC) “30,000 tires in three-tire units; 404 auto bodies; nine barges; the tug Fran S; a steel lifeboat; steel crane and boom; surplus armored vehicles; concrete slabs, pipes, culvert, decking and rubble; 530,000 cubic yards of rock from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers excavation project.” The pile is now known as a good spot for lobstering, and for catching black sea bass, blackfish, porgy, bergall, hake, and cod.

25. Appetizers
There are millions of hard-shell clams on the harbor bottom, but pollutants and bacteria can make the shellfish dangerous to eat, especially raw. Some are okay for “relay,” a process whereby tainted shellfish are moved to a clean spot for a few weeks so they purge themselves and can be safely consumed. Most high-end suppliers and restaurants shy away from such clams, but because they’re much cheaper, some establishments inconspicuously serve them.

26. Oil That’s So Heavy It Sinks
Among the nastiness on the bottom of the Gowanus Canal is a layer of silt mixed with coal tar. Whereas lighter oils like gasoline float away, this goo, which looks like black motor oil, settles in. “When you’re raking along the bottom with your hands,” explains NYPD veteran diver John Drzal, “plumes of it still come up.”


Illustration by Mark Nerys  

27. More Fish Than You Think
As the water has become cleaner, the shad runs have slowly returned to the Hudson. Striped bass are increasing in number, though their flesh contains PCB contaminants, and eating them regularly isn’t a good idea. A herring called the mossbunker swims in huge schools, and is caught by the ton, ground up, and fed to farmed salmon. There are four-foot-long stingrays down by the Rockaways and off Coney Island, and they’re hard to see when they’re flat against the bottom. A diver will be going about his business when he encounters a section of mud the size of a coffee table that suddenly—zooomp!—up and swims away.


Illustration by Mark Nerys  

28. The Last Remnants of Dreamland
One of Coney Island’s great early theme parks, Dreamland existed for only a few years before it burned down in 1911. Nothing survives of it aboveground, but a group that Speregen co-founded, called Cultural Research Divers, found the lampposts underwater, melted and deformed from the fire.

Additional data from Dr. Roger Flood, of Stony Brook University, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


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