New York City’s Underworld: Exploring Local Wrecks

Latest update August 27, 2019 Started on May 1, 2019

Hundreds of wrecks lay scattered around one of the busiest cities in the world. It’s time to explore the less-popular underworld of New York/New Jersey harbors and waterways.

May 1, 2019
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In The Field

An update!

There's been a bit of a slow-down having to do with lack of accessible boats in the area but working through that with the help of the local dive club, Sea Gypsies. We hope to have access to a small 16-footer in the near future to get out to offshore wrecks. In the meantime, we went back to Coney Island Creek, this time, Trident in hand.

I've been playing around with different ways we can communicate all phases of our expedition in a relatively interactive way. This time, I've mocked up a 360-degree infographic of our day here.

It's looking like Shooter's Island off of Staten Island is next. Stay tuned.


Test dive complete.

On a trip home, we made a visit to the local lake (visibility: meh) to get a feel for the controls and interface. This drone is beautifully crafted and easy to use. It was quickly evident that we needed the 300ft tether to do anything in the open ocean but the 100ft one did great in this circumstance.

This past week I also jumped on a few calls about the future goal of live streaming the expeditions to local classrooms. I spoke to Zack (from Sofar) about their previous work live streaming and possible dives we could explore. I also chatted with as well as with National Geographic Explorer, Joe Grabowski of Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants on tips and tricks of the trade.

Up next: planning a trip out to Monomoy, MA to search for some great whites while continuing our controller practice. I want to perfect the movements before any real plans of live-streaming.

Also in the talks: finally getting to some wrecks in NYC/NJ!

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Exciting news! We have officially received our brand new Trident underwater drone thanks to S.E.E. Initiative and OpenROV (Sofar). Thank you to all of those who have followed, backed and supported this project thus far - we are thrilled to be able to finally get under the waves.

We are in the midst of planning a few beach dives off of Long Island as well as some possible trips to the Jersey shore. In the meantime, we have drafted up a graphic (hi res here) explaining a little more about how we see where this initiative will end up going.

P.s. Arthur Kill curriculum coming soon.

WOW! I love that diagram. Can you send that to me?!
In The Field

Here we have our next infographic - the Arthur Kill Ship Graveyard.
Click here for hi-res. Curriculum to come.

We are looking to explore some underwater wrecks in the next coming weeks. We have applied for the S.E.E (Science Exploration Education) Initiative to grant us an OpenROV/Sofar Trident underwater drone. (A special thanks to David Lang, founder of OpenROV who kindly joined me for coffee last month in SF.) This drone will be monumental in pushing this project forward by allowing us to 1. explore and photograph wrecks without full scuba gear/boat rentals and 2. provides a way for students to explore from shore. We are eagerly awaiting to get 25 followers to move our application forward.


I spent the week at the Explorer's Club for Oceans Week and had the honor to speak to James Delgado, SVP of Search Inc. He, along with other high-profile archeologists have been working on Nat Geo's show, 'Drain the Oceans'. He gave me a cool insider tip... this upcoming season has an episode on NY harbor and what the waterways floors would look like if we could drain them.

We're looking to get in touch with the makers of the episode to create some cirriculum to go along with the episode.

Take a sneak peek at the preview below.

In The Field

Hundreds of wrecked ships used to lie here. Today, only around 50 remain half sunken in the muddy waters off of Staten Island's north shore. It is known as the Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard or Donjon Processing Facility but when it originally came to be in the 1930's, it was The Witte Marine Equipment Company. Here, older, decommissioned boats were salvaged and sold for parts. It is believed that as many as 400 boats were sitting awaiting deconstruction at its peak before WWI. Today lies a huge variety of boats including ferries, tugboats, fishing vessels, barges and warships from almost every decade of the 20th century.

Some of the more notable ships in the eerie bay include:

  • USS PC-1264: a submarine chaser known for being one of two Navy ships that had a predominantly African American crew during WWII. It was sold to the scrapyard where it remains today.

  • Abram S. Hewett: owned by the NYFD this coal-powered fireboat acted as the main command post during the rescue of the General Scolum disaster in 1904. This boat also assisted in various other fires and explosions on ships during the late 20's but eventually ended her career in the scrapyard.

  • USS YOG-64 was a US Navy boat that came to be just a little too late to be used during WWII. She instead went to the Pacific Islands where she was used in Operation Sandstone, the second major round of Nuclear Weapons testing carried out by the US. After decades of continued use hauling fuel loads, she was sold to the scrapyard in the 1980s, of where she still stands.

  • Bloxom Tug (originally named LT-653) was built and used for ocean towing in the U.S Army in the 1940s. After the war, she was sold to the PA Railroad Co. where she worked for another couple decades. In the 1970s, when she was no longer of use she met her fate in the Arthur Kill scrapyard.

