Protecting Ontario Place’s pebble beaches

Downtown Toronto’s only beaches adjoin Ontario Place, where we swim year-round, even in winter. The most magical of these is Teachbeach, a sandless (sandfree) pebble beach with crystal-clear waters where we swim, conduct scientific research, and make underwater music videos that celebrate the water clarity.

No other beach in Toronto has that degree of water clarity! This beach has unique artistic and scientific properties that make it of special interest to many of us.

Some members of our group also have special needs, and the absence of grit or grime is friendly to prosthetics and other technologies that would be easily damaged by even a few grains of sand. A USB port on a smartphone can be destroyed by a single grain of sand, and mechanical linkages like adjustable paddleboard paddles, cameras, tripods, wheelchairs, prosthetic devices, etc., are easily destroyed by sand.

Teachbeach is Toronto’s only sandfree beach. You can just throw your clothes on the pebbles without the need for a beach blanket. In other countries, special parks are made where people can walk barefoot on variously sized pebbles. But here, we have this luxury for free in a totally natural and sustainable way. Many of us run barefoot back and forth along the beach pebbles every day, and we sometimes bury each other in pebbles — like psamotherapy, which is the therapeutic use of beach sand, but with no mess to clean up afterwards.

The geological characteristics of Teachbeach make it an area of natural and scientific interest, and artistic interest to many of us. There is a special microclimate owing to the south-facing, wind-sheltered nook that also makes Teachbeach look and feel like the Canadian north:

“Blue lake and rocky shore, I will return once more…”
–Land of the Silver Birch, Canadian folk song

The beach is isolated visually and acoustically from the noise of the city, and one can easily imagine that one is in the far north, like Gravenhurst or Lake Temagami.

I’m a professor at University of Toronto, as well as one of the thousands of people who swim there. We have a Facebook group with over a thousand members, but many of our group don’t use Facebook or social media at all, so the membership is probably a lot higher.

We formed the group in response to Ontario Place security guards (Neptune Security Services) telling us we’re not allowed to swim, i.e. as if Neptune was the God of “NO SWIMMING”.

“We do not want to queue up and pay for a swim, we want to swim as people walk: at 5am, for three minutes, at midnight, for hours…” — Kate Rew

For many of us, ice water swimming (and swimming in general) is a necessary intervention for physical, affective, and mental health and well-being. Many people have switched from drugs and medication to the healthy benefits of cold water swimming.

Open water swimming is really about freedom. It is a human rights issue, i.e. the right to access clean safe swimming waters.

SwimOP is a safety advocacy group that also develops technologies for aquatic safety in affiliation with the Water-HCI (Water-Human-Computer Interaction) initiative. As a community, we have worked together to clean up the beach, removing thousands of pounds of sharp jagged steel debris, concrete rebar, and other items. What we could not pull out ourselves, we got together a team of volunteers on land to pull with large ropes. We swam down to tie to the items to be removed, first using SmartSwim technology to build a 3D underwater map of the hazards. We also do advanced scientific work, and Teachbeach is our living lab and classroom.

We have concerns with the recent development proposals that would replace the large pebble beach with a dangerous steel wall, straight drop into the water, in favour of a smaller sand beach on the west-facing side of West Island, right next to the traffic of Lakeshore Boulevard. This new location is in the `armpit’ of the break wall, situated right next to a combined sewer outfall (CSO), where the stench is often unbearable and the debris includes condoms, tampons, and other detritus.

Why replace Toronto’s cleanest beach with a smaller dirty beach?

Ontario is home to the world’s largest freshwater lakes. The Great Lakes hold 21% of the world’s supply of freshwater, making Ontario the water capital of the world. Toronto is the capital of Ontario, making it, as a city, the world’s water capital.

Downtown Toronto’s only access to the water’s edge is via Ontario Place. In this sense, Ontario Place is the world’s water capital, and should thus be all about safe water access around its entire perimeter, just like Toronto Island’s beaches, which are outside the downtown and harder to access.

The beaches of Ontario Place should be preserved, not replaced with dangerous steel walls like “Sugar Beach” and “HTO,” which are dangerous and unbecoming of what a great city should be.

Let us preserve Teachbeach as-is and bring the other Ontario Place beaches up to this same level of cleanliness and accessibility, i.e., the entire shore of Combeach as a nice natural pebble beach, the entire shore of Bud Beach, and of course Echo Beach, so that it can live up to the wonderful song that was written about it:

“It’s a habit of mine
To watch the sun go down
On Echo Beach
I watch the sun go down”
– Mark Gane, Martha and the Muffins, 1979

Let the wonderful beach volleyball courts of RBC Echo Beach, and its waterpark “SWIMMING ZONE,” join together with safer water access.

At present, swimming is discouraged at Ontario Place. The director has instructed her staff not to call it a beach, and that there is no beach at Ontario Place.

Presently, Ontario Place is characterized by fences, chains, padlocks, limited hours, and 24-hour security guards stationed to keep people out, i.e. not what we’d like to think of when we think of public space.

Expanding Ontario Place and making it more popular might bring larger crowds, and thus create the need for more beach space. If this is to be done, we must have all of the existing beaches brought up to the same standard as Teachbeach, and add others.

For example, East Island Beach, with its wonderful view of the CN Tower, needs some clean-up, of sharp rebar and other items, to make entry safer. The break wall and the West Channel (site of the Pan Am Games and also a common triathlon swim course) are also places where lots of people swim, with distances marked off at 100 metre increments, in Roman numerals, for time trials.

We also paddleboard regularly with swimmers for safety. When we swim the “Teachlin” (Teachbeach to Hanlin’s Beach at Toronto Island), for example, we surround the swimmers with paddleboards for safety.

As a community we built an outdoor classroom and living lab at a beach that occurred accidentally by nature itself. Let’s work together to preserve it, and expand in time and space to safe water access all around the perimeter of Ontario Place 24 hours a day, just like many other great beaches that never close to the public. If this is public space, our space, and a cottage for those without summer cottages as is often said, a midnight swim should not result in police and security guards calling it “trespassing”.

all photos courtesy Steve Mann


Steve Mann invented the SWIM (Sequential Wave Imprinting Machine) in 1974 to allow people to interact with wave computations, and with each other, in air, underwater, and in solid materials. SWIM was the first example in the new field of Water-Human-Computer Interaction (WaterHCI.com). Join him at facebook.com/groups/swimop

20 comments

  1. I haven’t heard of or been to teach Beach prior to reading this article, but it makes me very interested in it and the preservation of such a wonderful, natural, and irreplaceable part of Toronto.

  2. I regularly swim at TeachBeach and I often talk to people who swim and spend time at the beach. It is great to hear how people came to find TeachBeach and the benefits it has had on both physical and mental health. Especially during these past pandemic years, when many downtown Toronto residents realized a lack of public space. I have not left Toronto all summer and others have also mentioned the same thing to me. Meeting more people with likeminded interests has been wonderful, I have learned a lot from others at TeachBeach, We really need to protect this beach, not only for the health of the environment but the health of the people who use this beach daily, throughout the year for swimming, education, science, exercise, and being close to the water.

    Pebble stone beaches are underrated and this is the only one in Toronto. I can’t believe I have to write this, but let’s not destroy this beautiful, naturally sustainable beach with an indoor water park!

  3. Could not agree more. I shudder to think of a future without the Teach Beach. I have been swimming there 2-3 times per week since last year around this time. I was also a member of an Ontario Place ice plunging group and being able to access free cold immersion therapy was a game changer for my health. I support Dr Mann and all of he rest of the Pebble Beach community

  4. I was so happy to discover Teach Beach and Ontario Place this winter, via Steve Mann and Swim OP. It really is a special place and offers people a place to sunbathe, swim, paddle, and enjoy the natural elements of which there is so little of in a city of millions. Unfortunately, those who choose to enjoy these healthy activities are being chased out, in favour of development and privatization. Don’t we have enough development in Toronto? Let’s leave well enough alone – as Dr. Mann points out in this article, Teach Beach is a naturally clean and inviting space. Let’s shift the plans to instead make the existing space more accessible to all Torontonians with free (or at least cheaper parking) and year-round washrooms and changerooms.

  5. A brilliant summation of what can happen organically, intelligently and responsibly when natural resources and people interaction are not artificially planned, marketed and managed to death. Thank you Dr. Mann and SwimOP fellow swimmers and beachcombers. See you at the beach!

  6. I am so grateful to come across Teachbeach and the generous community. It is a beautiful spot in the heart of the city for swimmers and non-swimmers alike. I am all for making it more accessible and used year round but low impact to the existing, organic space. Anything like a waterpark would completely detract from the current serenity. There are many models around the world on how to improve accessibility at low impact/ low cost and retain/enhance public benefit.

