Fifteen years ago, Biohabitats began working with the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, along with other committed partners, to envision a swimmable, fishable Inner Harbor and chart a course to get there. At the Waterfront Partnership’s recent “Harbor Splash” event, an organized jump into the Inner Harbor, a few of our team members were fortunate to witness or be among those who literally immersed themselves in the realization of that vision. In the wake of such a significant splash, they shared some reflections.

Sarah Emrich

Water Resources Engineer Sarah Emrich

Harbor Splash was SO COOL! Growing up in Baltimore, I always remember coming down to the Inner Harbor, seeing the trash and debris that was floating around, and thinking what a shame it was that we couldn’t take better advantage of this resource right at our fingertips that is such a vital part of the city. If you had told me 20 years ago that one day I’d be jumping in the Inner Harbor, right next to my front door, I would have never believed you! The Waterfront Partnership and many other Baltimoreans have worked so hard to get us to this point. It makes me proud to be a part of this city and so excited for what is to come!

Chris Streb and Mayor Brandon Scott

Learning & Innovation Leader Chris Streb

We believe clean water is a human right, and a right for all species. Forty-five years ago, when Baltimore’s Harborplace opened, it spawned a revolution. Cities around the world sought to transform their former industrial waterfronts into public amenities and parks. Baltimore is at it again, but this time, it is a clean water revolution. I recently joined 150 good people of Baltimore in a Sunday morning splash. The water felt amazing, especially after three days of excessive heat. Getting to be among the limited number of people able to swim in this event, I immediately thought about the many in the years ahead that will be able to find this same reprieve and relief. If we keep making progress in making the harbor its most healthy, there will be a time when the shifting baseline will be a harbor full of life and fun. Yes, the water is safe for recreational contact, but much progress remains to lower nitrogen, plastics, and sediment. So we celebrate the progress, find some time to play, and get back to work.

Brooke Forsythe

Marketing Coordinator Brooke Forsythe

Growing up in Harford County just 30 minutes north of Baltimore, I would often take weekend trips with my dad to the City and spend time at the Inner Harbor. We would enjoy the shops at the Galleria, visit the Maryland Science Center and National Aquarium, and in the summer, take the pedal boats out and see the City from the water. However, the message was always clear: “Don’t touch the water.” As I got older, I would attend summer concerts at Pier 6 Pavilion, where people would sometimes jump into the harbor to cool off and police officers refused to do anything about it because they were unsure about the safety of touching the water. It put into perspective for me how people felt about the water quality and safety of our natural resources. In school, we were taught that when explorers first came and maneuvered their boats up the Chesapeake and into the waters that would eventually be the harbor, they could drop a white dinner plate off their vessels and still be able to see it 20 feet down nestled in the bay grass. It always astounded me that at one point, the water was cleaner, less murky, and even swimmable, as that was not the harbor that I grew up with, nor the water that my parents or even grandparents had.

It can be hard to shake the stigma that has surrounded a place for many people for so long. It can be hard to let go of past truths to allow for new information backed by science and technology to change minds—and witnessing the Harbor Splash changed my mind. It was an incredible experience and one that I can say has changed the stigma of the harbor’s health for many. The work done by the Waterfront Partnership and countless other entities to improve the health of our harbor is vital to future generations.

Quinn Caralle and Captain Bryon Salladin.

Marketing Coordinator Quinn Caralle

During the many field trips my classes took to the Inner Harbor and its surrounding wonders throughout my life, we were repeatedly told to never, EVER, touch the water. I was an avid swimmer as a kid, labeled a mermaid by my family, but that was always an easy rule for me to follow. I was not tempted to take a dip when I was near Baltimore’s waterfront. I was used to getting my swimming fix in the clear, chemically cleaned water of my grandpa’s above ground pool. The Inner Harbor was not an appealing place to dive in. As a teenager and young adult I would visit the Inner Harbor during Otakon, an anime convention that was held in downtown Baltimore for many years. Friends visiting from out of town would get the same warning I had heard throughout my childhood; don’t you dare touch that water, even for a good photo op. If a costumed con-goer wanted a photoshoot in the water, the now demolished McKeldin Fountain was their best bet.

Chris waves from the water off of Bond Street pier.

While my coworker Chris Streb leapt in to the water alongside Mayor Brandon Scott and Waterfront Partnership’s Adam Lindquist during the Harbor Splash, my mind wandered back to McKeldin Fountain (rest in peace). In the summer, it would be common to see people taking a dip within the brutalist concrete structure to escape the heat, or just for fun, despite authorities’ best efforts to discourage it. Watching my colleagues and fellow Baltimoreans float happily in the water off of the Bond Street pier was the first time that I felt the urge to jump in, and wished that I had signed up to do so. I felt so proud of Baltimore and the hard work that our communities and local organizations have put in to get the water quality to where it is today. There is more work to be done before the natural body of water right on our doorstep is as safe and appealing as a pool or an old concrete fountain, but I look forward to that future.

