City

Swimming Toronto’s Beaches

we are swimmers all 3We are swimmers. We don’t just go to the beach – we jump in the lake. Not that we’re athletes or racers- in-training, we simply revel in the pure liquid pleasure. We are at ease and in our element outdoors in natural water; swimming regularly is essential to our summer.

Toronto is a great place for that. The city has eleven designated swimming beaches, all accessible by TTC, GO train and/or ferry. Eight of the the beaches are Blue Flag certified. And info on our beaches is plentiful online. You can find out where to swim, how to get there, what the beach ‘vibe’ is, the amenities and concession stands, the water quality… but about the swimming itself? Not so much.
Swimming conditions map Aug 20

Blue Flag beaches have specific, stringent evaluation criteria. We appreciate and are reassured by the cleanliness standards, but there are other beach qualities that we value which are left out of that assessment. We have considerations of our own. Three of us recently swam all eleven Toronto beaches in an intensive two-day, morning-to-evening tour. Day one we swam the mainland beaches, from east to west, Rouge to Marie Curtis. Day two we headed to the island, and again went east to west, from Ward’s to Hanlan’s.

Our Criteria

Sand/Rock Ratio
As swimmers, we care about the ratio of sand to pebbles and rocks. Most of our beaches have a gradual grade, and swimmers must walk out relatively far to gain some depth. Soft sand is a pleasure to sink our feet into. Rocky bottoms are hard on our feet, anywhere from uncomfortable to excruciating, and because the rocks can be slippery from algae, they are dangerous as well.

Water Temperature
Rubber ducky thermometer.
It takes a while for the Great Lakes to warm up in the summer (some would say they never do). The up side of that is they cool down slowly in the fall, and in the past we have swum comfortably on Thanksgiving in October. We brought our rubber ducky thermometer along with us and measured the water temperature in three areas: in the squeal zone (ankle to knee, where people entering the water often shriek with shock), at swim depth, and because surface water is often warmer than the water below, at arm’s length beneath the surface at swim depth.

Water Clarity and Impediments
Presence of algae in the water influences water colour and scent, and weeds can creep us out and entangle us. One characteristic of the Great Lakes, especially since the advent of zebra mussels (the upside of infestation), is visibility to the bottom. We like swimming in water clear enough to see our feet and the ripples of sand on the lake bottom.

Life Guard Oversight Annoyance Factor
Lifeguard rowboat.
City lifeguards are instructed to be off their stands and into their rowboats when swimmers are present in the water. Some guards station themselves at the limit of the swim zone. Others paddle along beside swimmers as closely as within an oar’s length. They seem to be breathing down our necks, and we have to listen to their radio communications while we’re swimming. Of course we appreciate vigilance and would be grateful for rescue if needed, but over-cautious observance compromises the peace and pleasure of a swim in open water.

View
Blue water to blue sky at the horizon, a city skyline, view of CN Tower (our compass point for orientation) or not, waste treatment plants or nuclear power plant – our beaches offer many vistas for contemplation while swimming.

Dog Incursions
dog sign and beachBlue Flag Beach Criteria clearly prohibit all domestic animals from the beach. Animal feces are a health hazard. Dogs’ sense of social boundaries differs from humans’ and they can be disruptive to other beachgoers.

Toronto beaches have posted signs. Off-leash areas near designated swimming beaches are provided in many places along the lakeshore to accommodate dog owners.

And yet, and yet…

Our Mainland Beach Tour

Rouge Park Beach, Bluffer’s Beach, Kew-Balmy Beach, Woodbine Beach, Cherry Beach, Sunnyside and Marie Curtis Park Beach.

The day started with inauspicious clouds, but the forecast was for clearing skies and we expected they would by the time we got there. These clouds didn’t roll out until mid-afternoon.

Each beach displays an info sandwich board that includes daily temp and bacteria counts. An e coli count of over 100ppm triggers a  red-flag – the beach is closed for swimming. We didn’t get the updated water quality numbers until after our first swim. Though it had rained the previous day for only about an hour, with a few sprinkles after,  even that small amount was enough to make sewage bypass the treatment plants and cause high bacteria counts on some beaches.

We began at the far eastern city limit, out of our familiarity zone.

