Jamaica Bay: “The Jewel of New York Harbor”

Did you know that New York City’s Harbor includes 23 National Parks? Even most New Yorkers are not aware of this! The New York Harbor Conservancy spreads the environmental word on their harbor tour called “Naturally New York.”

Mother and son use their binoculars looking out onto Jamaica Bay's Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Beth Simmons.

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.”

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.

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.

Jamaica Bay: “The Jewel of the New York Harbor”