On a blustery day in June, I stood in a park that abuts the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait between New York’s Staten Island and New Jersey. (The name is an Anglicisation of achter kille, used by Dutch colonists to refer to the water channel “behind” the island.) The grey sky portended rain; a cold offshore wind rustled the reeds lining the shore. My guide, John Pagani, and I walked down a steep dirt incline, shouldered on both sides by crabgrass. The outer perimeter of the beach was covered in detritus. The crunchy garbage gave way to wet, hard, hazelnut-coloured sand that bent to the green water laving against the shore. Just a few feet out, the water was opaque.
A white-haired man stood on the dock and watched us with curiosity. He was smoking a cigar, and the white smoke swirled around his handlebar moustache. He was not the only one curious about why I would willingly enter this polluted commercial waterway, located between New Jersey’s Chemical Coast—an industrial belt notorious for repeated environmental disasters—and Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill, which was once the largest in the world. My friends and family had given me similar looks when I told them about my plans.
The answer to that question lay lodged in the muck, about five kilometres upriver. Just south of Fresh Kills lies the Staten Island Boat Graveyard, a marine scrapyard with over a hundred sunken or partially submerged civilian and military ships. Some refer to it as an accidental maritime museum. Many of the ships have been lodged into the shoreline for decades, and they all took a beating during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I wanted to see them—particularly one, a forgotten ship from the Second World War—before they disappeared into the mud forever or collapsed on themselves. I had to use a kayak because the scrapyard’s owner, Donjon Marine Company, forbids tourists from traversing its property to view the ships.