Rouge Park is the only place to camp legally within the city limits, because it is a provincial park. Lush foliage lines the banks, and a footbridge and GO/VIA rail bridge traverse the river. Trains passing regularly overhead do not seem to disturb the tranquility of fishers drinking their Timmy’s and kayakers paddling by. Follow a short path beside the river to its mouth at the lake. There you are, facing sky and water to the horizon on a wide, sandy beach with a walkable-for-miles shoreline. Just be sure to avert your head from the far left shore or you will be face to face with the Pickering Nuclear Power Generating Plant.
Click on any photo to enlarge

Conditions:
We arrived before the water quality figures, and were told that the red flag was precautionary; there were no measurements taken for two days because of waviness. We braved the water until the red flag was confirmed for the day. (No ill effects.)

Sand/Rock Ratio
Sand is soft, full of yesterday’s sand-castles. Some pebbles at the shoreline, a sandy bottom under water. Easy walking to swim depth.

Temperature

Squeal Zone Swim Depth Submerged
       20°C        20°C        19°C

Water Clarity
The water was greenish-greyish, only in part because of the cloudy skies. Smelled fresh but did not look clear.

Life Guards
They did not enter the water because of the red flag. They were informative and when definitive info arrived warned us out of the water.

View
No city view, no CN Tower. Clear open lake to the horizon, sandy and wild shoreline. That is, until confronted by Ontario Hydro’s nuclear dependence on the shore to the east. But the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is a reality, and to paraphrase Philip K. Dick’s definition of the word, when you don’t see it, it doesn’t go away.

Dogs
No dogs, but very few people either on this blustery morning.
water line

Be careful not to do what we did. Distracted by the Hav-A-Nap Motel on the corner, we missed the turn-off at Brimley Road. High sand bluffs behind the beach isolate the park from the city, and you can’t see the beach until you get there. Feels like it could be somewhere far away; the surrounding wilderness warrants coyote warnings. It’s situated in a broad, sheltered bay where the eroding dunes create a wide beach with the softest sand. In the water, sand bars and shallows mean swimmers wade out quite a distance to gain depth, but kids and non-swimmers can be very comfortable. A small boy chased seagulls across the sand, and the flock took off as if to greet the lifeguards rowing in to work at 11:30 a.m. They raised the green flag; we were good to go.
Click on any photo to enlarge

Sand/Rock ratio

This beach has the softest, finest, cleanest sand of all Toronto beaches. No rocks at all, just virgin sand straight off the Scarborough Bluffs. Perfect.

Temperature

Squeal Zone Swim Depth Submerged
       20°C        20°C        19°C

Water Clarity
Clear blue water right down to the sandy ridges along the bottom. All ten of my Big Apple Red toes were visible.

Life Guards
Vigilantly dogging us in their dinghies, tag-teaming as we swam parallel to the shoreline, warning us not to go out past the buoys even though we weren’t. When I asked one guard to keep a little distance, he kindly complied.

View
Towering bluffs stand high behind the shore, slowly contributing soft soft sand to the beach. Blue open water to the horizon. Squint to the east and in the far distance the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is visible.

Dogs
A woman led her leashed dog back and forth in front of the lifeguard stand several times, with no intervention.water line

A long sand beach with boardwalk and expansive open water. Rocky on parts of the shoreline and in the water, where cormorants, geese and ducks perch on the rocks.  The picturesque Leuty Lifeguard Station sits at a rocky inlet at the western end.  E coli count 172ppm when we were there. Kew Balmy beach

Sand/Rock ratio
This is a very pebbly beach. The sand is coarse, with little rocks throughout, on the shore and in the water. Not difficult to walk, but unpleasant.

Temperature
Lifeguards said the temp at 9 a.m. was 
16°C. Other beaches we visited were also that cool early in the day, so we presume that by afternoon this one got up to 20° like the others.

Water Clarity
The water has green particles and some clumps of whatever that mossy stuff is that grows on the rocks. Large rocks  on the eastern side of the beach make swimming hazardous. Farther from the rocks the water is clearer and without impediments.

Lifeguards
On previous occasions these lifeguards have distinguished themselves as the most obtrusive. Following closely in their dinghy, admonishing us to stay within the buoys (we were), directing us into the shore near the rocks… one even intruded into our conversation when we were talking about another beach she was familiar with. Altogether far too present.

View
Looking straight at the lake from the beach, unobstructed sky and water as far as we can see. To the west, a distant downtown skyline with the CN Tower. The tall chimney stack of the Ashbridges Bay Sewage Treatment Plant is a much nearer tower.

