The Mi'kmaq First Nation, long the occupants of this territory, called the harbour Jipugtug in their language. It was transliterated in English 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 limit is 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.
In the Northwest Arm is a small peninsula known as Deadman's Island, named for being the burial location of War of 1812 prisoners of war. Just 200 m west of Deadman's Island is the equally small Melville Island, which is connected to the mainland by road. Melville Island forms the eastern boundary of Melville Cove and is also the location of the Armdale Yacht Club. An adjacent residential community named itself after the cove.
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.
Deep draught vessels must use the main channel into the harbour, which runs on the west side of McNabs Island. 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 metres, 8.2 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 pilotage, 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 ship Imo destroyed part of Halifax and Dartmouth.
The Royal Canadian Navy maintains a large base housing Maritime Forces Atlantic along the western side of The Narrows, as well as an ammunition depot on the northeastern shore of Bedford Basin, CFAD Bedford. There are strict security regulations relating to vessels navigating near Navy facilities and anchorages.
After Confederation in 1867, boosters of Halifax expected federal help to make the city's natural harbor Canada's official winter port and a gateway for trade with Europe. Halifax's advantages included its location just off the Great Circle route made it the closest to Europe of any mainland North American port. But the new Intercolonial Railway (ICR) took an indirect, southerly route for military and political reasons, and the national government made little effort to promote Halifax as Canada's winter port. Ignoring appeals to nationalism and the ICR's own attempts to promote traffic to Halifax, most Canadian exporters sent their wares by train though Boston or Portland. Harbour promoters fought an uphill battle to finance the large-scale port facilities Halifax lacked, succeeding just before the First World War with the start of construction of the large docking facilities at Ocean Terminals in Halifax's South End. The war at last boosted Halifax's harbor into prominence on the North Atlantic.
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.
All HPA facilities are serviced by CN. It provides on-dock daily train service to Montreal, Toronto, Detroit and Chicago. The railway also operates the Halifax Intermodal Terminal (HIT) adjacent to the Richmond Terminals.
In addition to HPA facilities, the following users have port facilities:
Halifax Harbour has long been polluted as a result of two centuries of direct raw sewage discharge into its waters. The harbour's deep water, tidal dispersal of surface wastes and a relatively small population of the city of Halifax resulted in the harbour's presenting few health concerns until the late 20th century when sewage build-up caused the shut-down of all harbour beaches.
The Harbour Solutions project, initiated in the year 2000, was the culmination of three decades of discussion and planning regarding how the urban area would solve the expensive problem of sewage treatment and disposal. The CA$$400 million project was expected to be completed in late 2008 when the final of three new treatment plants was opened.
Testing of harbour waters in July 2008, with two of the three sewage treatment plants on-line, indicated that they are safe for swimming. Municipal public beaches at Black Rock Beach in Point Pleasant Park and at the Dingle Beach in Sir Sandford Fleming Park were officially re-opened on Saturday, August 2, 2008 (Natal Day weekend) after a 30-year closure due to sewage contamination in the water. Lifeguards are now providing supervision during regular hours through to Labour Day weekend. However repeated breakdowns in the new system have resulted in swimming bans being regularly re-imposed and periodic resumption of raw sewage discharge. From early 2009 on swimming was no longer allowed in the harbour because the plant flooded and stopped working. On the weekend of July 4, 2010 some beaches (like Black Rock Beach) reopened.
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 II 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 are listed chronologically (with sinking dates):