Seahorses swim beneath rows of suspended mangroves. Arched canopies funnel rain water into a large cistern. A flower-shaped solar-paneled device bends toward the sun, harvesting its energy.
Nestled in a nook on Biscayne Bay floats one of the city’s largest science projects: a completely self-sustaining ecological laboratory. This is the CappSci Miami Science Barge.
Inspired by the New York Science Barge, which floats on the Hudson River, the Miami Science Barge was the brainchild of Miami native Nathalie Manzano-Smith and Alissa Farina, her co-worker at CappSci, a private science foundation. The idea, funded in part by the Knight Foundation’s Knight Cities, has been two years in the making. And on Earth Day, this Friday, it will finally be open to the public.
While the New York Science Barge’s goal is to develop urban agriculture, the crew behind the Miami Science Barge wants to get locals excited about the ocean— which, despite surrounding and shaping the city, remains inaccessible to many. Preserving and protecting our oceans depends on people feeling connected to and caring about the waterways, Manzano-Smith stresses.
“It’s amazing to us that kids who live four miles away from the beach have never been on the water,” Manzano-Smith said. “How can you feel passionate about something you don’t know or understand?”
Manzano-Smith hopes the barge will also teach the public about environmental sustainability since it functions completely off the grid.
Forty-eight solar panels flank either side of the 120 foot by 30 foot barge, collecting the solar energy to power it. Each panel can store up to 25 kilowatts of solar energy. Usually the barge stores up to 75 kilowatts of energy daily, enough to power an average American home for three days.
At the entrance, white canopies stretched over the top of the barge both provide shade and collect rainwater, which flows into a 900-gallon cistern, where it is filtered and used throughout the barge’s fresh water systems.
Moving past the cistern, a mini-coral nursery demonstrates how scientists at the University of Miami rescue and replant coral in Biscayne Bay. Eventually, the barge crew hopes to actually bring the public out on and into the bay, to one day maybe even help plant coral themselves, all with the goal of teaching locals about the importance of preserving and rescuing coral reefs.
Walking toward the back of the barge, rows of mangroves and seagrass suspended in white containers rest along a wall, while seahorses swim in a tank underneath. This is a saltwater aquaponic system, which means that it’s entirely soil-less and runs on the self-contained water filtration — mimicking the natural ecosystem. The plants get their nutrients from the seahorse waste (their poop and pee) and then filter clean water back into the tank for the adorable little animals to swim/gallop in.
Just across the way, atop a solar-paneled dance floor (because Miami), rows of herbs and plants like arugula, swiss chard, and beet greens grow in a suspended nutrient-rich film. Lining the back wall of the barge, onions, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and basil grow in potted soil containers.
The leafy greens receive their nutrients from the waste of tilapia and crayfish, which swim in a large container next to the plants. This is known as a freshwater aquaponic system. Once the plants get big enough, Manzano-Smith hopes to be able to harvest and share the plants with visitors.
Just across from this freshwater system, a few dozen native fish called cobia swim in a saltwater marine aquaculture system. This is aimed to be a small-scale demonstration of how fish can be cultivated sustainably. The waste products from the cobia are then filtered through a constructed wetlands — a system made up of wetland vegetation like mangroves, grasses, sand, and limestone — which lines the back wall of the barge. The water evaporates while the nutrients left behind feed the plants, mimicking the way the cycle unfolds the Everglades.
All of the systems are interlinked by a centralized power and water source — much like our modern world. And so, teaching the community about how the barge functions, can serve as an example of how people might live more sustainably on land, too.
The barge is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., every week, from Tuesday through Sunday for a suggested donation of $5 dollars.