Dogs
There is a large and well-used off-leash area between Kew-Balmy and Woodbine beaches. We did not encounter dogs on the swimming beach.water line

This beach is huge and at the western edge looks to be the city’s widest. It is the most crowded, and unlike other Toronto beaches, there is litter on the sand.  Rows and rows of  beach volleyball nets are well used. It’s been red-flagged only twice this summer – the E coli count was 129 ppm. on our beach day. Along the boardwalk are various snack options, including a food truck with its own ATM machine.
Click on any photo to enlarge

Sand/Rock ratio
The beach sand is fine and soft until near the water. There it’s stony sand, uncomfortable for several feet out. Eventually the pebbles dissipate and it’s sandy underfoot. Litter was strewn over the beach and at the water’s edge.

Temperature
Once again we rely on the lifeguards, who report 16°C at 9 a.m.

Water Clarity
We have always found this water to be clear.

Lifeguards
Informative about the water conditions.

View
Open water to the horizon. To the west is the Ashbridges Bay Sewage Treatment Plant chimney stack and, sticking up above the trees of the park that lines the beach, our orientation point – the CN Tower.

Dogs
There are often dogs on this beach in spite of the large off-leash enclosure at its eastern edge. But we did not see any in our short stay on this day.water line

Cherry Beach sign.

We are charmed to see tiny cherries on the trees at Cherry Beach.  There is a major aerial presence here – Cherry Beach is directly on the flight path of the Island airport, and low-flying planes pass over at frequent intervals. It has a gritty, blowsy feel to it, less groomed with large trees and stony pathways.
Click on any photo to enlarge

Sand/Rock Ratio
This is Toronto’s rockiest beach. The rocks are slippery and  much larger than the pebbles at other beaches. They continue all the way out, no sandy spots for relief. The most treacherous footing we encountered. Painful. The strategy going in was to slowly pick our way to knee depth and then flop onto our stomach and, as the lifeguard advised, “sort of scull your way out.” A friend on shore tossed us our rubber sandals as we came in. Footwear mitigates the pain, but without a personal valet it would have to float beside you while you swim.

Temperature

Squeal Zone Swim Depth Submerged
       24°C        23°C       22°C

Water Clarity
Could see my feet straight down, though the water had a greenish cast.

Lifeguards
These lifeguards station themselves just beyond the buoys and stay put, watching benignly over swimmers without making their presence felt. Perhaps they have more confidence in the competence of swimmers since many tri-athletes train there.

View
The Leslie St. spit is directly opposite, and its treeline encloses the eastern swimming area. Open water on the western end. The beach is lined with shade trees, and the CN Tower is only visible from the Cherry St. bridge.

Dogs
Huge fenced off-leash park with mature shade trees. Many jumping dogs enjoying the space. Beautiful though unpleasantly aromatic. In fact the whole beach was smelly; hot grease from a poutine truck was the dominant scent note.
Click on any photo to enlarge

water line

Sunnyside is a beautiful old-fashioned urban beach, with a great historic bath pavilion and a sandy beach. The waters are calm and warm because of the breakwaters enclosing it. The placid water attracts rowers who practice there.  The warmth and stillness means it tends to weediness as you go deeper. Being close to the mouth of the Humber it more often has water quality issues. Without the crash of breaking waves, the soundtrack of the beach is an odd and somehow soothing hum that is half crickets and half the traffic of the Gardiner Expressway.
Click on any photo to enlarge

Sand/Rock ratio
This is another sandy beach which becomes pebbly at the waterline, in this case mixed with green globs of plant life residue.

Temperature
The early morning temp was 18, according to the posted sign. Felt quite warm to our feet, but that’s all that we immersed.

Water Clarity
Water looks clear right at the edge, but darker as it deepens, which may indicate weeds. Because it was a red flag day, E coli count of 207ppm, we did not swim and so cannot say for sure.

lifeguard standLifeguards
Although there was equipment on the beach which we took as evidence of lifeguard presence, there were none to be seen and therefore none to annoy us.

View
The beach pavilion dominates the beach, and the wide arms of the bay feature the Toronto skyline and CN Tower to the east, and the Mississauga skyline to the west. Beyond the breakwater is open blue water to the horizon, sprinkled with a few mandatory sailboats, of course.

Dogs
Not a dog in sight. In fact, the only creatures we encountered were a man relaxing on a bench in the shade, and a monarch butterfly perched on the sunflowers.water line

Marie Curtis Park East Beach is at the western edge of Toronto, and the beach itself it at the edge of a lush green park with immense shade trees, a children’s playground and a curvy bathhouse. It is not wide, contained  by residential on the east and the Etobicoke Creek on the west, and feels like a comfortable neighbourhood beach, very unassuming. People walked the boardwalk, sat on the benches, children climbed on the cannon. A lovely early evening, all very relaxed, except for the seagulls. They kept eyeing us and flying over, and even dive-bombed us once as we swam. Are they territorial?
Click on any photo to enlarge

Sand/Rock ratio
Sand which becomes pebbly at the water’s edge and into the shallows. Not really uncomfortable, and the bottom becomes sandy as it deepens.

