Some swimmers in the 4.4-mile event say the water "felt great, tasted great," while others say the water "smelled like gasoline" and felt "slimy." (Photo by News21's Jason Lenhart)

Pollution Invisible to Many Bay Swimmers

Kate Yanchulis
News21 Staff

SANDY POINT STATE PARK, Md. (June 14, 2010) – One of the missions of Sunday’s Great Chesapeake Bay Swim was to raise awareness of the precarious health of the Chesapeake, which has attracted state and federal cleanup funds in recent decades.

But some swimmers said that on the surface, the glittering bay seemed anything but imperiled.
“I’ve been very impressed,” said Burdi Mahoney, 48, of Richmond, Va., who swam the annual 4.4-mile race for her third time. “I initially expected to run into some unsavory things, but in the three years that I have done it, I have not run into anything like plastic baggies, or anything like that you kind of would expect.”
“I didn’t run into anything,” echoed Patrick Woodruff, 26, of Raleigh, N.C., after placing sixth in the marathon. “The water felt great, tasted great.”
But that lack of visible pollution disguises larger ecological problems under the surface, scientists and bay advocates say.  Often the unhealthiest areas of the bay are those that are hidden from view, said Dr. Bill Dennison, vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
“With the bay, we can see some of the pollution, some of the algae blooms, but the real problems tend to be down near the bottom,” Dennison said. “About a third of that swim [was] over a pretty gruesome scene down below.”
The swim, which ran from Sandy Point State Park beneath the twin spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge before ending on the shore next to the Bay Bridge Marina, crossed a huge “dead zone,” an area of the water with little to no oxygen, making it hostile to aquatic life. While the dead zone does not threaten the health of swimmers or other recreational users, it does suck oxygen from the water, choking plant and animals. It’s created when algae blooms multiply from excesses of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, which drain into the bay with agricultural and stormwater runoff.
“Like us, the animals and plants that live in the bay need air, need oxygen to breathe,” said Beth McGee, a leading scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “The fish and the clams and the oysters need to breathe, and without oxygen, then they’re quite basically suffocating.”
The floor of the dead zone becomes a barren wasteland in the height of the summer. It stretches 90 to 125 miles long and six miles wide at its peak, according to Dr. Mike Roman, lab director at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
This major dead zone, which usually stretches from Baltimore to the mouth of the Potomac River, makes up 10 percent to 15 percent of the total volume of water in the bay. It is joined by other, smaller dead zone hot spots across the Chesapeake.
Swimmers emerging from the water Sunday were surprised to hear about the dead zones.
“I was not aware that there was a dead zone, per se,” said Mahoney. “But you can definitely feel, as you’re swimming, differences in the bay, especially when you’re crossing that shipping channel.”


Others also said they noticed tangible signs that something was amiss in the water.

Rachel Laciny, a 9-year-old from Baltimore and the youngest participant in a one-mile swim event that finished before the longer race, said, “The water smelled like gasoline most of the time.”
Her friend Veronica Tis, 10, of Baltimore, concurred, adding the water felt “slimy.”
Organizers cited increased recognition of the bay’s challenges as one of the main goals of the charity swim, which raises funds for the Chesapeake Bay Trust and Chesapeake Bay Foundation, among other local organizations.
Chuck Nabit, the race director, said that during the 4.4-mile race, swimmers must keep their athletic focus, leaving little time for contemplation of the bay’s health. But he believes most are aware of a need for improvement.
And even if they don’t know about the dead zones beneath them, he hopes that all the participants will leave the event with a new perspective on the “inspirational body of water.”
At least one did. Andrew Gyenis, a 15-year-old from Reston, Va., beat out 617 other swimmers from across the country to take first place in his first bay swim.
“Open water has always been my passion, but there [are] not too many options out here for open water,” Gyenis said. “I know this one is famous, so I just wanted to try it and give it a go.

“This is like home for us,” he said. “We need to preserve this. I think this is pretty amazing.”