The Jersey Shore means the ocean to most people. But for a smaller number of folks, summer doesn't start until their first jump into a lake.
The place to be on a hot day for many of them is the city-owned Egg Harbor City Lake and Campground, a few miles north of downtown on Philadelphia Avenue.
"I come here three to four times a week. I'm not a beach person,'' said Whitley Meewilly, of Hammonton, as her children Jen' Daiyah, 3; and Natalia, 7, played in the shallows nearby. "There's no current to take the kids out,'' she told The Press of Atlantic City.
Meewilly also likes having a playground, bathrooms and snack bar at hand. And she camps there with her family once a year, she said.
Nearby Jodi McClain, of Mays Landing, sat listening to music on her iPod, as her 8-year-old daughter, Emily, played with her friend Keyaira Ripa, also 8.
"I choose to come here rather than The Cove,'' she said of the beach owned by Hamilton Township at Lake Lenape in her hometown. "It's tree-lined here, and there's more for the kids to do,'' including free mini golf and volleyball.
McClain said it is too difficult to load kids and supplies into the car and travel to an ocean beach, where there is no shade and usually no bathroom facilities, both freely available at the lake.
"And keeping an eye on the kids is harder at the ocean,'' she said.
There are several swimming lakes to choose from in South Jersey, owned and run by municipalities, counties and the state.
Water quality in each is monitored weekly for fecal coliform bacteria, which are associated with the presence of fecal matter, and with potential gastroenteritis and other illnesses, said Atlantic County Health Officer Patricia Diamond. Lakes are closed to swimming any time fecal coliform levels exceed state standards, which is uncommon.
Location within an area with limited development helps protect swimming areas from pollution that has damaged other lakes, said Victor Poretti, a section chief in the state Department of Environmental Protection's Freshwater Monitoring Program.
"A better habitat (around the lake) means less runoff and sediment,'' Poretti said. That includes a more tree-lined and shrubbery-lined shoreline, less development, and less impervious cover from roads and parking lots.
In addition, the watershed as a whole is important, since runoff can come from farther away and still end up in the lake.
Hammonton Lake is a good example. After decades as a swim lake, since July 2010 it has been completely closed to swimming due to high fecal coliform counts, and largely closed to swimmers for the same reason since1999.
The White Horse Pike skirts its northern end. While the town's Smith Conservation Area is off part of the large lake, it is mainly surrounded by residential development, roads and the playing fields at Hammonton Lake Park.
The lake is in a low spot in town. Dog and goose droppings, and other pollutants such as fertilizers that encourage algae growth, are swept into it by rainwater. Town Manager Jerry Barberio has said that fecal colifom levels jump every time it rains.
Edward Lifshitz, medical director of Communicable Disease Services at the New Jersey Department of Health, said there are always bacteria and viruses in lakes and other places, and most don't cause any health problems in people.
A small number are of particular concern, he said.
"In order to get sick, what has to happen is the water has to be contaminated and it has to get into the person's system,'' Lifshitz said. "Typically that's from ingesting water when swimming. You don't get sick by sticking a toe in the water.''
This summer Richard Stockton College student interns are working with Hammonton resident and Stockton Professor Tait Chirenje to get baseline data on what is in the Hammonton Lake water and how weather affects pollutant levels. He is hoping to help the town rehabilitate the water quality enough to reopen the lake to swimming, if residents would want it again.
But most popular swimming lakes in our region are in state parks or forests, away from development. Lake Nummy is in the 21,245-acre Belleplain State Forest in Woodbine; Atsion Recreation Area is in the 122,880-acre Wharton State Forest; Lake Absegami is in the 29,147-acre Bass River State Forest; and Parvin Lake is in the 2,092-acre Parvin State Park.
Still, Parvin Lake and Lake Nummy have had their problems. Both have been closed for a couple of days this summer, due to high fecal coliform levels, according to the DEP. Lots of rain is believed to be washing goose droppings into Parvin Lake, in particular, where geese have been a longstanding issue.
Back at Egg Harbor City Lake, Lifeguard Michael Jiampetti, 19, of Egg Harbor said it's his fifth summer working at the lake. Its lifeguards have to have both a regular lifeguard certification and waterfront certification for working at a lake, he said.
Ten students from the Little Lambs Christian Preschool in Mays Landing were splashing in the shallows, watched over by adults; and about 15 members of the Sanchez and Barbosa family, of Atlantic City, were having a family picnic.
"It's the first time we have come here. It's pretty and quiet,'' said Flor Barbosa. She said the family enjoys lakes more than the ocean.
"Nobody (in our family) really goes to the beach. It's too hot,'' Barbosa said, as she sat in the shade of trees in Egg Harbor.