Prince William Makes First Appearance of New York City Trip — Find Out Why He Waded in the East River

The Prince of Wales is on a two-day mission to New York, where he will meet fellow conservation leaders, philanthropists and businesspeople

<p>Peter Byrne/PA Wire via ZUMA Press</p> Prince William visits New York City on Sept. 18, 2023

Peter Byrne/PA Wire via ZUMA Press

Prince William visits New York City on Sept. 18, 2023

Prince William is stepping out in New York City for his environmental mission.

On Monday, the Prince of Wales began his two-day visit to the city, where he hopes to further enhance his campaign for the planet.

William, 41, will take part in some top-level lobbying, meet fellow environmentalists and philanthropists and business leaders. He will also be promoting his Earthshot Prize, which seeks to garner what the prince calls "urgent optimism" as it finds solutions to solve the planet's crises.

The centerpiece of his visit is set to be the Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit on Tuesday, when Prince William will join forces with other supporters of his environmental honor, including Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador to Australia. Also among the speakers and special guests will be former New Zealand Prime Minister Dame Jacinda Ardern and José Andrés, Chef and Founder of World Central Kitchen (who has also worked with William's brother Prince Harry and Meghan Markle).

Related: Why Kate Middleton Isn't Joining Prince William on His New York City Trip

On Monday, Prince William arrived by commercial flight to Newark airport. In a statement shared by Kensington Palace, he said, "It’s so good to be back in United States. No one does optimism and ingenuity like the American people, so it’s only right we unveil this year's Earthshot finalists in New York City."

He continued, "Eighty years ago, the world came together in this great city to find a new way, through the UN, to solve our shared challenges. I know our generation can take the bold action we need to make changes towards a healthy and sustainable world. The challenge may feel huge, but as John F. Kennedy taught us, we rise to the challenge not because it is easy, but because it is hard. And vital."

His first stop in the Big Apple was to see an innovative project that is helping revitalize the waterways around the city.

The Billion Oyster Project is a nonprofit working to restore oyster reefs to New York Harbor through public education initiatives. The reefs, which once flourished in New York Harbor, provide a habitat for many marine species, filter water and help shield New York City shorelines from storm damage. Since 2014, the Billion Oyster Project has introduced 122 million oysters across more than 19 acres of the Harbor, with the help of more than 11,000 students and nearly 15,000 volunteers.

Prince William met Pete Malinowski, Executive Director of the project, and was taken by boat to Governors Island, where he was introduced to volunteers, students and restauranteurs involved in the project. He also saw an oyster hatchery and a pile of oyster shells that have been donated by Manhattan restaurants that are used to help restore the oyster reefs.

Speaking with some people cleaning the oyster pile, William said: “When it’s dry with nice weather, it must be quite therapeutic.”

The royal even sported waders and a baseball cap as he made his way into the water with the Manhattan skyline as the backdrop.

Prince William interacted with children from Harbor Middle School, who had no idea who their surprise guest at the event would be until shortly before. One girl said she guessed it might be "the mayor" because their teacher told them it was someone "very important."

<p>Cindy Ord/Getty</p> Prince William visits New York City on Sept. 18, 2023

Cindy Ord/Getty

Prince William visits New York City on Sept. 18, 2023

"It was a lot more comfortable than I anticipated," Lynn Shon, a science, technology, engineering, art and math teacher at Harbor Middle School tells PEOPLE. "I think some of my students were really nervous about it, and some of them were more comfortable. By the time they were all handling the oysters and showing the prince all the critters in the tank, they felt more comfortable." 

"Seeing my students teach a prince, someone who has so much knowledge and exposure and awareness of what's happening in the world, sharing their knowledge with him was really special," Shon adds.

"He was just super nice," Zelda de Zayas, a 12-year-old at Harbor Middle School tells PEOPLE. "I don't know what I was expecting honestly, but it was very sweet and he loved to learn. 

"He just wanted to learn everything," de Zayas adds. "We taught him how to measure the oysters, we showed him what the different creatures were and more about how oysters help biodiversity in the harbor."

