The harbour is called Jipugtug by the Mi'kmaq first nation, anglisized as Chebucto. It runs in a northwest-southeast direction.
Based on average vessel speeds, the harbour is strategically located approximately one hour's sailing time north of the Great Circle Route between the Eastern Seaboard and Europe. As such, it is the first inbound and last outbound port of call in eastern North America with transcontinental rail connections. The harbour is largely formed by a drowned glacial valley which succumbed to sea level rise since glaciation. The Sackville River now empties into the upper end of the harbour in Bedford Basin, however its original river bed has been charted by the Canadian Hydrographic Service throughout the length of the harbour and beyond.
The harbour includes the following geographic areas:
- Northwest Arm Another drowned river valley now largely used by pleasure boats.
- The Narrows A constricted passage to Bedford Basin.
- Bedford Basin A sheltered bay and the largest part of the harbour.
The harbour is home to several small islands. The harbour limit is actually formed by the northern end of its largest island - McNabs Island. The largest island entirely within the harbour limits is Georges Island, a glacial drumlin similar to its dryland counterpart at Citadel Hill. Several small islands are located in the Bedford Basin near Bedford and Burnside.
There is also a small peninsula known as Deadman's Island (for the burial location of War of 1812 prisoners of war) in the Northwest Arm.
Although outside the defined harbour limits, Lawlor Island and Devils Island are also frequently included in descriptions of Halifax Harbour and the surrounding area.
Halifax's official harbour limit for navigational purposes is delineated by a line running from Herring Cove on the west side of the main channel, to the northern end of McNabs Island, then from McNabs Island across the Eastern Passage to the actual community of Eastern Passage on the east side of the island. The harbour is marked by an extensive network of buoys and lighthouses, starting with Sambro Island Lighthouse at the harbour approaches, the oldest operating lighthouse in North America. The west entrance point marking the beginning of the inner approach using this channel is located near Chebucto Head, approximately 12 kilometres (7 mi) south of the limit.
Shallow draught vessels (less than 2.5 m, 8.5 ft) may use the Eastern Passage, which runs on the east side of McNabs Island; however, continuous silting makes charted depths unreliable. Large vessels have compulsory tugboats, with harbour pilots boarding at the pilot station off Chebucto Head. Vessels wishing to transit The Narrows between the outer harbour and Bedford Basin must travel one at a time; this rule was established after the disastrous Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917 when a collision between the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc and the Norwegian Imo destroyed part of Halifax and Dartmouth.
Canada's navy, Maritime Command (MARCOM) maintains a large base housing its Atlantic fleet Maritime Forces Atlantic (MARLANT) along the western side of The Narrows, as well as an ammunition depot (CFAD Bedford) on the northeastern shore of Bedford Basin. There are strict security regulations relating to vessels navigating near MARCOM facilities and anchorages.
There are two large suspension bridges crossing The Narrows:
- the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge, opening in 1955
- the A. Murray MacKay Bridge, opening in 1970
The Halifax Port Authority is a federally-appointed agency which administers and operates various port properties on the harbour. Previously run by the National Harbours Board, the HPA is now a locally-run organization.
HPA facilities include:
- South End Container Terminal - Piers 36-42 (currently operated by Halterm Limited, with several gantry and post-Panamax cranes)
- Halifax Grain Elevator
- Ocean Terminals - Piers 23-34
- Seawall - Piers 20-22, Cruise Ship Pavilion and Pier 21 museum
- Richmond Terminals - Piers 9 and 9A
- Richmond Offshore Terminals - Piers 9B-9D (multi-user supply base for offshore oil and gas exploration/production)
- Fairview Cove Container Terminal - (currently operated by Cerescorp)
- National Gypsum Wharf - (currently operated by National Gypsum to serve Wrights Cove gypsum terminal)
- Woodside Atlantic Wharf - (vessel lay-up and repair, oil platform servicing)
- Imperial Oil Wharves - (currently operated by Imperial Oil to serve Dartmouth refinery)
- Ultramar Oil Wharves - (currently operated by Ultramar to serve the petroleum storage facility)
- Eastern Passage Autoport - (currently operated by CN)
- Morrison Dock - (Owned by Morrison Fleet)
- Bombardier Dock - (Owned by Bombardier Fleet)
- Knudson Dock - (Owned by Knudson Tugs)
All HPA facilities are serviced by CN. It provides on-dock daily train service to Montreal, Toronto, Detroit and Chicago. The railway also
In addition to HPA facilities, the following users have port facilities:
- Irving Shipbuilding operates the Halifax Shipyard, a medium-sized vessel construction and repair yard. The yard contains two floating drydocks (the largest is Panamax size) plus one graving dock and various shore-based operations.
- MARLANT operates the HMC Dockyard, Dockyard Annex, CFAD Bedford, and York Redoubt through CFB Halifax. There are also military docking facilities located adjacent to the Shearwater Heliport.