Temperature

Squeal Zone Swim Depth Submerged
       17°C        17°C        17°C

Water Clarity
We could see our feet beneath us, but there is a murky quality to this water. Perhaps that had to do with being there at the end of the day, when the light is at an oblique angle to the water.

Lifeguards
We were obtrusively guarded until suddenly the lifeguards’ workday ended. Then we were informed that we swam at our own risk, and with that we were left in peace.

View
Straight ahead, open water to the horizon. A treed and residential shoreline to the east, with no city skyline. To the west trees and parkland and the tall chimney stack of the Lakeview Sewage Treatment Plant.

Dogs
Several dogs and their owners walked the boardwalk and then played at the water’s edge. Balls were thrown and fetched with much loping and splashing. Lifeguards ignored them.

Our take of the day in beach glass.

Beach glass.

water lineOur Island Beach TourIsland signpost.

Ward’s Island BeachCentre Island BeachGibraltar Beach, and Hanlan’s Beach.

Ward’s feels like a community beach, which it is, with many island visitors enjoying it too. We are visually reminded of the mainland by the Leslie St. spit jutting out along its eastern side. A sward of trees and dune grasses separate the beach from the residential community on the island. To the west are the seawall and boardwalk that edge the north shore. The water is open to the horizon, with much boat traffic passing on its way to the outer harbour marina and the smell of fuel sometimes wafting over the waves.
Click on any photo to enlarge

Sand/Rock ratio
Few pebbles mar this soft sand. Excellent texture for the classic drip-drop sand castle. Smooth walking in the water.

Temperature

Squeal Zone Swim Depth Submerged
       20°C          20°C        19°C

Water Clarity
Clear clean water with excellent visibility to the ripply bottom.

Lifeguards
Vigilant though not obnoxious in following us as we swam. Ineffectual in dealing with dog intrusions.

View
Faces Leslie St. spit to the east, with a heavily-trafficked boat channel between them. Open water straight out from the beach, which is enclosed on the west by a rocky point. A backdrop of bush and trees that includes the dune-stabilizing native plant equisetum. Over the residential roofs and between the trees behind the beach, a glimpse of the CN Tower.

Frisbee dog.Dogs
“Frisbee dog shook water all over me!” a child yelled. The dog leapt all around and over anyone in the sand or shallows here as its owner initiated frisbee play. When questioned about dogs on the beach, a lifeguard opined, “People don’t listen.” So much for enforcement of a dog-free swim area.water line

Centre Island’s swimming beach is divided down the middle by a long, high pier which extends far out over the water. From the end you feel you can see Niagara Falls, and maybe on a really clear day that’s possible. On the east side of the pier is a small, stony crescent beach, and on the west is a wide, shallow beach protected by a long breakwater. That one is perfect for kids – shallow, warm, and placid water and clear sand without pebbles.
This is the part of the island with bike rentals and snack concessions such as pricey bottled water, ice cream and pizza. Predatory seagulls pester people carrying takeout and patrol the beach looking for their next bite. While we were swimming and measuring the water temperature, one seagull swooped down and nabbed our rubber ducky thermometer. Must have mistaken it, with its lovely yellow and orange colouring, for a piece of pizza. Fortunately it was too heavy for the seagull to get any lift. Ducky dropped from its beak and plopped back in the water near us, intact but traumatized. As were we.
Click on any photo to enlarge

Sand/Rock ratio
A coarse sand beach and stony water’s edge and shallows on the eastern portion. The western side is clear soft sand without pebbles.
East:

West:

Temperature

Squeal Zone Swim Depth Submerged
       20°C        20°C        19°C

Water Clarity
This was murky, slightly greenish water on the eastern side where we swam. Clearer on the west side.

Lifeguards
They were out in the water with us, but not too close. They stayed put and did not follow us.

View
A treed shore lined with short concrete piers and stone outcroppings, with the Leslie St. spit in the distance. To the west, beyond the pier and breakwaters it’s wide open lake. At our backs is the CN Tower, visible from the pier and sometimes from the water.

