Reading the sea
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.
In my new book, 50 Things to do by the Sea, I share some activities and practices we can learn to ‘read’ and connect more deeply with the sea. In this issue of Oceanographic I’ll share just a few of my favourite ways to creatively explore our ocean connection. By learning to ‘read’ the sea, we can better understand and respect its power, which allows us to enjoy it safely. Reading the sea includes spending time watching the sea and noticing its changing moods, energy and patterns, such as the movement of tides and different types of waves. Each part of the coast and each beach has its own unique characteristics – and sometimes hidden dangers. By spending time getting to know the sea, we can begin to appreciate more deeply all it has to offer.
It’s perhaps little wonder that some of the greatest artists and writers throughout human history have been drawn to the sea for inspiration. The sea is visually stimulating with a thousand shades of constantly moving blue. The famous early 20th-century writer Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘each wave of the sea has a different light, just as the beauty of who we love’. Modern advances in psychology and neuroscience have caught up with what Woolf perceptively captured in her writing: how simply looking at the sea has an impact on our wellbeing. The colour blue is associated with feelings of calm and creativity. According to clinical psychologist Richard Shuster, watching the sea alters the frequency of our brain waves – putting us in a more meditative state. This is an important and beneficial effect at a time when increased stress and anxiety threaten to overwhelm us.
Next time you go to the coast, why not explore how many shades of blue can you see by taking a sketchbook and colouring pencils or paints with you. Take a moment to look at the sea as a colour palette, drinking in all the shades of blue can you see. Notice how these colours might shift, change or blend into each other depending on the weather, sun, clouds and wind. Paint a colour chart in your sketchbook of all the shades of blue you can see. Repeat this exercise on different days and seasons and compare. You may wish to note the weather conditions each day too. You might begin to notice patterns of colour and maybe even seasonal differences that reflect the different ‘moods’ of the sea.
The sea is not only visually stimulating. Listening to the sea can be an antidote to the daily noises and stressors we experience in more urban areas and cities. It’s the constant fullness and richness of sea sounds, like the rhythmic pulse of breaking waves, that has a soothing effect on our brain. Washing over us like a ‘sound bath’, sea sounds have the opposite effect to the shrill, unexpected staccato of traffic and other artificial street sounds that can create stress in the body. The sounds of the sea have a measurable effect on human health and wellbeing, bringing a sense of calm and reducing stress.
In an increasingly noisy world, listening to the sounds of the sea for just a few minutes can cause stress hormones like cortisol to drop. This can have a healing and restorative effect for people who are ill or recovering from illness by helping to reduce tension and perceived pain in the body. The ebb and flow of the sound of waves, gently breaking and washing up the beach before retreating back into the sea, helps to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system (our state of ‘rest and digest’). When activated, the parasympathetic nervous system helps us to relax and slow down, creating a meditative feeling of calm.
Another way to connect more deeply with sea next time you go to the beach, record sounds of the sea to play when you are back at home – playing it on a loop can be a great way to soothe your nervous system when trying to fall asleep at night. Try to record the sounds of the sea at different times of the day or on different days. Can you hear differences in the sound when the wind changes or on calmer or wilder days? If you are able to, send a recording from your favourite place by the sea to someone who can’t go to the sea right now and share the ocean’s ability to restore a sense of inner calm.
Adapted excerpt from ‘50 Things to Do by the Sea’ (out May 13th and available now to preorder.)
This column appears in ISSUE 18: End of the line of Oceanographic Magazine
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