We went to check out Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard around a week ago. To get there, one must take a ferry and find a way across the island (in our case, we biked). It is not visitor friendly and we had to hack our way through marshy yards, wooden planks and overgrown weeds to a small path leading out on the pier. The wrecks were all in fairly poor shape, especially compared to the images we had seen of the site beforehand. I assume most of the accelerated damage is from the superstorms and hurricanes from the past few years. We toured the inlet and sent up the drone to get a closer look at this "accidental maritime museum" before making the long trek home.

Infographics + curriculum on the site will be provided shortly.

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Below are assignments that can be used after any field trip to Coney Island Creek. There are three separate ones, divided into age-appropriate tasks for Elementary (grades 1-5), Middle (6-8) and High school (9-12) students.

In other news, we got the green light from New York State to carry out of surveying in the local waterways.

We also have full support from the New Jersey Maritime Museum! They graciously sent us their Unidentified Shipwreck database with coordinates so with any luck, we can eventually send down a Trident to observe, survey and explore.

Next stop: Staten Island's Arthur Kill Ship Graveyard.

Onwards and downwards...

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I'm hoping with every wreck will come an infographic. Here is the one on the wrecks of Coney Island Creek. It provides a more at-a-glance idea of what I saw, researched and explored. It also is a great medium to engage more of the public who would normally not seek out information on wrecks, nevermind local wrecks.

Up next: With every wreck will also come with worksheets specifically created for Elementary, Middle and High school students. To be posted soon...

These look great! I was talking with a smart sea food advocate and they said posters were the best medium with which to communicate to local boaters and fisherman. So good on ya!

As a first step to prepare for more extensive surveys, I wandered down to Coney Island Creek to explore the ghost wrecks in the bay. Although no one knows the identification or timeframe of these wrecks, locals -remember times where they would play, jump, fish and swim from the then floating ships. Some theories argue they are old whaling ships from the 50's, others claim they are fishing boats long abandoned. Alongside the various ribs of the unidentified wrecks lies the Quester I, a wrecked submarine from the 1960's.

A Brooklyn shipyard worker Jerry Bianco had a dream of recovering the Andrea Doria, a decade-old shipwreck (which does hold precious cargo) not far out in the Atlantic. Using scrap metal and the cheapest paint he could find (bright yellow paint), he built his submarine. Unfortunately, built without a ballast, it quickly tipped over and has laid in the mud. After further tries to repair the vessel, a storm secured her fate after ripping it loose from its dock and settling it in the middle of the bay.

The creek was a fairly important waterway back in the late 1800's, early 1900's. Originally known as Gravesend Creek, it served as an illegal port for "rum-runners" (organized by the mafia) to disperse alcohol all along Long Island during the Prohibition era.

The bay is also infamously known as the site where the body of the landscape designer of Central Park and Prospect Park: Calvert Vaux, was found. Vaux never returned from an early morning walk in 1895. His body was found floating in the water some days later- he was presumed to have fallen and consequentially drowned but some theorize it could have been a suicide.

From the 1890's through the 1950's, Brooklyn Borough Gas produced gas next to the creek. This, in turn, leeched many chemicals and pollutants into the water. Ships in the area were known to stop in the bay to use this especially corrosive mud to scrub their hulls before carrying on.

After getting footage of the area, I am working on creating an at-a-glance infographic of the bay and its history. It will be posted shortly.

Some great reads on the surrounding area and the history:

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Research is well underway.

We have collected data from collections far and wide, ranging from fishing sites, dive boat captains to maritime museums. Many wrecks have undisclosed coordinates in an effort to protect them from destructive treasure hunters and curious folk alike but with some serious digging, we have found access to some intriguing ones. Now with over 700 sets of coordinates, it is time to set my focus on some wrecks that would be fairly easy to reach by foot or drone for preliminary surveys and tests.

Meanwhile, we are also in touch with the New York State Department and the New York State Museum to secure permits for surveys in the NY waterways. Onwards and (hopefully soon) downwards...

Expedition Background

On a cold November night in 1883, a few Fenian men snuck into the a pier in the Canal Basin, using only forged signatures and the cover of night. The men pulled a tugboat in and securely attached the Holland III - a submarine prototype to be used in the fight for Ireland’s independence from Britain. The thieves towed the vessel up the East River before rough waters, high winds and an open gasket secured her fate. The wreck now lies in 110 ft of water off of Queens. It has not yet been recovered.

In 2012, ferocious winds and water of Hurricane Sandy unburied and ripped apart another wreck off of Coney Island. It is thought this is what remains of the 1919 schooner Bessie White, but with such damaged beams, archeologists are still confirming its identification. Searching for these underwater treasures is especially important now - before storms like Sandy become more frequent and accelerate the disappearance or deterioration of these underwater time capsules.

This expedition seeks to uncover and document similar wrecks in and around New York and New Jersey harbors by utilizing open-sourced databases, local historians, maps, trusted contacts and new technology. Any collected data and imagery will be provided free of charge to those interested. In the future, school groups will be invited to use tools and technology to explore identified wrecks from shore as educational excursions. Curriculum and worksheets will be provided.


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