"Actually we found out today after school," de Zayas says. "We knew this was gonna be happening, but Ms. Shon was keeping the special guest a secret for the element of surprise. We were all super excited and super shocked. We had no idea!"

<p>Cindy Ord/Getty </p> Prince William in New York on Sept. 18, 2023

Cindy Ord/Getty

Prince William in New York on Sept. 18, 2023

Later on Monday, the royal met the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, during the UN General Assembly in New York. In just under a half hour, the two discussed the Earthshot Prize's strongly alignment with the objectives of the United Nations, the Secretary-General’s recent trip to Nairobi for the African Climate Summit and their shared hope for COP28 to deliver a significant outcome on emissions reductions. The Prince was joined at the meeting by Dame Barbara Woodward, D.C.M.G., O.B.E., Ambassador and Permanent Representative, U.K. Mission to the UN New York.

The meeting burnished William's credentials as a global statesman in his newish role as Prince of Wales. Last December, William met President Joe Biden in Boston, and in March traveled to the border between Poland and Ukraine, meeting troops stationed there amid the ongoing conflict. Then, he spoke out about the freedoms that the soldiers were there to protect.

It was something of a welcome back for Prince William as last year's Earthshot Prize ceremony was held in Boston in December. Finalists from that occasion will be reunited with the royal and catch up with each other as the summit showcases their progress and impact over the past year.

<p>Cindy Ord/Getty </p> Prince William visits New York City on Sept. 18, 2023

Cindy Ord/Getty

Prince William visits New York City on Sept. 18, 2023

The Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit on Tuesday will also unveil the 15 Earthshot Prize finalists for this year who are trailblazing climate solutions to repair our planet by 2030. They will be chosen from the prize’s five key pillars of climate solutions: Protect and Restore Nature, Clean Our Air, Revive Our Oceans, Build A Waste-Free World and Fix Our Climate. They will find out if they have been successful in winning one of the five $1.2 million prizes, which will be announced at the glitzy awards evening in Singapore on Nov. 7.

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<p>Cindy Ord/Getty</p> Prince William visits New York City on September 18, 2023

Cindy Ord/Getty

Prince William visits New York City on September 18, 2023

Prince William had been hoping to head to New York for a similar summit last fall too but had to cancel the trip stateside following the death of his grandmother Queen Elizabeth.

Instead, the royal addressed the Summit via video.

"Although it is the saddest of circumstances that means I cannot join you in person today, I am pleased to join you in video form as you gather in New York for the Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit," the Prince of Wales said. "During this time of grief, I take great comfort in your continued enthusiasm, optimism and commitment to the Earthshot Prize and what we are trying to achieve."

"Protecting the environment was a cause close to my grandmother's heart, and I know she would have been delighted to hear about this event and the support you're all giving our Earthshot finalists, the next generation of environmental pioneers," he added.

Prince William will likely hurry back to the U.K. after his events wrap on Tuesday. That's because King Charles and Queen Camilla are also heading overseas this week. Buckingham Palace previously announced that the King, 74, and Queen, 76, are heading to France from Sept. 20 to Sept. 22 for a state visit. The couple were originally scheduled to visit the country in March, but they postponed the trip due to riots happening across France at the time.

While Prince William is not required to be in the U.K. when his father is traveling, he is one of the King's Counsellors of State — one of the royals who can carry out constitutional duties for King Charles if he is abroad or unwell.

Meanwhile on Monday, Prince William's wife, Kate Middleton, made her own outing in the U.K. The Princess of Wales, 41, visited the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Yeovilton in Somerset on Monday, marking the first outing in her new royal role. Over the summer, King Charles appointed his daughter-in-law as the Commodore-in-Chief, Fleet Air Arm (FAA). She took over the role from Prince Andrew, who held the position until 2022.

<p>Samir Hussein/WireImage</p> Kate Middleton visits Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton on September 18, 2023

Samir Hussein/WireImage

Kate Middleton visits Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton on September 18, 2023

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