I’m flying around on a tube attached to a rope. I can see the city, just a few hundred metres off in the distance. I can feel the tops of my feet skidding across the water—my toes slicing the surface at 30 kilometres an hour. My hair, soaked, takes on a tentacle form and clings to my forehead and chin. Salt water splashes in my face as I bump-bump-bump along the water’s flat, fast top. I can taste the harbour on my tongue.
I thought this type of scene was only ever meant for cottage country—in a lake, surrounded by lush, green trees and brightly painted docks dotting the shoreline. But here we are, in one of the largest natural harbours in the world, surrounded by glass buildings, container cranes and the industry-laden pipes of the old oil refinery.
This was a few summers ago. It was my first time swimming in Halifax Harbour since I moved here in 2009. Before then, the closest I came was a trip on the Harbour Hopper a few years prior. I remember the tour guide apologizing for the thick, brown water and hot, sickly smell as we went motoring past the casino.
A few years later, I’m gliding across the water off the coast of McNabs Island—filled to the brim with equal parts excitement and fear.
The boat’s small engine revs up, and my towline jolts as we take a sharp turn. Suddenly, and without any warning, I’m fully submerged, before I even knew I’d fallen off. For one long half-minute I am by myself in the middle of Halifax Harbour, bobbing like a buoy in my bright lifejacket. I feel exhilarated to be in the cool, vast water—the same body of water that welcomed a million immigrants to North America; that served as an entry point for Titanic survivors and victims; the same water where the Halifax Explosion detonated a century ago. I’m looking around at the dark surface, taking in all the history that has a home here. I think: Everyone should feel the first-hand beauty of this.
And then a large piece of seaweed grazes my leg.
No. No, no, no, no, no. Nooope. GET ME OUT OF THIS HAUNTED HELL-HOLE.
In that moment, it’s the skeletal hand of a pirate who’d been hanged and tarred at Maugher Beach centuries ago. Or maybe a garbage cluster made entirely of used tampons and condoms. I scream and flail and swim, and the boat circles back to pick me up.
There’s still a stigma around swimming in Halifax Harbour—a general feeling of “WTF are you doing?” from others. A week ago, enjoying one of the first sun-filled Saturdays of the year on a downtown patio, I overheard someone brag about having once swum in the harbour. “I didn’t come out with any, like, rashes or anything.”
Real or imaginary, there’s definitely a general sense of “ew” from everyone. Sure, the harbour isn’t getting the same deluge of open sewage pumped into it that it once was, but there’s still physical pollution from washed-up personal hygiene and family planning products. Halifax Harbour still sees plenty traffic, too—container tankers, naval vessels and cruise ships. The water can seem dangerous, busy and oily, rather than inviting.
Despite all that, when you pull back and imagine Black Rock Beach, Dingle Park or McNabs, it’s hard not to think: Shouldn’t we be taking better advantage of the harbour’s recreational value?
“Maugher Beach is a gorgeous beach—it’s beautiful,” says Cathy McCarthy, chair of the Friends of McNabs Island Society. “It’s sandy and it’s fairly smooth, and it doesn’t have a drop-off, so it’s quite a beautiful beach. People swim there in the summer. I’ve swum there with my family.”
McCarthy may be a bit biased, but thinks that—despite the pollution—Halifax Harbour has something beautiful to offer. She leads the harbour’s sole clean-up crew, with a collective track record of some 12 tonnes of trash scavenged since the group’s inception, 25 years ago.
“The garbage bags we get are from the Clean Foundation, and they have told us repeatedly that we are the largest and longest-running clean-up in the Maritimes,” says McCarthy.
Every year, on the first Sunday in June, the Friends of McNabs organize one of the city’s most under-recognized and incredibly accomplished events—a 250-person, pro-bono litter patrol. This year’s clean-up on June 5 will un-coincidentally coincide with both Environment Week and Oceans Week.
Yet the group’s efforts still seem futile against the overwhelming amount of trash they continue to find.
“I can tell you that we’ll be picking up 400 to 500 bags of garbage on June 5,” says
McCarthy. “As far as the garbage that we find, other than the tampon applicators, we find a lot of plastic. It’s all litter. We do find old fishing debris too, like old fish crates and plastic motor oil containers. [But] most of it is really plastic junk—pieces of styrofoam, plastic bags, Tim Hortons cups, which, as you know, are not compostable.”
The most common item found is probably plastic tampon applicators, which McCarthy finds puzzling, given that HRM’s sewage treatment plant is supposed to be responsible for screening out all “floatables.”
As Europeans began settling Halifax way back in the 1700s, the harbour began its slow transition from what was a beautiful, bountiful pool of life, into what was essentially a giant toilet bowl. For over 250 years, raw sewage was being dumped directly into Halifax Harbour at a rate of millions of litres a day.
