Exploration

Blue heritage

Dr Easkey Britton, surfer and founder of Like Water, is a marine social scientist at the National University of Ireland Galway. The work of Easkey explores the relationship between people and the sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. Currently resides in Donegal, Ireland.

Words & photograph by Dr Easkey Britton

Born into a surfing way of life on the northwest coast of Ireland, to surfing parents with the beach on my doorstep, I was gifted a ‘blue heritage’. I grew up with family stories of our connection to the sea, standing on a surfboard since the age of four. My father and uncles were among the country’s first surfers, after they ‘liberated’ two surfboards that their mother, my grandmother Mary Britton, brought back to Donegal after a trip to America promoting tourism in the 1960s. The boards were intended for guests at the family hotel. Instead, my dad and his brothers kicked off a surf culture that thrives in Ireland today.  My Mum surfed all through her teens as well and said it was a lifeline for her growing up. 

My name, Easkey, has its origins in ancient Gaelic for fish. I’m named after an important salmon river in Ireland that creates a wave where it flows into the sea; it is my father’s favourite surf spot. My name reminds me that my identity is tied to the health of the water, the salmon and the sea. All of our identities are inextricably linked to the sea. We have all been shaped and formed by the ocean.

My life is lived by the tides and the cycle of the moon. From my home, I can hear the storms arriving from the Atlantic in the night. I plan my day around tide charts and predicted swell heights so that I can always make myself available to the ocean. It means my schedule often goes against linear notions of time which can sometimes cause problems in a society hooked on hyper-productivity but my ocean connection gives me balance and keeps me grounded. 

Writing ‘Saltwater in the Blood’ was my way to explore these cyclical connections more deeply, through my surfing. I wanted to present a new take on surfing — about immersion, about surrender to a force that is physical, emotional and messy. In the book, I translate some of those lessons learned from the sea and surf into our land-life back ashore. For me, it’s about letting go any need to perform and instead listening to our body, and how it responds to the natural, living world around us. My ocean connection and surfing experiences have taught me to embrace imperfections as we reconnect with ourselves and nature.

Biologically speaking and from an evolutionary perspective, all life came from the sea. I’m a huge fan of environmentalist and marine biologist Rachel Carson who wrote ‘The Sea Around Us’ in the 1950s (and later the groundbreaking Silent Spring, which altered our relationship with chemical use and led to the banning of DDT). Her pioneering work, weaving her passion for the sea into her scientific studies and how powerfully she wrote about our sea connection definitely inspired me. According to Carson, the sea remains in the saltwater of our blood, our cells, our DNA, from when the first animals came ashore and took up a land life — we are all linked with this watery origin in the ancient sea. This entanglement also means we can’t be well in a sick sea.

This is at the heart of Saltwater in the Blood — understanding our relationship with the ocean. If we could better protect and restore the ocean, then we would also have healthier people and communities. The wellbeing benefits to be gained from a healthy marine environment are just beginning to be understood. There is strong evidence now for the tremendous therapeutic potential of water, greater even than other types of natural environments. The healing potential of water is nothing new, it’s been known and practiced for millennia and is integral to indigenous cultures, but western science is finally catching up. For example, a recent review myself and my colleagues completed of studies investigating the healing effect of being in, on, near water found it especially beneficial for mental health, psychological wellbeing and social connection.

An element of risk and unpredictability, inherent to surfing and the sea, can actually be an important part of building resilience and confidence for people if they experience it in an enabling and supportive setting. My research with the INCLUSEA project highlights how the movement of the waves and the sense of freedom and weightlessness when immersed in saltwater can be incredibly empowering and restorative, especially for people with injuries or disabilities. We are only just beginning to understand what it is about water that makes it so healing. 

Issue 22
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

This feature appears in ISSUE 22: The wild isles of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 22
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

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