New Yorkers, Meet the Neighbors You Never Knew You Had

A public photography exhibit at Brooklyn Bridge Park introduces city dwellers to the amazing marine life of the New York Bight.

Ocean sunfish (Mola mola) 30 nautical miles off Montauk Point, New York

© Keith Ellenbogen/Commissioned by WCS’s New York Aquarium

With its view across the East River, Brooklyn Bridge Park is an ideal place to admire the Manhattan skyline and the urban culture it represents. But a new public art exhibit now refocuses the attention of passersby from the thriving city rising above the water to the life teeming below the surface.

At the foot of the iconic bridge, a display spanning 350 feet features 50 large photographs by underwater photographer Keith Ellenbogen. Balletic blue sharks, flying fish, and hot-pink wine glass hydroids invite throngs of New Yorkers to stop and stare. If you told the average Brooklynite that a loggerhead sea turtle was a fellow local, he’d probably say, fuhgeddaboudit. But Ellenbogen, working in conjunction with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium, did, in fact, capture all of these creatures on film mere miles from the exhibition.

The 16,000 square miles of water between Cape May, New Jersey, and Montauk, New York, is called the New York Bight, and it’s home to a staggering 338 species of fish, 40 types of sharks and rays, 4 of the world’s 7 species of sea turtle, and at least 7 species of whale, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale. This vibrant, productive ecosystem, however, is news to many East Coasters.

“There are 22 million people living along the coast from Cape May to New York. And yet, I think compared to most other major, world-class, ocean-based cities, people here just don’t relate to the ocean very well,” says Merry Camhi, director of WCS’s New York Seascape program.

The bight owes its biodiversity to its unique characteristics. First, the region has one of the largest temperature fluctuations of any marine ecosystem on earth, with surface temps varying by as much as 45 degrees Fahrenheit between the summer and winter months. There’s something here for everyone. Cold-water fish such as Atlantic cod and colorful tropical wanderers like mahi-mahi all swim these waters, with many, like the American eel, simply passing through during their migrations.

Northern red anemone (Urticina feline) 10 nautical miles southeast of Coney Island, New York

© Keith Ellenbogen/Commissioned by WCS’s New York Aquarium.

Then there’s the Hudson Canyon, which is about the size of the Grand Canyon―only a lot wetter. As the largest of the 14 submarine canyons along the Atlantic Coast, it provides habitat for deep-sea corals and sponges and an overwintering area for species like summer flounder and black sea bass.

Pair all this life with some of the busiest commercial waters in the world, and you’ve got a recipe for much-needed conservation. But, as Camhi says, “It’s hard to ask people to become a constituency for their local ocean if they have no idea what’s here.”

That’s where Ellenbogen comes in. The WCS teamed up with the award-winning photographer to help raise public awareness and, hopefully, foster a long-term relationship between the turf and the surf. Camhi thinks of these pictures as “getting to know your local neighbors.”

Ellenbogen, a senior fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers and a fellow at the Explorers Club, has been on dives all over the world—from Kiribati to the Amazon River to the Mediterranean—capturing images of wildlife that most humans will never see in person. Even with those experiences under his belt, he still waxes poetic about New York’s marine ecosystem with an enthusiasm that’s contagious. He also lists the sea off New York and New Jersey as one of the most challenging to work in.

The same qualities that make these waters so biodiverse also make for tricky photographic conditions. The nutrient-dense water creates poor visibility, and the migratory nature of many species makes them hard to track down. So far, Ellenbogen has spent more than 500 hours in the water working on the project, including a three-year-long search for a seahorse. The job is a bit like finding needles in a haystack.

Lined seahorse (Hippocampus erectus) drifting with blades of seagrass 20 nautical miles south of Shinnecock Bay, New York

© Keith Ellenbogen/Commissioned by WCS’s New York Aquarium

“You need a lot of days in the field,” Ellenbogen says. “You hope for just a few of those magical days where you can get just the right frame—where the animal and the behavior all line up and you’re able to get something that really is spectacular.”

Ellenbogen has more New York dives in his future, and the Underwater Wildlife New York exhibit will continue to surface (a coffee table­–style book is in the works). But the timing of the current exhibit was carefully planned. It opened on April 22 and is in full swing today, World Oceans Day, as representatives from around the world descend on New York’s United Nations headquarters for an Ocean Conference on the theme “Our Oceans, Our Future.” The project’s partners thought it was important to offer local context for that global discussion.

“There are a lot of places this could have been, but this was a meaningful location for us,” Ellenbogen says. Brooklyn Bridge Park “is free to the public and easy for lots of people to access . . . That kind of engagement of this local area is the thing that’s most exciting to us.”

Camhi agrees. “People who grow up in New York and live here their whole life haven’t heard of Hudson Canyon,” she says. “People are so taken by surprise and moved. Our challenge is to capture that excitement and then figure out how to continue to engage them in local conservation.”

Out of sight, out of mind no longer.

Underwater Wildlife New York will be on view at Brooklyn Bridge Park through June 14.

Flying fish (family Exocoetidae) 100 nautical miles southeast of Fire Island, New York

© Keith Ellenbogen/Commissioned by WCS’s New York Aquarium


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

Josh Keyes’s images of graffitied wilderness reflect a profound sense of environmental anxiety.

onEarth Story

Hannah Rothstein’s grim tourism posters are a call to action, in a time when the president is pillaging our public lands.

onEarth Story

Biologist and writer David George Haskell discusses his new book, The Songs of Trees, and the importance of tuning in.

onEarth Story

This tattoo studio is responding to Trump’s attacks on people and the planet with body art.

onEarth Story

High-school students share their experiences of the city’s water crisis in this powerful art installation.

onEarth Story

“Awful,” says writer and painter Ben Shattuck―but in the good way.

Join Us