Nova Scotia

Swimming event shows changing perception of the once-filthy Halifax harbour

Ten years ago, the thought of going for a swim in Halifax harbour would have made some Nova Scotians cringe, but that attitude is changing.

Harbour swimming is 'a huge opportunity, and it's right at our doorstep,' says oceans advocate

Anika Riopel poses for a photo at the Halifax harbour on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018. (The Canadian Press)

Ten years ago, the thought of going for a swim in Halifax harbour would have made some Nova Scotians cringe — but after a successful public swimming event was held Sunday afternoon, an oceans advocate says it seems there's an appetite for a swimming spot on the waterfront.

Anika Riopel launched the Jump In campaign last year, an initiative looking to change the city's perception of the harbour, which was once the go-to spot for dumping raw sewage.

Before three wastewater treatment plants started operating in 2008, the harbour was fouled by 180 million litres of sewage every day. That's enough to fill 72 Olympic-size swimming pools, topped with an icky assortment of brown "floatables," condoms and tampon applicators.

But Riopel, a former environmental sustainability student at Dalhousie University, said efforts to clean up the harbour in the decade since have been successful, and water quality testing shows the harbour is now just as safe for swimming as other popular spots in Halifax.

"A lot of this project is changing those perceptions that were accurate from 10 years ago, and looking at what the actual water quality is now," she said.

While Halifax is home to several beaches and swimming spots, most are located far away from the downtown core.

If the city makes a permanent summertime swimming spot on the Halifax waterfront — complete with a diving platform, raft, and lifeguards — Riopel said it could help fill a gap in the city's recreational facilities.

"The idea is not just changing the perceptions, but making it into something fun to do and enjoy," said Riopel.

"People who live in Nova Scotia like swimming, the beaches are always packed, and so this is one more place to come and cool off on those really hot days ... it's a huge opportunity, and it's right at our doorstep."

Deborah Page, director of marketing and communications with Develop Nova Scotia, said she's been working with Riopel to help make her vision into a reality.

But she said the agency must first work with the city to figure out how to implement the project without interfering with the city's busy port, which can see dozens of boats on a busy day.

"On a regular basis, it's not very safe to swim in the harbour because we have a working waterfront, so there's a lot of boating traffic, a lot of stuff going on, so trying to navigate that with swimmers is actually quite dangerous," she said.

But she said she was encouraged by the positive feedback from Sunday afternoon swimmers, noting that the boardwalk's prominent location could be a big draw for people.

"Folks have to travel to get to a beach or a lake, so there may be lots of interest from an urban perspective," she said.

Halifax MP Andy Fillmore was one of the people who took a dip in the harbour Sunday, which saw temperatures climb into the mid-20s.

A longtime supporter of the project, Fillmore said it appears that Halifax is looking for more recreation on the waterfront.

"I think the concerns about the cleanliness of the harbour do tend to belong to a previous generation, perhaps. But you can tell, there are young people here, there are kids, my own daughter and her friends were here swimming today, they can see and feel how clean the water is, and they don't pay attention to those stories now because they've had a swim in the water," he said.

"I think this says that people are ready to have fun on the water and in the water on the Halifax waterfront."

At 12.3 square kilometres, Halifax harbour is one of the deepest and largest natural harbours in the world, and its high environmental standards have won it special designation as a so-called blue flag marina, the first such designation in Atlantic Canada.