Hunts Point teen selected for week-long ocean research expedition

Ethan Cruz, left, in the Rocking the Boat workshop on March 28, 2024, just days before the expedition to Bermuda departs.
Photo Emily Swanson

Hunts Point native Ethan Cruz has never left New York — but his first big trip, departing tomorrow, will be the adventure of a lifetime. 

Cruz, who researches water quality in the Bronx River for the nonprofit Rocking the Boat, was selected for a week-long scientific research expedition near Bermuda with the North Carolina-based organization Plastics Ocean Project. 

Ahead of the expedition, Cruz, 19, sat for an interview with the Bronx Times and said he never could’ve dreamed of this opportunity. 

“I’m just waiting for how many doors open after this,” he said. 

‘High-end science’

Cruz, who attends Bronx Arena High School, said he used to be one of those kids who went straight home after school because he had nothing else to do. But in middle school, he saw a presentation by Rocking the Boat — a unique youth nonprofit with boat building, sailing and environmental science programs — and while he wasn’t familiar with any of those areas, he decided to go for it. 

Cruz said he was first interested in boat building, but he realized he was more into going outside and getting his hands dirty. Now, after about six years with Rocking the Boat, Cruz is more than excited for his first trip out of state, country and land altogether. 

Bonnie Monteleone, director of the Plastic Ocean Project (POP), selected Ethan to join her team aboard the Atlantic Explorer, a four-story research vessel, where they will participate in one of the longest-running ocean research programs in the world. 

Monteleone said Cruz and colleagues will collect and analyze water samples from the North Atlantic Gyre near Bermuda, “a dot in the ocean.” They will be based at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences

Monteleone said that POP’s collaboration (or as she called it, “collabor-ocean”) with other groups across the country brought Rocking the Boat and Ethan Cruz onto her radar. She selected him as the only high schooler on the team consisting of two undergraduate students at University of North Carolina at Wilmington and two POP staffers. 

Together, Monteleone said, they will spend a week onboard the ship alongside other researchers, not just observing but engaging in what she called “high-end science.” 

‘I tend to look at the little things’

With Rocking the Boat, Cruz spends a lot of his time researching some pretty gross bacteria in the Bronx River, called enterrococcus, that indicate raw sewage in the water. It was this research that got him recognized by Monteleon for the Bermuda expedition. 

“All of New York City’s pipes are an old system,” not designed to support the modern-day population, explained Cruz. When it rains, “The treatment plant overflows, pushing everything back out into our river.” 

As a paid research apprentice, it’s his job to monitor those levels in the Bronx River — and he will do similar work aboard the Atlantic Explorer.

What makes Cruz a great researcher?

“I tend to look at the little things,” he said.

Rocking the Boat’s director of environmental science and justice, Lily Mleczko, jumped in to elaborate.

“He’s the first one to reach in a pull out a line in the seaweed farm, even when it looks like the waves are rushing or it’s heavy or something,” Mleczko. “He’s always kind of first to take the lead without being asked, in anything. He’s an excellent mentor for the other apprentices.””

“I’m the oldest one here, so I should have a little more knowledge,” Cruz added with a laugh.

Rocking the Boat is located on prime real estate for the work they do, adjacent to Hunts Point Riverside Park, a small but notable park that is one of few places in the South Bronx with public access to the water. There is plenty for active and curious minds to explore. 

Being an apprentice with Rocking the Boat is pretty intensive, Cruz said. He shows up every Tuesday and Thursday and attends a camp-like program in the summers, and all his hard work is clearly paying off. 

Having already spent six years with the group, Monteleon said that although Cruz may decide against a career in science — he said he wants to be a firefighter — the skills and experience he gains through Rocking the Boat and on the Bermuda trip will likely be life-changing. 

“Once you see a problem, your brain starts thinking about how we can solve it,” she said, and she believes that attitude will become contagious with a leader like Cruz. After all, every career field — and every human activity, period — has an environmental impact.

Cruz said he already sees ways that his unique education at Rocking the Boat has slipped into his daily life. 

“Even when I’m in my house playing with my dog, I’m doing one of those knots Rocking the Boat taught me,” he said. 

Follow the progress of the trip and both organizations on Instagram at and rtbbronx.

Reach Emily Swanson at or (646) 717-0015. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes