Make time for the sea
Cal is a vet, ocean advocate and world-record stand up paddleboard adventurer who founded the UK charity Seaful to reconnect people to the ocean. In this column, she shares a personal anecdote about why she needs to make time for the sea.
I feel very fortunate to have a deep connection to the sea. It has been a place of joy and solace for me for as long as I can remember. This connection has only grown stronger the more time I have spent there, the more I’ve learnt about its wonders, the more I’ve worked to protect it and connect more people to it. But this week I realised that I’ve been hugely deprioritising my own personal relationship with the very thing that gives my life such purpose and joy. This year, I have travelled a lot in the UK. There have been periods when I’ve been away from the ocean for weeks on end. I have been constantly attempting to convince myself that I haven’t needed to get in the sea to stay alive. But I’ve come to realise that I do need the ocean to feel alive.
My relationship with the sea really deepened when I learnt to scuba dive on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef at the age of 18. An entire world opened up to me – colourful, awe-inspiring, breathtaking. Being able to breathe underwater, floating alongside turtles and fish larger than me, amongst this bustling yet calm, biodiverse metropolis, was the start of a deep appreciation into what is within our ocean and why it is worth fighting for.
At the same time, I was surfing more, becoming more in tune with the ocean’s raw power, its playfulness, its ever-changing shapes, and rhythms. Surfing, standup paddleboarding, kitesurfing… these all became hugely important parts of my life in my first few years working as a vet; they kept me sane amongst long hours in a stressful job. They were my reasons to work hard so that I could play hard; enjoy the sea and all the fun, laughter, camaraderie, learning and excitement that came along with it. That, in turn, is what led me on a path to protecting our ocean.
When I started leading standup paddleboard expeditions, my connection deepened even further. I started to feel like I was a part of nature, rather than apart from it. My days linked into the rhythm of the ocean, its tides, the wind – I was working with something so much bigger than myself. When it was just me and the sea, the noise of society quietened. It gave me the space to find authenticity and empowerment.
Amidst planning an expedition in 2017, I lost one of my closest friends to suicide. Until then, the term ‘mental health’ hadn’t really been in my vocabulary. But now it was front and centre as I came to terms with what my dear friend had endured and processed my own grief and ensuing depression. The spaciousness offered by days out at sea on my paddleboard gave me the space to be angry and devastated, but also to find calm and peace.
My relationship with the sea has morphed through the different stages and times of my life. I have never had to force it, it has always held me and helped me with whatever I needed. But over the last couple of years, with events such as COP26 and COP27 taking a front seat in my work, amidst making films about ocean protection and the reality of the threats our ocean faces and a worsening climate and biodiversity crisis, finding time for fun in the sea has taken a back seat.
Last week, I went home to my parents’ house in Devon for the first time in months. I was burnt out, depressed and a little lost. One day I went to the beach with a good friend to check the surf. It looked good. I grimaced at the thought of putting on a wet wetsuit, and we deliberated over the fact we had so much work to do. But I knew I needed to get in. I plunged into the cold water and completely lost track of time. Three hours disappeared while we rode waves and watched gulls dip their wingtips into the water as they gracefully flew by. We laughed so much, throwing all our cares into the strong offshore wind as we cheered each other into waves, whooped and laughed at every wipe out. I felt strong, connected, part of something bigger than me again. The expansiveness of the horizon put everything into perspective and sorted my thoughts. But most of all, I found flow, and I played. Life had become very serious, and I had dismissed play as something frivolous and unnecessary amidst all the tasks I had to complete
That afternoon after we’d warmed up, we were more productive in our work than we’d been for weeks. My fog of overwhelm and burnout lifted and I’m still riding the high a week later. I realise how incredibly privileged I am to have the means and opportunity to experience the ocean like this. I have known this for a while; I set up the charity Seaful to help more people who otherwise might not have the chance to experience our ocean. But somewhere along the way, I had stopped making my own time there a priority. Despite trying to convince myself of the contrary, I need to play in the sea. I need it for my mental health, for my genuine happiness, for my authentic connection, and for my productivity. I feel like I’ve finally succumbed to the understanding that for me personally, to be the most effective and authentic advocate for our seas, I need to practice what I preach; my own meaningful connection and time in the place I love. For me, that is waves, surf, and play. To feel truly alive, I need to make time for the sea.
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