Come aboard the Miami Science Barge

The CappSci Miami Science Barge was the lone Miami winner of the Knight Cities Challenge, and woo boy, are we excited about it. We spoke with Nathalie Manzano-Smith, director of innovation at CappSci, to learn more about this floating lab and interactive exhibit that’s going to help Miamians experience Biscayne Bay in entirely new ways.

The O.G. Science Barge currently floats in the Hudson River in New York, and it was the brainchild of Ted Caplow, CappSci’s C.E.O. and co-founder. Manzano-Smith, a native Miamian who recently returned home after several years in New York, went to check out the boss’s old floating grounds in Yonkers in September. The New York barge is aimed at educating about sustainability and urban agriculture, but Manzano-Smith saw potential for a similar setup with a very different mission in Miami — teaching people about marine science and Biscayne Bay.

“Something that really stuck out to me is that they were in process of closing it down for the winter because of weather,” she said. “They had all these great resources and programs and activities, but it’s only active for part of the year. I knew in Miami we could do it year-round, and we could develop a marine science and sustainability angle that’s true to Miami and is going to make a big impact here.”

With Caplow’s go-ahead and help from CappSci Innovation Associate Alissa Farina, Manzano-Smith started floating the idea for a Miami Science Barge with potential partners and got a proposal together for the Knight Cities Challenge in November. They haven’t stopped since.

Now that they’ve won the Challenge, there’s still a barge to buy, permitting to manage, and a lot more preparation to get it operational. Manzano-Smith says they’re still aiming to open in early 2016. One big hurdle has been finding their dream barge. “It was a surprise to me that there just aren’t a lot of barges in Miami,” Manzano-Smith said, laughing. “It’s not like you get to go onto the barge lot and say, ‘I’ll take the nicest one you’ve got, please’.”

The Miami Science Barge will be a 120 foot x 130 foot floating piece of steel, chock full of tech innovation, green education, sea critters, and of course, science. The plan is to station it near Museum Park, but permitting will play a role in where it lands.

“We’ll have a water-level platform where people can walk out and get their feet wet and test water quality,” Manzano-Smith said. “We’ll have these cool underwater robots that we can use to rove around the bottom of Biscayne Bay and see what’s under there.” They’re also planning educational programming, aquaculture, and conservation efforts for coral and seagrass — all powered by solar, wind and biofuels.

Of particular interest are aquaculture initiatives, which include a seahorse nursery (They’re native to the Bay.), a plan to grow mahi and pompano, and an experiment to revive once plentiful, but now non-existent Biscayne Bay oysters. “I can’t imagine how meaningful that will be to people here, like me, who didn’t realize how far we’ve let the Bay environment go, and that we can reclaim it,” Manzano-Smith said.

None of it would happen without strong collaboration — organized in a hurry — but with deeply invested community partners, she said. “We’re still looking for partners,” she said. “This is all happening really fast, and we need all the help we can get to make it work.” So far, though, the list of partners on the barge, other than their funding partner, the Knight Foundation, is impressive:

As for Manzano-Smith, she’s ebullient about the project, and about its future in her city. “There’s not that many opportunities anywhere else, in any other city but Miami really, where you can build something from the ground up like this and have a lasting impact on the city,” she said. “I am really excited to be a part of that.”