One recent afternoon, I stood on a dock leaning out into the Gowanus Canal with three locals armed with long sticks and plastic bags, hoping to catch a jellyfish in the high tide.
I first became intrigued by the notion of a Gowanus jelly when someone forwarded me a picture that a local resident and environmental planner, Eymund Diegel, had taken of a catch that he and his daughter Amara Diegel, 8, had made a few weeks before.
It was a lion’s mane jelly – the same species that terrorized a New Hampshire beach this week, only smaller, about the size of Mr. Diegel’s hand, in a glass vase surrounded by a pair of wide-eyed local kids.
When I contacted Mr. Diegel about taking me along with him, he sent the following hypothetical instructions:
1. Get long rusty pole out of Gowanus Dumpster.Originally a tidal pool with water originating from the mouth of the Gowanus Bay, the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn had long been fetid from more than a century of toxic dumping and sewage from a variety of industrial operations along its banks.
2. Unhook plastic shopping bag snagged on barbed wire fence and tie to pole.
3. Hold daughter (to avoid falling in sludge) and scoop up passing jelly fish with urban forager hunting device.
4. Put in jar, and stare at pulsating movement. Show to playmates for “cool” factor.
But the modern emergence of a cleaner East River combined with the reactivation of the “flushing tunnel” —built in 1911 to flush water from the Buttermilk Channel through the canal, and down towards the Bay — meant not just a less smelly Gowanus in recent years, but also the growing presence of marine life, including killifish, microplankton and jellies. Folks were so enthusiastic about the improvements, some even went fishing in it.
The afternoon that we met up for our jelly expedition, Eymund Diegel arrived with Amara, 8, and her friend Alita Gaulot, 7, plus two long sticks from his backyard, and a giant glass jar. Though it was more than 90 degrees, the canal was surprisingly odor-free.
At the Second Street boat dock, four teenagers left when they saw us approaching. The high tide was still pushing the water north, but soon it would reverse and be the optimal time to catch jellies. The water was surprisingly clear close to the banks, and I spotted a few crab bodies (deceased) and some floating plankton. Mr. Diegel spied a rat running under the eroded cement bulkhead, hollowed out by the tide.
The dock, with a railing and ladder descending into the canal, making it resemble the end of a swimming pool, was submerged in about 4 inches of cleanish-looking water. The girls were allowed to put their feet in, but their entreaties to go swimming were denied.
“The top layer is fine—it’s East River water—but I don’t trust what’s six feet below,” said Mr. Diegel. He turned to the girls, who were already standing ankle-deep in the water getting their plastic bags ready. “And when we get home, we’re hosing your feet off.”
Mr. Diegel had previously collected Gowanus water samples for a P.S. 29 science fair where a group of students were eager to study it under microscopes. Mr. Diegel said, “The kids were disappointed there wasn’t anything really bad in there.”
Growing up in Queens, where we often drove across a particularly polluted part of Flushing Bay on the Van Wyck Expressway, prompting furious manual hand-crankings of the car windows shut, the first time I smelled the Gowanus, I was immediately brought back to my childhood borough. So here I was, some years later, standing in the tidal waters of the Gowanus Canal, surprised that my own desire to see a creature I’m normally leery of encountering in the ocean outweighed the reputed yuck-factor of the surroundings.
Suddenly, Amara started shouting “Look! Look!” and then both girls were pointing and yelling, and Mr. Diegel began stirring the water with a long stick.
Several feet out into the Gowanus was a tiny shimmery blob, about the size of a nickel, moving in the water like an infant’s heartbeat, pushed along by the tide.
Mr. Diegel’s method of methodical, counter-clock-wise stirring soon brought the tiny jelly within arms’ reach.
“I got it!” Alita called out, before reaching in with a grocery bag.
Back on land, where an elderly gentleman had quietly set up a net and a cooler (“Killifish,” he explained), we distributed the baby jelly into the glass jar with plenty of Gowanus water and a piece of kelp Mr. Diegel had fished out of the canal.
Jellyfish are edible, and served cold in Chinese restaurants. They are not my favorite food, with a texture and flavor rather like that of rubber bands, but even if I enjoyed them, I was not going to eat anything from the Gowanus. As we stirred the water—jellies need perpetual motion—the creature we named “Baby Jello” alternated between gliding flat in the current like a fried egg and bunching up like a French cruller.
Like the jelly Mr. Diegel and his partners discovered before, Baby Jello is a lion’s mane jellyfish that can grow to a giant (the bell can range from 19 inches to nearly 8 feet in diameter), with tentacles that resemble long masses of wig-like hair (sometimes over 100 feet). Its sting can be fatal, which inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane.” But as we stared at the jelly pulsating in the jar, it was hard to imagine that such a tiny translucent creature, with its wee orangy-red-center that upside-down rather resembled the shredded topping on Chinese shumai, could grow up to be a killer.
Despite being seasoned Gowanus jelly catchers (this was Amara’s third and Alita’s second jelly), both girls were excited about their catch.
“This was the best because it’s rare to find a baby,” said Alita. Amara agreed.
Jellies like this may become rarer for the next few years with last week’s closing of the flushing tunnel for repairs, but we weren’t thinking about this as we carried the tiny creature to the Proteus Gowanus artspace near the Union Street bridge. That evening, Baby Jello became the temporary mascot of their show “Transport,” before later being released back to its watery home, where I imagined it would make its way down to the Gowanus Bay, and eventually, I hoped, out to the Atlantic Ocean.