With six of her classmates from an after-school program in Camden, A'nkya Thomas, 16, rowed across the Delaware River in a whaleboat Wednesday morning.

It was her first time paddling across the river. The Center for Aquatic Sciences program, she said, had helped her experience several other firsts as well: canoeing, kayaking, and holding a horseshoe crab with her bare hands.

"We mess with these a lot," said Thomas, a student at Camden Charter High School, gesturing toward the crab in her hands. "At first I was scared, but now it's a lot of fun."

Thomas held the creature after her boat docked just behind the Independence Seaport Museum, 211 S. Christopher Columbus Blvd. in Society Hill. The museum is hosting the kickoff of River Days, a series of nearly 40 events geared toward cleaning up the Delaware River watershed over the next six weeks.

The watershed provides drinking water for 15 million people, or 5 percent of the people in the United States, said Andy Johnson, the program director of the William Penn Foundation.

After docking near the museum around 11 a.m., the students from the Camden center also tested the water and sediment quality of the river.

"Watching these young people come in today, certainly it's about the future," said Michael DiBerardinis, Philadelphia's managing director. "It's about their connection to the river, but it's also about the healthy future of this region and of our planet. We have to take care of our watersheds."

A group of 23 representatives from environmental education centers along the Delaware River - including the Fairmount Water Works, the Delaware Nature Society, and the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust - attended the event to show support for the cleanup.

"It's really remarkable that we've got all these strong organizations operating in various parts of the watershed here together to do something," Johnson said. "I think that can have a magnified impact, reaching thousands and thousands of more people."

"It's a joint partnership when we're talking about our waterways," said Meishka Mitchell, vice president of neighborhood initiatives at Cooper's Ferry Partnership, a private, nonprofit corporation seeking to help revitalize Camden. "We see the city of Philadelphia here, we see the city of Camden, but there's one river. The Delaware River is what brings us together."

Linda Mead, president and CEO of D&R Greenway Land Trust, a Princeton-based nonprofit land-preservation group, estimated that the project will cost $120,000. Of that total, she said, the William Penn Foundation is providing an $80,000 grant, and the rest will be paid by the various participating environmental education centers.

River Days will continue Thursday with Water Warriors, a two-hour walking tour of the Delaware Nature Society in Wilmington.

On Saturday, River Days will host the Walnut2Walnut Challenge, in which participants will paddle rowboats from Walnut Street on the Schuylkill, around the Navy Yard, and up to Walnut Street on the Delaware, docking at the museum. More than 100 boats have signed up, said John Brady, museum president.

"If you use the river, if you have fun on the river, then you should care about the river," Brady said. "That should inspire you to do things to help the river."