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In the hamlet of Hampton Bays on Long Island’s south shore, a 2812-foot-long bridge spans the Shinnecock Bay. This bridge is made of concrete, rises to a height of 55 feet and was constructed in 1986 at a cost of $14million. This modern bridge was designed to replace the original Ponquogue bridge, a 1000 foot long wooden drawbridge built in 1930.
Text and Photography by Michael Salvarezza and Christopher Weaver (Eco-Photo Explorers)
With the construction of the new bridge, much of the original bridge was taken down. However, two sections, one on the north side of the bay and one on the south, were left intact as fishing piers. It is beneath these piers, and specifically the southern section, where SCUBA divers find an underwater paradise.
In the almost 90 years since its original construction, the wooden pilings and posts of the bridge have become home to innumerable marine creatures. One of the healthiest marine ecosystems along the entire shoreline of Long Island exists beneath this wooden section of bridge. Clusters of anemones, carpets of shellfish and layers of encrusting sponges cover the bridge structures to the water line, while crustaceans and large schools of fish find the bridge a safe place to live.
The stretch of marine landscape that the bridge covers is subject to swift and dangerous currents and tidal flows. While it is imperative that divers plan their dives accordingly, this water flow often provides clean and clear ocean water with great visibility.
A dive on the old Ponquogue Bridge often begins on the shore along the east side of the bridge. From here, divers make their way alongside the roadside buttresses until they reach the start of the bridge’s span. The water drops off quickly and in moments divers find themselves in 35-40 feet of water. With good visibility, navigation of the bridge underwater is easy as divers swim from piling to piling. Once divers reach the end of the bridge section, it is time to turn around. A protected marine park area covers the waters under the bridge but not beyond into the boat channel. And if the current should begin to tug at the diver, the dive must be terminated as the tidal changes are swift and the resulting currents can be impossible to manage.
Because of its proximity to the open Atlantic Ocean, the Ponquogue Bridge is home to myriad marine life. In the late summer and autumn months, tropical fish that have been swept north in the Gulf Stream show up here, looking for a respite and wondering how to get back home. Butterflyfish, Angelfish, Triggerfish and Grouper have all been observed under the bridge. Lucky divers will even occasionally find seahorses poking along the bottom beneath the bridge. Indeed, each season, fish collecting teams from Marine Aquariums around the country come here to capture these fish for their collections. Once the cold weather sets in, these fish will die so this collecting of fish is a way to save their lives.
Several years ago, the town of Southampton declared the bridge obsolete and dangerous due to its deteriorating condition. Years of neglect and damage inflicted by winter storms and, significantly, from Superstorm Sandy made the bridge unsafe.
Plans were drawn up to dismantle the bridge. Destroying the Old Ponquogue Bridge would have removed one of Long Island’s best dive sites and decimated an otherwise healthy marine ecosystem.
The Long Island Diver’s Association (LIDA), led by Barry Lipsky, decided to act. Contact was made with Town of Southampton officials to learn more about the reasons for demolishing the bridge. Several LIDA members appeared before town officials at a public meeting to describe the underwater habitat, the value of the dive location to the local dive industry and the Long Island economy. Other interested constituencies, such as the local fishing community, joined the effort.
The concerted and sustained effort to work with the town to find alternatives paid off: the bridge removal effort was subsequently abandoned and, instead, it was decided that repairs would be made to the bridge to make it safe once again.
A construction company was contracted and work began shortly thereafter to inspect the integrity of the underwater pilings and to repair and resurface the above water portion of the bridge.
The reconstruction project was launched in December, 2017, five years after Superstorm Sandy struck the region. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) approved the $2 million project and the town was reimbursed for the renovation.
A new sustainable deck and handrail, new bulkhead, new recreational access ramps, improved access were all part of the renovations.
On September 29, 2019, almost two years after the start of the project, the bridge was officially re-opened to SCUBA diving with a unique ceremony. Under a clear blue sky and with a freshening easterly breeze, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman joined a group of LIDA members on a dive beneath the bridge to conduct a formal ribbon cutting ceremony.
The dive was timed to coincide with slack water after high tide, as is customary at this site, to avoid the strong currents that flow at other times. Unfortunately, the wind and waves, along with limited visibility, conspired to create some challenging conditions. But the divers persevered, and Jay Schneiderman proved up to the task as the team descended beneath the bridge, unfurled an official grand re-opening ribbon and with a snip of a giant pair of scissors by Schneiderman, the bridge was once again open for diving!
As if on cue, four Yellow Butterfly Fish swam by, giving Jay Schneiderman a peek at why this eco-system is so special. Other local marine life could also be seen, including shellfish beds, Horseshoe crabs, and other small crustaceans and fish.
After exiting the water, smiles were plentiful and the satisfaction of knowing that a precious dive site, a healthy ecosystem and a valuable local resource was preserved for current and future divers. In the end, the renovation of the Old Ponquogue Bridge is a success story in the effort to preserve the best of Long Island and serves as an example for how local government and concerned citizens can work together to resolve problems and challenges.
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