Hong Kong's iconic harbor opens for swimmers

Story highlights

  • Hong Kong Cross-Harbor swim has been resurrected after 33-year hiatus over pollution concerns with the water
  • Environmental Protection Department revealed high E. coli levels in the water recently
  • Environmental concern group have warned some of the 1,000-strong field risk becoming ill
  • But regular groups of swimmers say they have used the harbor for years without a problem
Bo Man-Hong is sipping tea after his morning swim in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor.
Famous for its iconic skyline of glittering office towers, the busy harbor is not typically thought of as a good place to swim.
But the sprightly 66-year old has been swimming here almost every morning since he retired three years ago. He is part of a group of more than 20 regulars, most whom are retired and aged between 60 and 80.
Each day, they arrive at around 6 a.m. and spend an hour or so swimming along the seawall to the east of Hong Kong Island's main business district, a route some have taken for more than twenty years.
This weekend, a few of the harbor regulars will take part in the first Hong Kong Cross-Harbor swim, which has been resurrected after a 33-year hiatus over pollution concerns with the water.
Back then, the harbor's water quality was "very bad," said Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association Honorary Secretary and spokesperson Ronnie Wong, who spearheaded the campaign to resume the race.
"People swam into all kinds of garbage on the surface -- dead cats, plastic bags, oil. Some people, when they come up, you don't recognize them at all [as] they're covered in black stuff."
But the Cross-Harbor race is still dogged by water safety concerns, particularly regarding levels of E. coli -- bacteria that can cause potentially life-threatening infections.
Last week, data from Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department (EPD) revealed E. coli levels twice the maximum accepted level at a Hong Kong bathing beach, according to the South China Morning Post.
The Green Harbor Actions environmental concern group has also warned that some of the 1,000-strong field risk becoming ill. Two of the control points in an August study commissioned by the group fall within the race route and were rated as "acceptable" and "not acceptable," according to the South China Morning Post.
However the EPD maintains the water quality in the harbor, particularly in the eastern section where the race will take place, has "shown significant improvement" and E.coli levels have decreased by 95% since a new sewage treatment scheme was started in 2001.
Meanwhile, Bo and his elderly swimming companions dismissed water safety concerns, saying they have been swimming for years in the harbor and have never fallen ill.
"We swim on the water surface and the current moves garbage or bacteria away quickly," he said.
Another regular and upcoming race participant, a woman surnamed Lee, said, "The more you swim, the healthier you are. If there's garbage, we just swim around it."
According to organizers, the aim of the race is to raise the profile and status of the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association, as well as attract tourism to Hong Kong.
Ronnie Wong said its participants "don't mind" the water and "don't think spending 45 minutes in the water will make them sick." He said the association is monitoring water quality with the Environmental Protection Department.
If the association determines that water quality is unsafe for Sunday's race, there is a contingency plan to defer it for two weeks.
But a typhoon looming on the horizon may have the final say.