Activist Christopher Swain swims the Gowanus Canal in spite of EPA warnings

October 19, 2015 By Scott Enman Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Environmentalist Chris Swain swam the length of the Gowanus Canal on Saturday to make a point about how dirty the water is. He held a press conference on Union Street between 3rd Avenue and Bond Street on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015 before swimming the 1.8 mile canal. All photos by Rob Abruzzese.
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After a failed attempt in April due to inclement weather, clean water advocate Christopher Swain finally completed his 1.8-mile swim of the Gowanus Canal on Saturday morning.  

At 10:30 a.m., decked out in a vibrant yellow protective diving suit complete with earplugs, waterproof gloves, flippers, goggles and a green swimming cap, Swain emerged slowly into the discolored water as hordes of news crews and disgusted bystanders peered on.

Written on his swim cap in black ink was “#Hope.”

“I have ‘Hope’ written on my cap because I have hope that one day, this canal will be swimmable and entirely clean,” said Swain.

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Swain, who has swum in many dirty waterways, says the purpose of his swims is “to put threatened waterways squarely in the public eye, and to support protection, restoration and education efforts.”

“They say I’m crazy,” said Swain, “but I think it’s crazy that we let the Gowanus get to this point. We’re the greatest city in the world and we can’t even cleanup a canal.”

In the past, Swain has swum through bacteria, viruses, sewage and nuclear waste, and he has fought off speeding boats and blood-sucking Lamprey Eels.   

The Gowanus Canal, however, is unlike anything he has swum in before.

“The Gowanus Canal is arguably the dirtiest waterway in the country,” said Swain. “It’s home to pathogens, bacteria, viruses, blood-borne pathogens, dog poop, gas, oil from the streets, ‘evidence’ thrown off bridges and the notorious black mayonnaise that lines the bottom.”  

The canal is so dirty that in January 2013, a dolphin was spotted swimming its waters before eventually dying. At that time, rescue workers refused to enter the infamous waters to save the dolphin.

On Saturday, Swain swam through something entirely new — a pungent patch of green foam.

“I went through a nasty patch of pollen, some brown spots, and the rainbow sheen of coal tar, which was disgusting,” Swain said. “The biggest thing was the foam, near the flushing tunnel.”

Swain, who was warned by the EPA to stay out of the water, swam from the head of the canal at the Flushing Tunnel to the Gowanus Bay in New York Harbor, becoming the first person to do so in history.

Swain was accompanied by a large safety and research crew that performed water sampling, GPS tracking, time-lapse photography, aerial photography and balloon mapping. The crew also monitored Swain’s heartrate.

Swain’s long-term goal is to bring attention to the canal’s condition and to expedite the cleanup process so that it will eventually be swimmable.

“It’s our federal right to clean water,” he said. “Sometimes you need to put yourself on the line if anything is going to change. Hopefully I can be a part of that.”

Before entering the canal, Swain yelled to the masses: “Someday, this will be a jewel.”

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