Dogs
None. We think those thuggish seagulls have the dogs scared.
water line

A secluded beach, not on the island maps and discreetly signed; this is a peacefully laid-back and uncrowded stretch. The path to the beach passes over dunes protected by board walkways and studded with signs about dune formation. These low dunes are the backdrop to a long soft sand beach with a wide open view of lake and sky. A feeling of pleasant isolation where the one picnic table on the old stone pier seems more than enough. It’s easy to forget that the city is there unless you look over your shoulder and catch a glimpse of the top of the CN Tower.
Click on any photo to enlarge

Sand/Rock ratio
The sand is fine, soft and clean except for one unnervingly long golf tee we found beside our foot. There are pebbles at the waterline and for a short distance in the shallows, but after that it’s a sandy bottom.

Temperature

Squeal Zone Swim Depth Submerged
       22°C        22°C        22°C

Water Clarity
Clear and clean. No impediments in the water but there is one structure out there. It’s a round lidded metal pipe that is connected to the island water treatment plant which is right behind this beach. On the day we were there, children got out of their canoe and danced on it.

Lifeguards
One extremely chill lifeguard who never went into the water while people were swimming. She packed up early and waited on the pier to be picked up at the end of her shift. We enjoyed a long, unaccompanied swim.

View
Wide open water to the horizon, and just one old stone pier on the shore. Dunes and grasses and some shade trees back the beach. And, through a gap in the trees, the CN Tower.

Dogs
Isolated though it is, a leashed dog is walked along the shore. We wondered if they even realized that they were on a swimming beach. On more crowded days there have been more dogs, and no interventions by the lifeguards.water line

Toronto’s only clothing-optional beach presented a photographic challenge which required some discretion, although we estimated that only about a third of beachgoers here took that option. This was definitely a party beach, but perhaps it’s that we arrived at the end of the day. We’ve been here on previous occasions earlier in the afternoon and the beach seemed a bit more sedately naked. On this evening many powerboats drew in close, with partiers on deck joining those on shore. Planes from the nearby island airport regularly roared by, and cigarette butts litter the sand.
Click on any photo to enlarge

Sand/Rock ratio
A very pebbly water’s edge, and uncomfortable walk out to swim depth. Sandy on the beach.

Temperature

Squeal Zone Swim Depth Submerged
       23°C        22°C        22°C

Water Clarity
Clear to its stony bottom.

Lifeguards
We arrived after the end of their shift (they work 11:30 am – 6:30 pm.)

View
We could see the western skyline of the city, and probably all the way to Hamilton if the setting sun had not obscured it. Behind the dense wooded area lining the beach our familiar CN Tower was visible.

Dogs
No dogs in sight, and a good thing given all those exposed and vulnerable tender bits.water line

This was a blitz, not a leisurely pleasure tour, and of course we missed much. But now we are familiar with all of our beaches, and we know where we’ll be going back. A day on the beach here feels like a week away, and without the drive on Hwy 400.
Toronto has made great improvements since the old unswimmable days. Our beaches are clean, beautiful, and safe (usually). But looking to the shoreline as we swam, we were disheartened to see sites of present day environmentally unsound practices still endangering our lake. We were disappointed in the beach closures due to sewage overflows. And why do we continue to treat sewage beside the lake? It’s like having a toilet in our kitchen. The short-sighted and cavalier treatment of precious fresh water is a mistake from the past that we have to remedy. It’s not only that we want to swim, and we do. This water is used to grow our food, it’s what we drink. We ourselves are composed of 60% water. Lake Ontario is us.Two on the shore.

– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin, Suzanne Long and Elizabeth Cinello

 Swim guides courtesy Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.

This article can be found in WHAT’S HERE, in the section The City.

We are @livingtoronto2 on social media. Follow us on Facebook. instagram 1371778321_twitter-128-black

Comments:

What a wonderful article.
A. Van Damme, Toronto

Fantastic article! Very heartening to read this level of interest in the usability of our Lake Ontario. The lake is doing much better than a decade or two ago, when the water was a drab olive-grey colour. Thanks for shining a spotlight on an issue that has seen too little attention until fairly recently.
Paul Bulas, Toronto

What a gorgeous, informative, comprehensive guide to toronto beaches… well done!!
Rudy Limeback, Toronto

Extremely thorough guide to swimming Toronto’s beaches, shore and island.
@madhava

Fantastic article in true spirit.
Mark Mattson, @waterkeepermark

Love this tour of Toronto beaches. Jealous I didn’t get to go. I have never swum (swam?) in the lake in October. First time for everything.
Krystyn Tully, Toronto

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