Living by the tide
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.
During the pandemic the sea has been a place of constancy for me. I’ve never been more grateful for its ability to soothe, hold, listen and restore, for the privilege of having the wild North Atlantic Ocean on my doorstep. And I am not the only one. This year has seen a huge surge in the numbers of people going to the coast and wanting to be in the sea. Yes, we are an island nation, but this desire for year-round immersion in the frigid waters off Ireland (where water temperatures are 8 to 10 degrees for most of the year) was mainly considered the reserve of a few mad eejits, until now. Sea swimming in particular has become so popular that every outdoor clothing store or surf shop is sold out of robies (those towel-like waterproof ponchos that have become de rigueur for cold water swimming).
Perhaps unsurprisingly for those of us drawn to the sea, evidence shows how blue spaces, outdoor bodies of water, are associated with lower risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders, as well as greater relaxation in adults and improved behavioural development and social connection in children.
During the summer, with pools closed, parents returned to swimming in the sea with their kids, rediscovering how much they needed it. Caitriona Lynch, founder of Ebb and Flow, a swim programme that introduces adults to sea swimming in Galway on the west coast of Ireland, told me she’d never seen so many people in the sea, “It’s powerful. People really needed the sea – the water and that sense of community, doing something together, it gave them so much.”
But with the huge influx and a lack of support or initiatives educating people who were new to the sea, who had yet to learn how to read the sea or how to be in the sea safely, there were a lot of risky things happening. “It’s really important to educate people. It’s not just about your personal experience, it’s about the environment you’re in, knowing the tides, winds and geography of a place,” Caitriona explains. “For me, what’s really important is helping people appreciate that it’s bigger than them and their experience. You’re part of this amazing place. Protect it and mind it for yourself and other people.”
A sense of belonging does not always have to come from social connection with other humans. For some, we need to be alone in order to reconnect with ourselves. For Caitriona, swimming alone offered a reprieve. “Me, alone with the sea. It felt like this is actually my home, right here.”
Water facilitates a full-bodied sense of connectedness with life. A recent national study on nature connection for health and wellbeing found sea swimming to be one of the most effective outdoor activities for significantly enhancing this sense of connectedness. This may be linked to it being a highly immersive and multi-sensory stimulating activity – taking in all the movement, colour, sounds, sensations and textures.
One woman in the study explained how when she felt like her world was falling apart the sea kept her together. This intense experience of being in the world, being present, taking away any need for striving, as this swimmer explained to me: “I’m not interested in being competitive, sometimes I just go out and roll on to my back and look up at the sky and I feel the release.” Being in, on, or near water has real potential to help buffer the psychological effects of this pandemic and successive lockdowns on mental health.
Someone whose life is lived by the tide is Anne Byrne, a senior lecturer in sociology and a lifelong swimmer since her grandmother taught her when she was a child. Now in her 60s, swimming in the sea has become her place of belonging and solace, where she immerses herself to feel “completely energised”, “recalibrated’ and “balanced.” The mental health benefits are profound. “If I couldn’t swim during lockdown, well, I would be very difficult to live with. My nervous and parasympathetic nervous systems would be on high-wire alert at all times and, ironically, I would be subdued.” Anne describes the sea as a place we can go to safely and freely release whatever it is we are feeling, without judgement. “We can’t be angry in the water… it’s impossible to feel ‘negative’, anxious or irritated while in the water… water offers respite from ourselves and our thoughts. My grandmother said, ‘you’ll never regret a swim’, and she’s right!”
The sea is more than metaphor. In the roar of the sea I can roar myself, releasing tense shoulder blades or a knotted stomach. I can cry freely too, my salty tears indistinguishable from the rest of the saltwater. It also gives me permission to feel joy. The simple joy of being, in every cell of my body.
This column appears in ISSUE 16: Bio-logging blue sharks of Oceanographic Magazine
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