Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Urban Oases # 3: Boston Harbor

A view of Boston Harbor on a rainy spring evening in June. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Living or working in the city of Boston it can be pretty easy to take Boston Harbor for granted. We may notice it from time to time while walking to lunch or from the seat of an airplane when landing at Logan Airport, but Boston Harbor is an important place where the natural and man-made worlds intersect. Any student of American history will instantly identify Boston Harbor as the setting for a series of events which were crucial to the success of the American Revolution, but students of environmental history also have much to learn from the different ways that humans have impacted the ecology and even the geography of the harbor.

A few summers ago I had a chance to get out in the harbor on a sailboat on a day trip to one of the Boston Harbor Islands, specifically Grape Island. My trip started out on a clear morning with blue skies and a light breeze. Leaving from the Community Boating docks we passed under a bridge and then out through a series of locks and into the harbor. Aside from some choppy water for part of the trip our voyage to Grape Island was calm and enjoyable, and during a picnic on the island I was lucky enough to spot a fox. On the trip back, however, the wind and the traffic on the water picked up considerably and I spent 6 bone-chilling hours hanging off the back of the sailboat taking wave after wave of freezing salt water in the face as I watched out for lobster pots navigational buoys and other boats ranging from small sailboats to tankers. Suffice it to say, everyone made it back safely and it was a memorable experience.

As this photo shows, Boston Harbor is a place where various elements, both modern and old, man-made and natural, all intersect. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
Boston Harbor is in fairly good shape these days, ecologically speaking, but this was definitely not always the case. In fact at one time the water was quite polluted. As the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority notes in an online history of water quality in the harbor:

"For over one hundred years, the disposal of the daily waste of Boston and its surrounding communities got only limited treatment before being dumped right into the harbor."

Pretty unsettling stuff if you ask me, but fortunately things have changed significantly since people began to pay attention to the incredibly negative impact that the improper treatment of sewage was having on the Boston Harbor ecosystem.Today the harbor is much cleaner and a popular departure point for sight-seeing cruises and whale watches. The New England Aquarium has also played a vital role in advocating for the clean-up of the marine environment in and around the harbor, and continues to offer educational resources to help the general public learn more about the importance of protecting and preserving the marine environment.

I plan to return to some of the harbor Islands this summer, and when I do you can be sure you'll read about it here on New England Nature Notes.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

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