Three hour harbor tour

Thalatta, thalatta! cried Xenophon’s Greeks when, after a long struggle, they finally saw the Black Sea again. (In modern Greek, it’s thalasssa, thalassa, the sea, the sea!) I often think of this rejoicing when I see the water. Like the Aegean, another cradle of civilizations, New York City is an archipelago, with almost all of us New Yorkers living within a few miles of the enormous estuary that surrounds us. Hemmed in by buildings, and with much of the waterfront fenced off, it’s easy to forget this, but “Right and left, the streets take you waterward,” as Ismael sighs at the beginning of Moby Dick.

I find it nigh impossible to turn down an opportunity to be on the water, even in February, so last Sunday, we went on the American Princess seal tour. The boat leaves from Riis Landing next to the Marine Parkway Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge, which connects Brooklyn with Queen’s Rockaway Peninsula. The bridge’s south tower has long been host to a peregrine nest, or scrape. It being that time of year, both birds could be seen, at the scrape, flying around it, and even, at one point, mating in a quick flurry of flapping wings.
Our boat went west through Jamaica Bay past Coney Island. We cut across the Ambrose Channel, the artery of the port, much to the annoyance of a full-laden container ship heading into the harbor. We saw many ducks: American wigeon, American black, greater scaup, red-breasted merganser, and especially bufflehead and long-tailed. Common loon, horned grebe, and both the double-crested and at least one juvenile great cormorant were also focused in our binoculars. Our three standard species of gulls, great black-backed, herring, and ring-billed, were also much in evidence.
The harbor seals themselves were hanging around Swinburne Island. The NY Aquarium rep on board counted ten for the seal census they are conducting, but not a one of the slippery mammals was hauled out on the rocks, where they often like to loll about like beached blubber torpedoes. Swinburne is one of two small man-made islands south of the Verrazano Bridge off Staten Island. It is tiny (2.5 acres) and crowded with a trio of brick ruins, real fixer-uppers. It’s named after the man who oversaw the island’s construction and was once home to a small isolation hospital and crematorium. I don’t know if the existing chimney there was part of the crematorium, but it’s now a peregrine perch; one landed on it as we rounded the island, and was still there when we returned past later in the cruise. A couple members of the crew said that they frequently saw the raptor there.
The larger Hoffman Island was named after one of our innumerable and mostly forgettable mayors, who was later an equally unmemorable state governor. Larger than Swinburne at 11 acres, Hoffman was used as quarantine station for immigrants, a Merchant Marine training center, and the anchorage for an antisubmarine net across the harbor in the days of yore. Like Swinburne, it’s now a bird nesting sanctuary and off-limits to pedestrians. We saw a red-tailed hawk above the nest-ridden trees, in addition to Canada geese and many of the black-backed and herring gulls.
We then went up towards the Staten Island tower of the Verrazano to see what was hugging the shore south of Fort Wadsworth. Numerous ducks, as it turned out, digging the cold water, and a few more seals. The trip was longer than scheduled, so we really got the “three hour tour,” minus the Professor and Mary Ann. The weather was sunny, the water fairly calm, the day absolutely gorgeous. There was an edge to the wind, but the sun warmed us through and through.

4 Responses to “Three hour harbor tour”


  1. 1 Out Walking the Dog February 9, 2011 at 9:39 am

    Wonderful! Since I discovered the existence of the American Princess tours just recently, I’ve been thinking about actually taking one. You know, they were seeing whales just a couple of weeks ago as well as the seals. Love the peregrine on the chimney. I’ve seen a photo of a peregrine on the Statue of Liberty. Interesting that they head out into the harbor so freely. Glad you got out there before the return of icy temperatures.

    • 2 mthew February 9, 2011 at 9:52 am

      I definitely recommend the tour. It’s $24, which seems reasonable. BTW, peregrines used to be commonly known as “duck hawks,” so finding them “on” the water isn’t unusual. The famous scrape at 55 Water St., looks out over the East River. (Most of our eastern peregrines are genetic mixes since Falco peregrinus anatum, the regional subspecies, was made extinct by DDT.)


  1. 1 Beach CSI « Backyard and Beyond Trackback on March 28, 2011 at 7:59 am
  2. 2 Shifting baselines « Backyard and Beyond Trackback on April 15, 2011 at 8:40 am

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