Dozens of solutions were proposed, attempted and studied over the centuries. The municipality’s website has a lengthy timeline of harbour hazards beginning in the year 1749, if you want to deep dive into the history. But nothing really came together until Harbour Solutions in the early 2000s.
At $330 million, it was the biggest public works project in the city’s history. All of the crap gushing forth from the city’s old pipes was rerouted into overflow collectors and brought to three new treatment plants. For decades, city beaches like Black Rock and Dingle Park had been closed to the public. A few months after Harbour Solutions came online in 2008, the waters were deemed swimmable. The news was announced with a highly hyped inaugural dip by then-mayor Peter Kelly.
But the euphoria was short-lived. In 2009, the central treatment plant failed spectacularly. The overflow collectors had to be opened, and 100 million litres of raw sewage flowed into the harbour every day for the year it took to fix. Two years after his Baywatch moment, Kelly once again swam through the harbour to prove the the treatment plant was working again.
It’s been semi-smooth sailing ever since, but today, the amount of beachgoers along the harbour shoreline remains sparse—and severely skeptical. They have (bio-)solid reasons to be. Harbour Solutions is certainly better than what came before it (nothing), but it’s a far cry from perfect. It’s still lacking federally mandated secondary screening measures (which will have to be added before 2020). Then there were the sewer lines beneath the Halifax Ferry Terminal and the Law Courts, which were severed during the construction of Harbour Solutions—though nobody realized it until 2010. That leak was finally fixed last summer, after years of pumping out unfiltered wastewater right by the boardwalk. Very recently (as in, this past March), in an experimental bid to save money while indirectly celebrating the improved water quality of the harbour, HRM shut off the treatment centres’ ultraviolet disinfection system. Halifax Water says the two-month pilot program was a success: Bacteria levels didn’t dangerously increase. The lights are back on—for now. It’s up to the province to approve HRM’s hopes for seasonal UV shut-offs every November until April.
That’s really been the story for awhile—the feds, the province, the city. Throughout the harbour’s history, it’s been murky who or what exactly is responsible for its cleanliness. Halifax Water handles the treatment, but says quality is under federal jurisdiction. Fisheries and Oceans Canada considers it solely a matter for the department of environment and climate change. Robin Tress, coastal adaption coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, says the quality of the water in the harbour can’t necessarily be pinned on any one person or party.
“It’s tidewater, so the harbour itself is a federal responsibility, and sewage and stormwater are municipal responsibilities, but we know that nature—AKA our watershed—doesn’t follow our arbitrary boundaries, so I think it’s a shared responsibility, absolutely.”
What she does know, however, is that our harbour—the namesake of our port city status—is an incredible resource for HRM, that shouldn’t be taken for granted. “I’ve heard some people say, ‘The harbour’s such a mess; it’s a lost cause; it’s just an industrialized harbour and it’s been that way forever so how can it ever be any different?’ I think we shouldn’t give up on the harbour, in terms of being a healthy place that sustains life—including our own.”
This August, I’ll be swimming the Northumberland Strait, from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island, along with 59 others as part of GiveToLive’s “Big Swim” for Brigadoon Village. It’s right about now that open-water training begins—because you can only prepare so much for a 14-kilometre tidal crossing in a 25-metre pool. There are dozens of nearby lakes and beaches perfectly suited for open-water training, but I can’t help but wonder: Why not take advantage of the harbour? It’s right there.
“It’s something that I think is really easy to underappreciate as part of the city,” says Tress. “But I hope that people recognize that it’s very much alive, and has a huge impact on our lives, whether or not we are able to see that every day.”
Unfortunately, old habits die hard. Even though it may be cleaner now than it was before, there’s just something about swimming in the Halifax Harbour that’s still a bit off-putting. And don’t get me wrong—it’s really a gorgeous body of water. But whether you’re braving the surface for a full-body plunge in the Northwest Arm, or dangling your feet off a sailboat gliding through the Bedford Basin, you can’t help to feel just a bit more uneasy—more vulnerable, guarded or even frightened—than if you were put-putting along in a less industrious setting.
Or maybe it’s just me.
Whether you want to swim in it or not, maybe it’s enough to be appreciative of the harbour’s beauty. How much we would miss that sparkling pool smack-dab in the middle of our city if it weren’t there, giving us all a little something extra to smile about each day.
Hillary Windsor is a freelance writer in Halifax who’s hosting a fundraising event for Brigadoon Village on July 21, at the Seahorse Tavern. For more info, to make a donation or to send hate mail, drop her a line at email@example.com.