  7. Swimming at Ontario Place is one of my favourite summer activities; I’m not in the same hardy camp as Steve or the cold water swimmers who swim year-round, but the beauty of open water swimming in our Great Lake is undeniable and enviable. Swimming is my form of meditation and the community of open water swimmers is one that is welcoming, compassionate, thoughtful and environmentally-attuned. Thanks for this article, Steve!

  8. Fantastic article and bravo to these intrepid swimmers! So many people depend on Ontario Place to enjoy the outdoors in many ways. It is a huge mistake for the Provincial Government to give it away to businesses who will privatize most of the space and disrupt the active uses. What intelligent government in the world is giving away parkland in this world of pandemic, climate crisis and growing economic inequality. Instead of defeating the way the public is using this space, the Ford government has an opportunity to support and build on the work that city builders like the OP swimmers are doing. The Provincial redevelopment of Ontario Place is wrong in so many ways. It has to be stopped!

  9. Beach access is so important to mental health.

    As Toronto builds more skyscrapers than almost any other place on earth, it’s crucial that we protect our connection with the natural world.

    Teach Beach is the most important and only unimpeded access points to Lake Ontario in Toronto’s downtown core.

    Keep Toronto communities healthy and together by preserving our natural connections. Let’s make Teach Beach an example that the entire world can be proud of.

    When we think of development, let’s follow our hearts and keep our connection with one another.

    To quote Frank Lloyd Wright:

    “God is the great mysterious motivator of what we call nature, and it has often been said by philosophers that nature is the will of God. And I prefer to say that nature is the only body of God that we shall ever see.”

  10. If the city can recognize the importance of our beaches in it’s promotional literature and budget for life guards and blue flag status, I am hopeful that once our citizens know about this unique beach, something can be done to preserve it. I don’t know who owns the lands but I know NO ONE owns the water and we have an obligation of stewardship for future generations. This is a city wide issue not just a user issue because it is about public access. I may not have used this beach yet, but I want to be able to in the future.

  11. TeachBeach is a gem in the city, and I discovered it through the activities of Steve Mann and via my friend Scott who commented above. Steve organizes a community of swimmers, and I am very grateful to him for introducing me to this place.

    Swimming in cold water has excellent effects on mental and physical health. There are studies that show an increase in dopamine that lasts for several hours after cold water exposure – but you do not need studies to experience it. For millennia people have used cold water to heal and stay in shape. TeachBeach offers an excellent, around-the-year entry point for a safe swim in our beautiful Lake Ontario.

    Moreover, pebbles and rocky shore makes for cleaner water and cleaner swimming experience. It is true that sand can damage the mobility equipment, therefore a pebble beach is more inclusive that a sand beach.

    How can anybody think of closing this beach? It should be maintained for everybody to use, at all times of day and year. This is public property, and the best use of the property is for swimming.

  12. access to TeachBeach changed my life, saved my life,
    i need it, we need it to remain naturally thrilling, accessible & free.
    first discovered in late Spring 2020 – a place to escape to, rest, be in nature, contemplate, let go & swim! at age 63, i was newly diagnosed with breast cancer + about to shift to on-line teaching in both a university & conservatory – an enormous, stressful learning curve. the ability to cycle to OP in 15 minutes in every season, 1-5 days per week, to walk on the beach, exercise, play, enjoy the weather, look at lady Lake O, the sky, the clouds, listen to the waves, the birds, to walk among the West Island’s trees & haunted magic, to see swans, foxes & goslings – to be enveloped & held in nature’s healing embrace is just that – healing. engaging with the Lake & swimming are also part of the healing & the joy. it is estimated that some 5000 people regularly enter Lake O at Teachbeach, the Swim OP Facebook group numbers more than 1000 with new members joining weekly. I continue to cycle to OP TeachBeach regularly in every season, its been my experience that OP itself is always full of people & activity – in every season! This is OP’s charm, its magic & preciousness – a place for people of all backgrounds & means, accessible & free. PLEASE, let’s keep it this way.