Brooke Forsythe, Bryon Salladin, and Amy Nelson of the Crabby Abbey crew.

Marketing & Brand Leader Amy Nelson

Early last Sunday morning, as I stepped aboard Biohabitats’ workboat, a 16-foot skiff with the inherited moniker “Crabby Abbey,” I was feeling a little crabby myself. Despite the early hour, I was already baking beneath the heat dome that had settled over Baltimore. Having returned from a business trip the previous night, I was also tired and not yet sufficiently caffeinated. But I had made a commitment to join my colleagues in capturing photos of people—including our own Chris Streb—jumping into the Inner Harbor as part of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore’s Harbor Splash event. And I don’t back out of commitments. I slapped on a happy face and some sunscreen and released the bow line.

Hi Chris!

A short while later, Crabby Abbey had crossed the harbor and was approaching the Bond Street pier, the site of the Harbor Splash. My crankiness instantly evaporated. The entire pier was full of people–many in swimsuits, some wearing floaties and fun costumes. Grinning paddleboarders, kayakers, and boaters floated near us. The waterfront was lined with onlookers, many of whom were swaying and dancing to tunes being blasted by a DJ. Hundreds of people had come out to watch and participate in the event. Seeing it was (forgive me) pier joy. We quickly and easily spotted Chris. He had chosen to wear a costume that would pay homage to William Donald Shaefer, who was Baltimore’s Mayor when Chris was a kid and a major force behind the revitalization of downtown Baltimore in the 1970s and 80s. In 1981, after losing a bet about the National Aquarium’s grand opening date, Shaefer famously swam in the Aquarium’s seal pool wearing a Victorian era men’s swimming costume and straw hat. Like I said, Chris was easy to spot. He also spotted us. He gave us a wave and posed for a photo alongside another Splash participant—historian and Instagram famous magnet fisherman Evan Woodard—who had the same costume idea. Chris was smiling broadly. I wondered what he was thinking, and if he was absorbing the magnitude of the event.

Chris with Evan Woodard.

Fourteen years ago, I accompanied Chris to a press conference where the Waterfront Partnership announced their new “Healthy Harbor Initiative” and its audacious goal to make the Inner Harbor swimmable and fishable. Biohabitats had worked with the Waterfront Partnership to develop a plan to achieve this goal, and Chris spoke at the press conference about the Initiative’s exiting pilot projects. I still remember him explaining the “floating wetland” prototype he and other Biohabitats teammates designed, which used plastic bottles removed from the harbor as the wetland’s floatation device. I snapped some horribly low-quality photos and then hung out in the back of the room. The press conference was held in the top floor of Baltimore’s World Trade Center, which offered a panoramic view of the polluted harbor below. It was well attended, and I recall there being a vibe of genuine respect for the Waterfront Partnership’s chutzpah in declaring its ambitious goal. But I also recall hearing more than a few snickers and expressions of doubt.

Chris explains the floating wetland prototype at an early Healthy Harbor press conference.

I thought about that doubt as I watched Chris, Evan, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, and other Healthy Harbor partners move to the edge of the pier and prepare for their immersion into water few dared touch, let alone jump into, for decades. What were they feeling? I am a lifelong swimmer who has always found comfort in open water. People who know how frequently I swim often ask me what I am training for. I usually respond, “sanity.” For me, the moments before a jump into open water feel peaceful. Purposeful.

The announcer gave Chris and his fellow jumpers a countdown. “Ten… nine… eight… seven.. six…”  Again, I wondered what it must feel like to jump into the Inner Harbor, knowing its history of struggles? So much progress has been made since that 2010 press conference, but it has not all been sunshine, rainbows, and crystal-clear water. Indeed, the Inner Harbor has experienced some dark (and green) days between 2010 and now. But the Waterfront Partnership and everyone involved in the Healthy Harbor Initiative—including Chris and several of my colleagues— never threw in the towel. To this day, they continue to envision, design, and implement projects that improve the quality of Baltimore’s waterways.

“Five …four …three…” Were they feeling purposeful?

“Two… one…” In they went. One cannonballed. Did one flip?

The crowd of hundreds erupted, as did the smiles, hugs, high fives, and gleeful shouts of the jumpers as they surfaced from the first wave of the Harbor Splash. What did they feel? Based on what I witnessed, I’m going with sheer joy. What did I feel? Hope.

Further Reading

Meet Water Resources Engineer Kayla Brown
New Mexico Must Become a Catcher of Rain
Ripple Effects
Get to know Water Resources Engineer Jake Radeff
Meet Conservation Biologist Nolan Schillerstrom

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Get to Know Water Resources Engineer Sydney Salzwedel
Get to know Restoration Landscape Architect, Sarai Carter
Get to know Julia Richter, Water Resources Engineer
Get to know Amy Schulz, Biohabitats Extern