Nervous about taking a dip in Lake Ontario? These 258 swimmers might change your mind

Over 250 swimmers jumped into Lake Ontario from the Centre Island Pier on Sunday to compete in the 5th annual Toronto Island Lake Swim.

Participants competed in the 5th annual Toronto Island Lake Swim on Sunday

Participants of the 2018 Toronto Island Lake Swim started at Toronto Island Pier and headed toward Ward's Island. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

Despite an ongoing battle this summer against E. coli and plastic pollution, 258 swimmers jumped into Lake Ontario from the Centre Island Pier on Sunday.

The swimmers were competing in the fifth annual Toronto Island Lake Swim where they had the chance to participate in a 750-metre, 1.5-km or 3.8-km race.

Although scores were divided between wetsuit and non-wetsuit racers, the fastest time for the 3.8-km race was completed by 22-year-old Rodolfo Flores in a time of 53 minutes and 49 seconds.

Participants gather ahead of the swim for opening speeches. (Julia Knope/CBC)

Meanwhile, the water across the island at Hanlan's Point Beach was deemed unsafe to swim on Saturday and Sunday morning.

Many Toronto beaches have seen higher-than-normal E. coli levels this summer. Sunnyside Beach was also deemed unsafe to swim Sunday due to contamination. 

"We love our great lakes, we love clean water, and we want them to be swimmable, drinkable and fishable," said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who spoke at the opening of Sunday's race.

'We need to be doing better' 

As a lifelong swimmer, McKenna said protecting the lakes is a very special cause. 

"We know we need to be doing better," she told CBC Toronto.

McKenna said 10,000 tonnes of plastic pollution finds its way into the Great Lakes every year. It's a concerning number, she said, adding that nine million people rely on those lakes for clean drinking water.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna blows the starting horn for the first round of swimmers. (Julia Knope/CBC)

And with more extreme weather like the flash-flooding Toronto experienced earlier this month, McKenna said the city's sewage systems will be undergoing improvements.

"We have historic amounts of money that we're working with the provinces and cities to invest and new waste-treatment facilities so we can handle these large overflows," she said. 

'I'm not drinking this water'

But between visible sewage in the Harbourfront area and countless beach closures, Torontonians may have concerns about taking a swim in the lake.

Madhu Nagaraja is not one of those people. 

"Don't be afraid to jump in Lake Ontario," Nagaraja said, who's an advocate of the Great Lakes and is known for being the first Canadian to successfully swim across the treacherous Strait of Magellan in South America.

Although Nagaraja was just cheering only from the sidelines Saturday, he helps organise a weekly sunrise lake swim called Glow Adventures at Oakville's Coronation Park and participates in ice swims during the winter.

He said despite issues concerning the city's storm water and sewage drainage system, the water is swimmable for the most part.

Swimmer Madhu Nagaraja swims every day between April and December. (Julia Knope/CBC)

"When swimming, I'm not drinking this water," Nagaraja said. "I'm always willing to debate and challenge people who are not afraid to have a bite in a food court [who] have concerns about getting into the lake."

His message is clear: Think about your single-use plastic consumption, throw out pieces of plastic that find their way to beaches and don't hesitate to jump into lake.

'We're all about connecting people with water'

Events like Sunday's Centre Island race are a great way to protect the lakes, according to advocate Shane Schofield.

Schofield is a communications specialist for Swim Drink Fish, a group that tests three of the city's piers for E. coli and garbage. 

"We're all about connecting people with water, and that's what this event is doing today," he said. "We're always happy to see people swimming in Lake Ontario."

Schofield said fostering an emotional connection to the water will help protect the lakes.

"The more they know, the more involved, the more connected they are with that water, the healthier [the lakes will] become," he said.