Just 100 miles southeast of the Statue of Liberty is a natural wonder few New Yorkers know about — because it's underwater.
Formed during the last ice age 10,000 years ago, the Hudson Canyon is basically the Grand Canyon, only under about 60 feet of ocean. The East Coast’s biggest submarine canyon is so deep — estimated to be about a mile — that we don’t actually know much about what’s at the bottom of it. But researchers are finding out more as they build the New York Aquarium’s Ocean Wonders: Sharks! expansion, now set for a 2018 debut.
“If you can imagine that massive, majestic canyon with an entire panoply of marine life and ecology, a great marker for migration up and down the coast, and a tremendous feature for fishing and shipping of all kinds, that’s our canyon, that’s New Yorkers’ canyon,” says Jon Forrest Dohlin, vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society and director of the aquarium in Coney Island.
When it opens, the boundaries of the aquarium will push past the Coney Island Boardwalk all the way into the sea, adding 750,000 gallons of displays that take visitors inside a shipwreck (there are 60 known sunken vessels off the NYC coast), a rooftop restaurant serving sustainable seafood and drinks, and a coral reef tunnel.
The largest of the new exhibits will be Canyon’s Edge, “which is a recreation of what it would be like to sit on the edge of the Hudson Canyon, where it drops off,” Dohlin says. It’s there that a unique phenomenon takes place: an upwelling of cold water from the sea floor mixes with warmer surface currents to create a biodiversity hotspot that’s home to, and supports, hundreds of species from plankton to turtles, sharks, whales and birds. In the exhibit, visitors will be able to watch this mixing of currents as if they were sitting right beneath it.
It's also a site that could be exploited for more than scientific research, which is why a coalition of local businesses, politicians and organizations including WCS has nominated the Hudson Canyon as a National Marine Sanctuary, which would permanently ban oil and gas exploration and its associated risks. President Barack Obama’s recent executive order banning oil and gas exploration in the Arctic and along the Atlantic coast was welcome news, though the incoming administration could seek to challenge it.
Much of what’s known about the canyon comes from monitoring whales, fragile deep-sea coral and migratory patterns along the coast. “To actually delve into the canyon, that’s going to take the resources that will be brought to bear by the sanctuary designation,” he says.
What it wouldn’t do is stop existing commercial and recreational fishing that happens at the edges of the canyon, “and that’s a good thing because we want New Yorkers to be connected to their ocean environment,” he says. “With the nomination, we are saying to the government that we believe this is a cultural, ecological and economically important location on the Atlantic Coast that needs to be protected.”
To support the WCS’ petition, go to blueyork.org