Nonprofit promotes wider use of islands

Offering several free ferry trips

The Boston Harbor Association is promoting visits to Spectacle Island (above) and Georges Island with free ferry rides. The Boston Harbor Association is promoting visits to Spectacle Island (above) and Georges Island with free ferry rides. (Christopher Klein for The Boston Globe)
By Matt Collette
Globe Correspondent / July 15, 2009
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SPECTACLE ISLAND - After weeks of warnings about tainted beaches, the Boston Harbor Association is trying to get the word out: There’s no need to wade in the dirty water.

Beach-goers seeking to avoid such inner-harbor beaches as Carson and Tenean beaches in Dorchester and Wollaston Beach in Quincy, which were afflicted with unsafe levels of bacteria last weekend, can take a 30-minute ferry ride to Spectacle Island or Georges Island in the outer harbor, which have public beaches.

“People getting off the boat, they say: ‘I don’t know. Is this going to be safe? Is the water clean?’ ’’ said Vivien Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association, which chartered a ferry that brought 160 people to Spectacle Island yesterday, many for the first time. “But the water quality out here at Spectacle is incredible because you have the tidal action, the flushing, so you don’t have the sewer activity in the beaches closer to land.’’

After rainy days, filtration systems in the city’s storm drains tend to become overwhelmed and dump contaminated water into the harbor, Li said. The Department of Conservation and Recreation tests water quality daily at inner harbor beaches and weekly at outer harbor beaches. If the water has the bacteria enterococci at a level higher than 104 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of water, officials raise a red flag, which warns people that they swim at their own risk.

“The rule of thumb we tell people is that if it has rained more than half an inch in the last 24 hours, wait until the water clears up,’’ Li said.

Swimming in contaminated water can cause diarrhea, vomiting, itching, and infections, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Though yesterday’s trip was free and organized by the Boston Harbor Association, a nonprofit organization that has advocated maintaining a clean harbor since 1973, ferry tickets usually cost $14 for adults, $10 for seniors 65 and older, and $8 for children between the ages of 3 and 11. Children younger than 3 travel for free.

“Especially when it comes to large families, it can get expensive,’’ said Shahidah Ahmad, 31, who went to Spectacle Island yesterday with her 4-year-old son, Amiyr, and four other relatives. Ahmad said she learned of the trip from a message board for parents who homeschool their children.

The Boston Harbor Association plans to run three more free trips to Spectacle Island this summer, as well as an excursion to Georges Island later this month. Reservations are required and can be made through the agency’s website. This Friday, ferry trips to the Boston Harbor Islands are free, said Richard K. Sullivan, the DCR commissioner. He said anyone interested should reserve tickets in advance. Ferries, run by the Boston Harbor Island Alliance through a grant from the Highland Street Foundation, depart from Long Wharf in Boston.

While the dismal weather slowed the start of the season, crowds are showing up at the Harbor Islands in greater numbers than previous years, said Sullivan.

“We already are busy, and we know that we’re going to get busier,’’ Sullivan said. “A lot of that has to do with the economy, with a lot of people having to stay closer to home. But they still want to have a good time with their family.’’

Yesterday was the first time Catherine Cerasulo, 32, of Medford had been to Spectacle Island, and it was her three children’s first trip to any of the Harbor Islands.

“It’s a little pricey when you have to pay, so this was definitely a good staycation,’’ she said.

On the boat back, many of the 160 passengers were already discussing when they might return.

Matt Collette can be reached at

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, a story in yesterday’s Metro section about the effort to bring more beach-goers to the Harbor Islands misstated where the free ferry trips to the islands will leave from tomorrow. The free ferries leave from Long Wharf.