Even on Earth Day, it’s hard to get the media interested in a nuanced discussion of water pollution — which is why Chris Swain, a 47-year-old environmentalist and part-time acupuncturist from Marblehead, Massachusetts, is trying to get the city to let him put on a dry suit and swim in the Gowanus Canal. Swain says it’s not illegal to swim in what is arguably the most polluted water in North America — it’s just not recommended on account of, among many other health threats, a heavy concentration of flesh-eating bacteria.
“In 2005, I helped the U.N. do an event to launch the world water decade,” he told Daily Intelligencer. “This spring, I was thinking about that and it occurred to me almost within view of the U.N. complex you can see the mouth of two of the dirtiest city waterways in the world.” His first big swim for a cause was for human rights in 1996, when he plied the bottom 200 miles of the Connecticut River. After that swim he woke up with fevers. This time he is coordinating with local authorities.
It starts as a Los Angeles–like spring day in the Gowanus neighborhood. The nannies are out for a stroll, and construction continues on luxury buildings advertising a canal with kayakers and green grass. Swain was first delayed by a long safety meeting with the NYPD, and then a game-day change of heart by the business owners at his original launch site on Douglas Street.
Everything except for his face and mouth is covered. In addition to his yellow dry suit, he’s wearing scuba boots, fins, and a silicone swim cap that reads #hope. He’s wearing a water-repelling cream on his face. If he swallows any water he’ll eat a charcoal tablet.
Swain moves a block down to get into the water at Degraw Street. Construction workers from local 731 snap videos and crack themselves up from the idea of putting a diving board into the Gowanus. The media is trying to get him going. He’s behind schedule, and weather is coming. A local TV news station puts a GoPro on his head.
“I usually have a homeless person help me put on my suit,” he says to the assembled media — he’s been training on quiet beaches outside of Boston. A journalist asks how he’s feeling. “I feel like I have to pee,” he says.
Swain gets in the water a little after two and bobs along quickly through the growing crowds. He’s careful not to get his head wet. Hundreds of people are waiting to see him get in the water. He moves at a quick clip, supported by a kayaker for safety. If he raises up an arm the authorities will come to his rescue.
About 40 minutes and two thirds of a mile later, Swain climbs out of the water onto the rocks at the nearby Whole Foods. Cameramen jostle for space. He gargles with hydrogen peroxide, and spits it back into the water. He still needs to be rinsed off with bleach. The sky has gotten cloudy. Weather is fast approaching, and Swain decides to stop for the day. He was planning to get back in and swim further, but decides to do that another day.
A journalist asks about the water. “The water was 50 degrees and it tasted like blood, poop, ground-up grass, detergent, and gasoline,” he says. “This is a no-joke, big, difficult cleanup. So what I’m here to say is even though it is discouraging, even though it is difficult, let’s find the courage to do it anyway.” After that, he got his bleach bath.