News & Community

What It’s Actually Like to Swim in the Inner Harbor

On Sunday morning, 150 swimmers—many appropriately sporting crab floaties and Orioles gear—intentionally leapt off the dock at Bond Street Wharf. Among them was our own research editor Amy Scattergood.

On Sunday morning at Bond Street Wharf in Fells Point, a crowd gathered to watch 150 people jump into the Inner Harbor, intentionally leaping in as part of the Harbor Splash.

Hosted by the Waterfront Partnership to highlight ongoing efforts to improve the water quality of Baltimore’s harbor, it was the first time since 1981 that a public swimming event was allowed in the Inner Harbor’s waters. It didn’t hurt that this splash came in the middle of the summer’s first near-triple-digit heat wave. And yes, the water was fine.

Starting with VIPs like Mayor Brandon Scott, several groups took to the water for the first swim in almost four decades. —Photography by J.M. Giordano
Baltimore magazine research editor Amy Scattergood before taking the plunge. —Photography by J.M. Giordano

Mayor Brandon Scott and Comptroller Brooke Lierman, who has lived near the waterfront for a decade, headlined the event and were among the first to jump in. The 150 registered swimmers spent the next hour or so jumping off of a kayak dock, sporting mandatory life vests under the watch of a rescue swimmer in scuba gear and flippers.

This being Baltimore, folks dressed for the function, in crab floaties, Orioles gear, and, most impressively, striped onesies paired with straw hats—a nod to former Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s famous swimming costume. A giant inflatable pink flamingo sat on the dock. The O’s Mr. Splash mingled with the swimmers. Music blared from speakers. A pirate boat cruised by.

Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore summer icon Mr. Splash prepare for the plunge. —Photography by J.M. Giordano
Above: Despite the heat, 150 swimmers partied on Brown's Wharf before jumping into harbor waters. —Photography by J.M. Giordano

“A bunch of Baltimoreans jumping into the water is something I’ve dreamed about for years,” said distance swimmer Katie Pumphrey, whose 24-mile, 12-hour swim from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to this Inner Harbor is scheduled for Tuesday. “I’m really excited to jump in with the mayor.”

As folks jumped, in waves of 20 or so, the loudspeaker announcer cried out, “They still ‘live!” It was another reference to the harbor’s notoriously polluted water, which has been a common subject of scrutiny for years. But here’s the thing: The water, a bathtub 80 degrees, was surprisingly pleasant.

Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative has been working toward a swimmable, fishable harbor for over a decade. Thanks to determined cleanup efforts by the project’s leaders—along with local government officials, environmental nonprofits, businesses, scientists, and of course, the city’s beloved fleet of Trash Wheels—the water quality now receives overwhelmingly passing marks that make it safe to swim in.

So, when it was time for me to dive in with the rest of the third wave (green wristband), I left my phone near a fireman leaning against the Canton Kayak Club’s gear locker, zipped up my life jacket, and excitedly leapt from the dock.

Above: Waves of swimmers, including our own research editor Amy Scattergood, leap off the dock. —Photography by J.M. Giordano

As someone who routinely kayaks from that very launch, I wasn’t surprised to find relatively clean water, a warm breeze pushing small waves, and a gorgeous view of the Domino Sugar factory. We swam around the cordoned-off area, as one swimmer filmed with a GoPro and rescue and press boats bobbed nearby. A few drones hovered with some seagulls.

A century ago, such events were more common, then promoted to spotlight water safety for young men. This Sunday-morning event was more like a Baltimorean baptism crossed with an Orioles fan club meeting—as many local gatherings tend to be these days.

“There was a huge waiting list; we know the demand is there,” said Aaron Cuison, Waterfront Partnership’s marketing director.

Here’s hoping they do it again next year. Meanwhile, remember that jumping off the pier on your own is still illegal, so maybe get in a boat instead.