Urban Oceanographer: Scuba Diving in Newark Bay

My good friend and colleague, Professor Richard (Dick) Hires loves ocean field work. It doesn’t matter what the weather or ocean conditions are, and it doesn’t matter what we’re doing. It’s always good, and always interesting to Dick. Which means it’s always good and always interesting to those of us who’ve accompanied Dick. One such time, back in the mid 90’s, always comes to mind when I try to explain to people why there really is nothing like ocean fieldwork in NY Harbor.

We begin with the age-old debate of when is a good time to throw away old, reliable instrumentation and adopt new technology. Although Stevens Institute had purchased acoustic and electro-magnetic current meters by this time, Professor Hires just couldn’t part with his trusty old Aanderaa recording current meter, which was probably close to 20 years old at the time. So, per Dick’s instructions, the team dutifully deployed the current meter at the center of Newark Bay, a primary water body that empties into the Upper New York Bay via the Kill van Kull and the Lower Bay via the Arthur Kill. Newark Bay is also home to much of Port Newark and Port Elizabeth, two of the busiest components of the Port of New York and New Jersey.

A week or so later, upon returning to the site of the current meter deployment, the acoustic release failed to activate the float (no surprise) and we were unable to retrieve the instrument.

At this point, rational minds play through a number of retrieval scenarios – all unlikely – and balance those scenarios with the value of the instrument – it should have been in a museum – and come up with the only logical conclusion: let’s go home to Hoboken and plan our next deployment.

Nope, Professor Hires and that Aanderaa were inseparable and so we headed home to make a plan to find the instrument, now moored somewhere on the bottom of the channel in Newark Bay.

It turned out, one of my graduate students at the time, Walter McKenna, was also a commercial diver, and a big fan of Professor Hires’. So Walter volunteered to make a surface-supplied air dive in the middle of Newark Bay to search for that beloved current meter.

A week later, the team went out, Walter donned his gear, and proceeded to walk along the bottom of Newark Bay, in zero visibility and difficult currents. But Walter wasn’t coming back up without that instrument, and so he proceeded to conduct an expanding square search pattern, with his eyes closed (to avoid vertigo as a result of the onrushing suspended sediment) and his hands held out in front of him. What he found first was a bit of a surprise.

Walter felt something solid, metallic. “Cool”, he thought, “I found it”. Until further tactile observation indicated that this wasn’t the current meter. It was a handle. In fact, it was the handle to a car door. And there was an entire car attached to it!  Right there, in the middle of Newark Bay, certainly more than a half mile from shore.

Undaunted, Walter made the logical decision to walk away from the car without further investigation. Within another 20 minutes, Walter ran into something else – the current meter. He proudly returned to a relieved crew and an ecstatic Professor Hires with the Aanderaa in his hands.

That Aanderaa is still resident in the Lab at Stevens. But its last adventure out in the water was that fateful day approximately 15 years ago when it shared a temporary address at the bottom of Newark Bay with a wayward automobile.

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One Response to Urban Oceanographer: Scuba Diving in Newark Bay

  1. philiporton says:

    Great post! Incidentally, I stumbled across a page with a list of items salvaged from the bottom of NYC-area waters, at the blog Underwater New York:

    http://underwaternewyork.com/objects/

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