Cherish Victoria Harbour as Hong Kong's richest resource

As swimmers raced in it yesterday, it is worth noting how much we owe Victoria Harbour

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 5:42am

As I walked down the steps to the Lei Yue Mun public pier in my swimsuit, my thoughts turned briefly to that famous black-and-white photograph of swimmers diving into Victoria Harbour, cross-harbour ferries and high rises in the background.

The picture was snapped before the race was banned in 1978 because of pollution. Now, in 2012, it was my turn. Before me in full colour, hundreds of swimmers splashed into the water. The swimsuits were sleeker, the high-rises taller, the water was cleaner (apparently), but little else had changed.

"This is just like the photo!" another swimmer exclaimed.

I smiled. Here we were - all 1,800 of us - too excited to continue a Hong Kong tradition to care too much about how filthy the water might still be. The clarity of the water was on a par with that at Deep Water Bay or Stanley. Another surprise was that the water was largely free of trash.

It was not until I neared the finish line at Sai Wan Ho public pier did I notice the first plastic bags floating by.

At one point as I approached Hong Kong Island, a long transparent tube drifted past my face. To my horror, I realised it was a condom.

I had told myself before the race to try my very best to avoid swallowing the water. But this, of course, was unavoidable. And I can now attest to the following: I have drunk large gulps of Victoria Harbour.

Hours later, I am alive and well. The harbour tastes just like regular sea water. Fellow South China Morning Post reporter Lo Wei, who also made the swim, noted the water was so salty it was almost bitter.

Before the race, swimmers lathered their bodies with vaseline to stay warm. This turned out to be unnecessary as the water was quite pleasant. A middle-aged man even told me to rub oil on my skin so that any gunk from the harbour could be removed with a single rinse.

But if you asked any of the swimmers yesterday, it was not the water quality that caused the most distress. It was the kicking - especially from swimmers doing the breaststroke kick. As swimmers scrambled to get ahead of the pack, the water became a battleground.

My colleague was kicked in the chest, while I was kicked in the face. But it was unavoidable. As it was hard to see ahead, swimmers tried to stay together to avoid going off course.

Near the finish line, a current pushed hard against us. I moved my arms and kicked, but stayed still. It was the only point when I felt helpless. Frustrated and tired, I put in all my remaining strength and thrashed my legs as fast as I could to finish the race.

Throughout the swim, I wondered why the cross-harbour race gets so much attention, since open water races take place all around the world. But it's swimming under the city's iconic skyline that makes this swim special.

This harbour is Hong Kong's richest resource. It's our lifeblood, and if we're not careful it can be our death.

My last thought went to the 39 people lost in the National Day ferry crash who perished in the water not far from where we swam. And I realised just how much this city owes the "fragrant harbour", and how much we are at its mercy.