Divers Who Jump in to Take the Mystery Out of City Waterways
Having frequently pedaled his bike over the Gowanus Canal’s bridges in Brooklyn, Ludger K. Balan was familiar with its sickly green tint, oil-slicked surface and rotten-egg smell. Then, one day about eight years ago, he looked into the canal and saw a school of striped bass chasing minnows.
MITSUE BALAN/URBAN DIVERS
“I assumed like everybody else that it was open sewage,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was a connected tributary.”
The popular conception about New York City waterways is that the only people diving in them are the ones getting dumped in body bags. But the resilience of those bass inspired Mr. Balan. He wanted to demystify urban waters like the Gowanus to change them from environments that are ignored and shunned to those that are protected and perhaps even loved.
In 1998, he founded the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy, a group of people who literally immerse themselves in the problem they are trying to fix.
Based at the Marine and Ecology Center in the Bronx, the Urban Divers run youth educational projects and river cleanups with six divers and 150 land-based volunteers. They monitor pollution, make recommendations to the city and conduct demonstrations in which they show live video of their dives. On Dec. 6, the group and several city officials will hold a forum on the future of the Gowanus Canal.
Over the summer, the Department of Parks and Recreation contacted the group, which has only three paid staff members, to monitor an oyster restoration project in the East River. Restoring the population of oysters, which once flourished beneath the East River’s murky waves, could have a significant impact on cleaning up the river. The Urban Divers said that one oyster can filter up to a gallon of water.
Sheathed in their neoprene suits, the divers resemble members of the Starship Enterprise, perhaps with good reason: Mr. Balan said diving in the Gowanus Canal “is like going to the moon.”
To save money on gas, they often dive from an inflatable boat, with a detachable motor, that looks like a children’s wading pool. They take turns blowing it up with a foot pump. Divers are expected to buy their own equipment, which can cost up to $1,500.
When Avra Cohen, 55, went into the Gowanus this past summer to collect samples from an unidentified microbial colony growing on the bottom, he wore a suit of vulcanized rubber, two pairs of gloves and a full face mask.
Mr. Cohen was inoculated against hepatitis A and tetanus. A friend suggested that he get vaccinated for typhoid, too. “And the doctor asked me where I was traveling,” Mr. Cohen said. “And I told him, ‘Brooklyn.’”
Mr. Cohen, with a ponytail and graying beard that give him the weathered look of a born adventurer, described another dive in Sheepshead Bay. He said he found shopping carts, tires and an old bicycle frame with barnacles growing on it.
“It shows you, a land-lubber person, that when you dump stuff in, it stays,” Mr. Cohen said. “And if it happens to be car batteries, eventually the lead leaches into the water and ends up in fish that might be on your dinner plate.”
Pollution has plagued the 1.8-mile Gowanus Canal since its early days as a commercial waterway and shipping hub. A tunnel to sweep in clean water from New York Harbor broke down in 1960 and was not repaired until 1999.
The Gowanus is cleaner today than in previous decades, but still bedeviled by sewage overflow and runoff from local industrial plants. Biology students from the New York City College of Technology recently detected gonorrhea in a drop of water from the canal, according to Scienceline, a New York University publication. And scientists have yet to identify the microbes that Mr. Cohen collected, though they do know that they kill red blood cells.
Because urban waters present unusual challenges, like entanglement in fishing line, river currents and low visibility, Mr. Balan said it was important to “zen” with a dive beforehand, to visualize each step. During a recent East River dive, Mr. Cohen accidentally touched the bottom of the river, and plumes of sediment ballooned around him. “I was in a nine-foot impenetrable cloud,” he said.
He spent nearly an hour underwater taking photographs and video of the substrates — layers of clam shells — that the Parks Department had placed in the river to encourage oyster growth. He found old oyster shells that crumbled to dust in his fingers.
As for new spats, or young oysters, the prognosis was not good. “Maybe a few,” Mr. Cohen said, “but it wasn’t like a big plate of oysters waiting for me.”
As the sun set, the Urban Divers headed back to Clason Point in the Bronx. They sped past the bony legs of a dilapidated dock and the lights of La Guardia Airport. Beneath the hulking jets, their inflatable boat looked like a water insect barely skimming the river’s surface.
Mr. Balan grew up diving in the Caribbean, with its clear waters and explosion of natural life. In contrast, sediment levels in the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary inhibit visibility.
“So everything you encounter is an amazement,” he said.
Audiences that watch his live diving demonstrations react the same way. “Every time we see a fish,” he said, “we get a standing ovation.”
By JENNIFER MILLER