A guide to the best local swim spots
DIABLO MAGAZINE: June 2021
Increased fitness, unbeatable views, and an instant mood boost: the benefits of open-water swimming are drawing growing numbers of swimmers to the East Bay’s coastal waters. Whether it’s Alameda’s 2.5-mile sandy shoreline,the Berkeley Marina’s more challenging chop, or the relatively calm cove at Richmond’s Keller Beach, saltwater swimming is making a splash.
“It starts my day like nothing else can,” says Berkeley resident Amy Ecclesine, who has been open-water swimming almost daily since the pandemic began. Her go-to spot is the Berkeley Marina by the UC Aquatic Center. “It’s like an adrenaline rush and an endorphin high that’s all natural,” she says, having just completed a 40-minute swim in the Bay. The allure of this spot is that it’s pretty well protected from whitecaps and wind. Timingthe swim with high tide, she says, the water depth at the dock is six to eight feet, gradually cascading down to a deeper trough near the site of the former Hs Lordships restaurant. It’s a half-mile swim out and back, where restrooms and an outdoor shower await. (Local company Odyssey Open Water Swimming organizes regular swims here as well as a range of aquatic events elsewhere in the Bay; see sidebar for more information.)
For seasoned swimmers, the ocean beats a chlorinated public pool any day. It’s free, doesn’t require a reservation, and the lanes are as wide as your imagination. There’s also the prospect of meeting some new—albeit salty—friends.
“I’ve swum with seals out here,” says Ecclesine. “They’re very intelligent. They’ll come up when I’m breathing and then go back down. And I know there’s communication.”
Berkeley and Richmond Waterfronts
At Keller Beach, a popular site that’s part of the Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline, Lydia Ruiz loves communing with nature. American coots bob along with their buoyant black bodies and striking white beaks, and the occasional sea lion dives in the distance. “You feel a sense of oneness with creation,” says Ruiz, adding that the aquatic environment makes you feel weightless and heightens your senses.
Unlike the Berkeley Marina, Keller Beach seems secluded—a cove with sheltered waters and views of the Golden Gate and Richmond bridges. Homes sit atop the cliffs, and picnic tables are perched on the grassy knoll above the sand.
Ruiz and a friend swim here every couple of weeks, sans wet suits. With water temps ranging roughly from 50 degrees in winter to 60 in the early fall, a swimsuit alone doesn’t give much warmth, but the secret, she says, is to ease into the routine. She started with a wet suit, and then one day decided to give it a try in just her swimsuit, without any neoprene. She says it took her two months of going in the frigid water for 10 or 15 minutes before she got used to it. Now she jogs a bit on the beach to get her heart rate up and then plunges in for a nice, long swim.
Touted by many as the warmest swim spot in the Bay, Alameda has a long, inviting stretch of shoreline adjacent to a grassy park and a designated bike path. The relatively shallow water here has become increasingly popular with swimmers and aqua joggers, not to mention kayakers and paddleboarders.
On the north end, Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach is a well-managed East Bay regional park that is popular with families and swimmers alike. It’s best to come at high tide or you’ll have to hike out past the mudflats to the open water.
On any given day, you’ll find early morning swimmers at Crown Beach. In warm weather, sunbathers sprawl along the sand while waders dart in and out of the gently lapping waves. It’s easy to imagine why this area was called the Coney Island of the West from the 1880s until the Depression forced its closure in 1939. Neptune Beach, as it was known then, featured pools and fountains, diving platforms, and even a carnival midway.
The carnival attractions have made way for an attraction of another kind: the return of the snowy plover. In recent years, Crown Beach has become a sanctuary for this plump, buff-colored bird, which nests in the sand in winter.
Another Alameda swim spot is Encinal Beach, tucked behind Encinal High School. The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) is making improvements to this beach, which offers an outdoor shower as well as a boat ramp. (Encinal Beach is part of the Bay Area Water Trail, allowing kayakers and boaters access to 450 square miles of open water.)
Open-water swimming requires little in the way of gear. When the water temperature is at its warmest, just a swimsuit will do (at least for the hardiest swimmers), but many also use wet suits, fins, bathing caps, water gloves, and even swim buoys. The inflatable buoys can be purchased with dry bags inside for your keys and cellphone.
What’s the downside? Open-water swimmers must sometimes contend with strong winds, waves, watercraft, and even hypothermia, making it imperative to swim with a buddy. Under less-than-calm conditions, a mile-long swim in the Bay can take almost twice as long as in a pool. There’s also the risk of water pollution, especially after a storm. EBRPD staff regularly analyze water samples and post results on the Park District website and at the beaches they regulate.
No one knows how long the pandemic and its impact on our daily lives will last, but swimmers looking to swap chlorine and crowded pools for an invigorating saltwater adventure need look no further than the East Bay’s shoreline.
Points of Entry
Top local spots for exhilarating swims in the San Francisco Bay.
201 University Ave., Berkeley berkeley-marina.com.
To learn more about swimming at the Berkeley Marina or to join a group swim, check out Odyssey Open Water Swimming at odysseyopenwater.com/berkeley.
Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline
900 Dornan Dr., Richmond ebparks.org/parks/miller_knox.
Restrooms and cold-water showers are available at Keller Beach.
Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach
Eighth St., Otis Dr., Alameda ebparks.org/parks/crown_beach.
Crown Beach has a bathhouse with changing rooms and shower towers nearby.