  13. I love this place. I stumbled onto it this earlier this summer and have made it a daily habit. Being there, seeing how vital a place this is, seeing how many friendly ‘regulars’ there are of every shape, size, age and physical description, warms my heart and helps me keep the encroaching darkness of urban living at bay. After a just a few visits I got a real sense that this is a much loved and cared for public space…that it is a real neighborhood. People downtown—especially in the west end— are in desperate need of loved open spaces like this. The last decade or more of unchecked development and increased density in Liberty Village and City Place has left a real deficit of public space in this area. More and more downtowners, both renters and condo owners, are paying dearly for a view of a waterscape which remains largely inaccessible to them. I hope that Teach Beach is not on the chopping block. I’ve come to realise in a very short time that I need this beach. I know that I’m not alone in this.

  14. I’m from St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), a place where we have long fought for our rights to access the sea freely and without interruption / impediment. “Developments” of various sorts have threatened to take away our access to what is widely understood as a space of significant cultural, physical and spiritual meaning / practice. I was unaware (until recently) that these same struggles for unimpeded access to aquatic spaces exist in Canada.

    After living outside of Canada for over a decade (most recently in SVG) I returned to Toronto in January 2022 for health reasons: a seemingly endless stream of neurosurgeon appointments, disappointments and severe pain ensued. I no longer had friends or family in the city after spending so long away. It was a very dark time for me – almost every activity / person I had relied upon for my mental, physical and emotional health had been removed from my life.

    Desperate, anxious and sad, I turned to cold therapy. But sustained, daily use of a wonderful ice bath and sauna spot in downtown TO was not affordable for me. Seeking guidance, I stumbled upon the SwimOP Facebook group and was warmly welcomed into the crew. I began cold plunging at Teachbeach, I began making friends, and I began perceiving the city as an aquatic space: this really resonated with me as an islander immigrant to Canada. After a winter and spring full of visits to Teachbeach, I could not believe how much better I felt. Family back home could hear the positivity in my voice when we spoke on the phone. My pain had lessened, I no longer needed opioids. My anxiety was dramatically reduced. I have friends who feel like family.

    I write this with tears in my eyes as I think of how Teachbeach transformed my life – and how other folks who’ve migrated to Canada find senses of belonging, peace, and wellness at Teachbeach, in what can be a very hard city to navigate as a newcomer or outsider. Teachbeach is a place of affordable, accessible, and scientifically-recognized health practices for a wide array of persons. I don’t know how I – or others I know – will sustain our mental, emotional and physical health if Teachbeach is restricted. I’m scared of spiralling back into a pit of loneliness and depression / anxiety / pain without access to this beach.

    I implore you to think of the consequences of curtailing access to Teachbeach!

  15. The health benefits to the thousands who use the OP Beach are priceless. It must be protected in its natural state. I love swimming in Lake Ontario along with so many others. The city would be a sorry place without this beloved beach

  16. Let protect this place for the benefit of the community. I support any intiative to preserve and have full access to the beach and since it’s a public space, it should be accessible anytime

  17. Thank you for the article, I whole heartedly agree. Please help to keep the OP teach beach, we all need it. Is there going to be a petition to sign?

  18. This is a really fantastic pebble beach downtown. There is a serene and beauty to this space.

    I joined the swimmers on a “Blue Monday” in the depths of winter one January. Still in the midst of a high wave of the pandemic and feeling emotionally low, they immediately welcomed a new cold water swimmer to experience the benefits of the water. Now it is a fabulous spot to spend time in summer cooling off. Any loss of public access to water is terribly sad, and to dismiss the community benefit and potential of this place is a huge oversight.

  19. We like to be out in nature so much because it has no opinion about us – Nietzsche

    Teachbeach has always been such an important place for me, especially during the pandemic. From sunrises to sunsets, to winter picnics and catching up with friends!
    Truly devastating news if this is the case. Shame on you Ontario Place.

    Let’s save our beach!
    Steve you have my support, anything to help!

  20. Teach beach has been therapy for me. Is where I have been learning how to use a paddle board. I learned that by collecting excess lake weed and algae, it can be used to create good soil and as fertiliser for 3 tomato plants and a sunflower I planted as an experiment in the area. I have met very talented people. The lake water washes away all my troubles, negativity, stress and fear. Also swimming in the cold lake water reduces the need for high blood pressure medications. Teachbeach attracts, all year round, Foxes, crickets, rabbits, ducklings, goslings, etc. Which is a great opportunity to introduce children to that area. The sound of waves, singing crickets and birds is better than sleeping medication. Let’s keep the teachbeach public and enjoy this natural paradise.

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