From sharks to faecal bacteria: Why you should never swim in the middle of Sydney Harbour

It’s an unspoken rule Sydneysiders take to heart — avoid taking a splash in the middle of Sydney Harbour.

Authorities who know the waterway best say that most people who end up in it do so accidentally, as replicated by actors Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell when they fell from a boat into the harbour in rom-com Anyone But You.

Superintendent Joe McNulty from the Marine Area Command said rescues are “very common” due to the popularity of the harbour for locals and visitors alike.

“At this time of year, we do have people swimming off the back of charter boats or personal vessels,” he said.

Sydney Sweeney in a blue dress and Glen Powell in a white shirt standing on a buoy in waters with Sydney Opera House in shot

Anyone But You cast members Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell shot a scene where their characters crash-landed into harbour waters.(Supplied: Sony)

The plethora of activities that draw people to the water — from fishing, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, or just being on deck — also carry risk of falling in.

However, a TikTok of three women “suddenly jumping in the harbour” in December came after a viral clip of a man doing the same outside Sydney Opera House six months prior, and show that intentional dips do still happen.

But what makes swimming in the thick of the harbour so unsafe, and why should it be avoided this summertime?


What are the risks of being in Sydney Harbour?

Marine Rescue NSW zone duty operations manager for Greater Sydney, Courtney Greenslade, said being in the body of water presented many concerns, including marine creatures like sharks and drowning.

The volunteer-run body predominantly responds to boating troubles, but said it helped return 670 people safely to shore around Port Jackson, which encompasses the harbour, last year.

Particularly around the opera house, commercial boats, ships, tugboats and ferries are constantly passing through the water and pose a threat to swimmers.

Boats on a harbour with the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background.

Sydney Harbour is a heavy transit zone, filled with ships and boats that pose a risk for swimmers.(ABC News: Xanthe Gregory)

Superintendent McNulty said another major danger was simply not being prepared, particularly if they’re not strong swimmers, paddlers, or are young children.

“If they don’t have the right safety equipment such as a life jacket or a suitable flotation device, [and] if this is not working correctly or if they’re missing that equipment, they can come into tragic situations where police have to respond,” he said.

While accidents happen, Ms Greenslade actively encourages people to not take a dip in the harbour intentionally, as it isn’t easy for bystanders to come to your aid.

“While there might be flotation devices that are perched on the shore lines, not everyone knows how to use them,” she said.

Is it an offence to swim in the harbour?

Due to being a heavy transit zone, swimming around Sydney Cove is not permitted.

Sydney Cove is the water between the harbour bridge and the opera house, which carries a maximum fine of up to $1,100 for being in it.

“It is extremely dangerous and there is no swimming allowed in that area,” Superintendent McNulty said.

Meanwhile the broader precinct, like further down in Farm Cove, are also not swimming areas.

NSW Police recorded 342 incidents within Sydney Harbour and Parramatta River over the last 12 months, including seven where they assisted a swimmer. 

Of those swimming incidents, no infringements were issued.

That being said, there are a spattering of designated coastal spots lining Port Jackson, as it merges with the Parramatta and Lane Cove rivers, where swimming is allowed.

The only designated swimming spot in the harbour itself is the netted Marrinawi Cove at Barangaroo, which opened a year ago

What is in the water itself?

In the nutrient-rich waters of the harbour, organic material, metals and bacteria can be expected — as well as toxic sludge.

Beachwatch is a state government department that advises swimmers about water quality on a day-to-day basis.

However, factors like faecal bacteria from spells of heavy rain and stormwater can determine their risk assessment of the water around Sydney Harbour.

“All sorts of things can happen from swimming in water with contamination and bacteria — upset stomachs, infections, cuts,” Beachwatch team leader Jess Bourner said.

A woman smiles at something beyond the camera.

Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore said new challenges for the harbour include climate change and runoff.(ABC News: Alexander Lewis)

The City of Sydney said pollution remains the biggest obstacle for swimming in the harbour to become a reality.

“Most sediment contaminants entered the harbour prior to 1970, when industry practices were poorly regulated,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore said.

Cr Moore said that while there has been some improvement in the five decades since, water quality in the harbour now faces new challenges, such as population growth and development.

“It is also susceptible to the impacts of climate change, including high rainfall intensity and resulting catchment runoff.”

What to do if you end up in trouble?

Superintendent McNulty said if someone does end up in Sydney Harbour who isn’t a strong swimmer, signal for help.

“Put your hands up and call for assistance, wave your hands in a controlled manner — that’s a distress signal, and we do have a lot of vessels on Sydney Harbour both recreationally and commercially,” he said.

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