I have been to the dirty water

There are all kinds of marathon swimmers who swim for all kinds of reasons.  I swim for health, mine and others, and the environment. These two things are inherently connected. And on August 23rd during a swim across the Strait of Georgia the relationships where clear.

This particular swim was the 3rd of my Salish Sea attempts this summer. The first was Haro Strait, which I completed on July 20th when I became the first known person to make the crossing. The second was on July 28th where I re-entered the waters of the Coast Salish people at Ogden Point Victoria attempting to swim across Juan de Fuca Strait to Dungeness Spit near Port Angeles. Had I made it, I would have been the first person to cross it twice. On this day I failed to make the crossing battling huge currents.

I am grateful to my crew who surround me with love and compassion on our journeys through the sea. For my Strait of Georgia attempt I was once again blessed to have Gordon Higgins as my pilot and Matt Piechnik, who has crewed for me on a number of swims, jumped in as co-pilot. I was thrilled as Matt has been with me since my first swim in Cowichan Lake and for many others. I missed him this year. He is an incredible asset.

MJ VanBergen, who has been by my side every swim to date, bravely took on the role of paddler for the majority of the swim and my dear friend Diane Thompson joined us as observer. I loved having her there. Diane is my partner in the MS Wellness Centre. She is the one who keeps the community together, including me!


My partner of 26 years was again by my side for this swim; paddling the first few hours and helping out on the Synapse thereafter. It is so good to have him on the water with me, but at the same time, I know how hard it is on him. He is constantly on-edge worried for my safety. On this swim I found it just how much as we held hands before I entered the water.

My crew and I left the shores of Neck Point, Nanaimo in the traditional territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation and headed for Davis Bay, Sechelt in the traditional territory of the shíshálh First Nation.

We started the day with light rain and 5 to 8 knot winds. The skies were blanked with grey clouds. The air temperature was 17 Celsius as was the water. The waves were gentle ripples.

We travelled to the start line in Gordon’s boat. When the crew was in position and ready to go I swam to the start, walked out of the water and then walked back in. It was somewhere around 9:00 am. My concern of the day – cool air and no sun. I was not certain how my body would respond, and I am still shy when it comes to hypothermia. I reminded myself of my swims in the Great Bear Rainforest under clouded skies with 10C air and 9C water. Once I was fully emerged in the Salish Sea my concern for cold went away.

This was a fairly gentle swim with the water climbing from 17 to 19 C on the crossing. Although there was not sun, the air temperature peaked at 22C. The conditions were flat for most of the journey with wind between 5 and 8 knots. Waves were never more than 1 foot.


There are no major currents in the Strait of Georgia crossing. It is a very different body of water than the Haro and Juan de Fuca straits, although they are connected. There is however a tidal current which one needs to consider when making the crossing. And as always, when approaching land there is water movement that you need to take into consideration.

What was also different with this connected body of water in the Salish Sea, was how the water tasted. About 10 kilometers into the swim I began to develop a foul taste in my mouth. It was similar to the taste of the water that surrounds Namu in Heiltsuk territory in the Great Bear Rainforest. It was unexpected as I have swum across the Strait of Georgia as part of a relay a few times. I don’t remember the water tasting this foul.

When I swim my primary thought is keep swimming until you reach the other side. I am however very present and aware of my surroundings. And I am aware of the similarities and differences in the waterways I swim in. The Strait of Georgia is dirty dirty water.


About 15 kilometres into the swim I became quite sick and puked-up the fresh Okanagan peaches I had been eating along the way. I continued on. I have been sick on swims before and am ok to puke-and-go as long as I can continue to fuel.

Swims like this are really a team effort. The Disney cruise ship Radiance of the Sea was nearing us, on its way to Alaska. Gordon radioed ahead asking that they modify their course, so we would not collide! We continued on with land in sight. I could now see the buildings of Davis Bay where we were planning to land.

During the swim one of my crew members became violently ill persevering for several hours. But there came a point on that day that I asked to be removed as my swims are not just about my health, they are about the health of my community. And my crew is a very much-loved part of my community.


I exited the water 20 kilometres into the swim and about 8 kilometres from shore. Although my goal for the day was to get to the other side, there was no question that exiting was the right thing to do. It is through our collective efforts that we will be healthiest. And when one of our community members is down, we must do what we can to lift them up.

We must also do what we can to keep our water, land and sky clean. It is directly connected to our health. Since swimming in the Strait of Georgia I have been looking at the pollution levels of our local waterways. I contacted the Georgia Strait Alliance who kindly shared a few resources with me, with the Pollution Tracker being the most interesting.

The Pollution Tracker looks at 14 contaminant classes of ocean health concern. If you click on their interactive map you can have a look at some of what is happening in our coastal water ways. The map tracks nearshore ocean sediment from 51 coastal locations in British Columbia. The rankings are comparative with 1 being the worst.

Here is what I learned.

Of all of the water ways I have swam in the Georgia Strait ranks the highest for the tracked pollutants. It is currently sitting at # 20 with Lead, PCDD/Fs, Mercury, PCBs, Alkylphenols and PAHs all ranked in the top 20 and PBDEs and Legacy pesticides in the top 25 sites.

Juan de Fuca is next on the list at # 31. Legacy and current pesticides within top 20 and PAHs, Lead and PCDD/Fs listed within top 25.

Bella Bella in Heiltsuk territory in the Great Bear Rainforest is listed at # 42 with Cadmium # 4 and current pesticides # 8. There is no measure for Namu which is a about 50 kilometers from Bella Bella. Namu has been declared by many as a marine disaster.

Finnerty Cove in Haro has the least contaminants at #51 on the list, although other areas in Haro rank below Bella Bella.

I am becoming increasingly concerned about the impact the water has on marine life, the lands surround the water, and the people who live near by. Next summer I will focus my swims on discovering more about British Columbia’s waterways and what we can do to lessen our impact on them.

I have tasted the dirty water.










4 thoughts on “I have been to the dirty water

  1. I have heard the call for crew. My question is: What are the ways that I can help on a crew? I am not a Kayaker.

    1. Vita. There are a number of crew roles available, with kayaking being one of them. I also need someone to log the swim, prep my food for the kayaker, photography and video are always added bonuses, and I am often looking for co-pilots for the sailboat or for someone who has a small power boat that can join us. There are many ways you can help and I think you for all you do for our community <3

  2. Such a blessing to experience the swim with you Susan…looking forward to spending more time with you

    1. It was wonderful having you out there with me Diane. I hope we have many more journeys together on/in the water <3

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