- Canadian Coast Guard operates CCG Base Dartmouth, housing part of the Atlantic and Arctic fleets as well as pollution response and navigation aids maintenance facilities.
- Bedford Institute of Oceanography maintains docking facilities for various government scientific vessels. Shannon Hill, above the BIO campus is also home to CCG's "Halifax Marine Communications and Traffic Services" which operates Halifax Coast Guard Radio and the Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) centre ("Halifax Traffic"), providing continuous radar coverage of all harbour activity.
- There are several marinas on the harbour:
- Armdale Yacht Club (Northwest Arm)
- Bedford Basin Yacht Club (Bedford)
- Dartmouth Yacht Club (Wrights Cove)- Burnside
- Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron (Northwest Arm)
- Shearwater Yacht Club (Shearwater)
- St. Mary's Boat Club (Northwest Arm)
- Waegwoltic Club (Northwest Arm)
- There are 2 Automated Weather stations within the harbour
- McNabs Island
- Weather buoy Station 44258
Halifax Harbour is noted for many shipwrecks both in the inner and outer harbour. A few ships were sunk at the edge of the harbour approaches during World War 2 by German U-Boats but the vast majority were claimed by harbour accidents. Mapping of the harbour revealed about 45 shipwrecks in the harbour. Near the mouth of the harbour, over 50 magnetic anomalies have been discovered, most of which also represent shipwrecks with many others buried underneath the muddy sediments. All historic shipwrecks in Halifax Harbour are protected by Nova Scotia's Special Places Act which makes it illegal to remove artifacts without a permit. Noteworthy wrecks include (with sinking dates):
- Athelviking: Torpedoed by German submarine U-1232 on January 14, 1945
- Barge in Bedford Basin as the result of the Magazine explosion of 1945.
- SS British Freedom - sunk the same day as the Athelviking by U-1232
- Clayoquot, December 24, 1944
- Deliverance, June 15, 1917
- Erg, July 6, 1943: 19 lives lost
- Good Hope, March 16, 1929
- Governor Cornwallis, December 22, 1944 by fire
- Gertrude de Costa, March 18, 1950
- Havana, April 26, 1906: Rammed by the steamer Strathcona, at night while anchored.
- Kaaparen, June 14, 1942: Collision while forming a convoy.
- Fragments of SS Mont-Blanc blown up in the Halifax Explosion, the world's largest man-made accidental explosion.
- MS Clementine, July 27th, 2008: Faulty shipping lane cables guided the ship into a reef.
- CS Raniere & CS Mauna Loa, February 14th, 2009: Both ships sunk in the munitions disaster.
The Port has it's own fleet. It is as follows:
- Pearl & Petra The Pilot Boats are the ports pilot boats. They lead the ships to their berth during tows, but never do so when the Knudson's are towing. Sometimes, they need to attach a towing cable & help or put on a water show while leading out cruise ships. Pearl is usually very serious about her job, but Petra is fun-loving. They have weak hulls, so when ice drifts into the harbor, they remain moored. This also makes them suceptible to scuttling attempts by the Knudson's.
- Constance The Coast Guard is the official coast guard of the Port. She is usually very serious, but can be fun too, when she played "Spotlight Tag" with Theodore & Hank. Since then, however, the game has been forgotten. She always catches the Knudon's in the act of trying to steal Barrington Barge.
- Port Authority is self-explanitory. They own a boat named "Obama", who enforces Port law (the laws are listed below). He also sets up staging areas for cargo & container ships to line up for an open berth during the Summer Rush.
- The port owns nearly 400 barges.
- There are 4 bell buoys in the port: Bedford, Bingham, Blandford & Blankston. They serve as marker buoys.
- The port owns 2 ferries: Phillip & Filmore. They are Car & Passenger Ferries, going between the ferry terminals. Motorist often prefer them in lieu of the Benjamin B. Bridge, who is usually crowded during commute times.
- Baddeck is a buoy boat who brings in new buoys, removes old buoys & takes the existing to the buoy servicing dock.
- Digby is a cable ship. His function is often said to be laying telecommunications cables, but his real function is to lay cables designating shipping lanes.
The Port has laws. They include:
- No large ship can move under it's power.
- No illegal scuttling.
- No dumping.
- No Smoking.
- No striking buoys.
- No disrespecting Port Authority.
- Speed Limit: 15 knots.
- No blocking the shipping lanes.
- Remain in the staging area until you are given the authorizationg to move to the first marker buoy. Then, wait for at least 2 tugboats to tow you in the rest of the way.
- Towing fee: $100.
- No spitting.
- Do not trust the Knudson Fleet
- Do not assault Port Authority or risk being sent to the shipbreaker yard
- ABSOLUTELY NO DRUGS OR TERRORISTS ALLOWED!