Abstract Microcosm studies have been carried out to find out the relative survival of Escherichia coli and Salmonella typhimurium in a tropical estuary. Survival has been assessed in relation to the important self-purifying parameters such as biotic factors contained in the estuarine water, toxicity due to the dissolved organic and antibiotic substances in the water and the sunlight. The results revealed that sunlight is the most important inactivating factor on the survival of E. coli and S. typhimurium in the estuarine water. While the biological factors contained in the estuarine water such as protozoans and bacteriophages also exerted considerable inactivation of these organisms, the composition of the water with all its dissolved organic and inorganic substances was not damaging to the test organisms. Results also indicated better survival capacity of E. coli cells under all test conditions when compared to S. typhimurium.