Boston Harbor

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on April 28, 2010

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Photo of Christopher Swain by Leighton O’Connor.

Photo of Christopher Swain by Leighton O’Connor.

In 2004, I swam the entire length of the Charles River. After snaking through 81 miles of discarded appliances, algae blooms, and bedroom towns, I rode the ebb tide into one of the most storied pieces of water on the East Coast: Boston Harbor.

I stroked under the Charlestown Bridge and toward Puopolo Playground in the North End. A light rain peppered the surface of the water. As I sloshed along, a cocktail of urban runoff slid from the streets into the waves around me. I tasted plastic, mud, gasoline, dog poop, and detergent. As a bonus, thousands of gallons of stormwater laced with untreated sewage belched out of Wet Weather Sewerage Discharge Outfall #203 and into the harbor, compliments of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

I thrashed through a stew of pathogens to the finish. Millions of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria, as well as assorted viruses and protozoans, vied to get into my mouth, eyes, and nose, take up residence, reproduce, and make me sick.

I climbed out of the water, gargled with hydrogen peroxide, and thought, I’ll never swim in Boston Harbor again.

Of course, I was wrong.

Five short years later, I carved a big, wet turn around Deer Island and headed for the Boston skyline in one of the early segments of a 1,500-mile swim down the East Coast to Washington, DC. As I turned to breathe, I caught glimpses of the sludge digesters at the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant — a vine of fat white melons fed by the collective toilet flushes of 43 Greater Boston communities.

My mind said Boston Harbor was cleaner than it had been during my last visit. But as I threaded my way between bouquets of seaweed and trash, I knew in my heart there was still plenty of work to be done. Since my Charles River swim, I had upped the ante. In addition to photographing trash and combined sewer outfalls, I had spent my weekends arranging beach cleanups and hosting ethical electronics recycling events designed to keep toxic chemicals and heavy metals out of coastal waterways.

While I swam — on any given day I spend three to five hours in the water — my escort-boat crew tested the surface water temperature and pH of the ocean every 15 minutes to measure and map climate-change effects. At night, I stayed up too late embedding that water sampling data into publicly searchable online maps, in order to give the 50,000 students following my swim a glimpse of what was happening to their ocean planet.

Our findings, while not surprising, were not reassuring. For instance, sea surface temperatures were at or near historic highs. Good news for timid swimmers, but bad news if a hurricane arrived and gained energy from the warmer water.

When we tested the pH of Boston Harbor, we recorded values that were consistently below 8 — evidence of the ocean’s absorption of man-made carbon dioxide. Before the Industrial Revolution, when man-made CO2 was first released into our atmosphere in great quantities, the pH of the ocean was 8.179. Since then, the pH of the ocean has fallen to 8. (If it falls much further, the marine web of life as we know it will collapse.)

While this scientific news may be fascinating, it is not exactly inspiring. So the question remains: why am I out there, slogging through the darkening seas, dodging plastic trash and fuel slicks?

Part of the reason, of course, is that I hope to strike a spark in the minds of the 50,000 schoolchildren I will meet during my journey. And another part is that I hope our 5,000 water samples will help contribute to the body of knowledge needed to find a solution to the climate crisis.

But the real reason is a selfish one: I have two young daughters. Someday, they are going to look into my eyes and say, “Dad, you knew the ocean was a mess. What did you do about it?”

One Response

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  1. Christopher Swain said, on May 5, 2010 at 10:12 am

    For a glimpse of our Boston Harbor water sampling data, check out this link:

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