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.
Water has been holding us for a long time. Mum says that all the years we’ve been together as a family, the ocean has held us together: “We have a bond I can’t even explain that comes through the sharing of waves, getting out in the freezing cold when you were a tiny wee kid.” Water has been holding all of humanity for a long time. When I was twelve, my mother gave me a copy of environmentalist Rachel Carson’s book, The Sea Around Us, where Carson followed these aquatic roots back even further into the sea, highlighting the evolutionary connection between the sea and all living creatures: When they went ashore the animals that took up a land life carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origin in the ancient sea.
As a lifelong surfer, I was gifted this sea connection, or blue heritage, through stories passed down like genetic code from my surfing family, ancestry and place of belonging in Donegal. But it’s not just me who has this blue heritage. Recent studies have shown how simply being near water can have a positive impact on our wellbeing, and that time spent in the water, especially the sea, can improve our self-awareness, creativity, health, and reinforce our connection to ourselves, each other and nature.
This human-water connection is what marine biologist Wallace J Nichols calls “Blue Mind”. The ocean shapes our identity, our sense of being and belonging. 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. Like Rachel Carson says, we are all linked with this watery origin in the ancient sea.
Our bodies have been shaped and formed by water. We literally have an ocean inside us. Like the Earth, which is over 70% ocean, our bodies are about 60–70% water. And like our mammalian cousins, such as dolphins, seals and whales, we too have evolutionary aquatic markers.
Water is so important to us that we have developed rituals, both personal and communal. For example, I’ve spent most of my surfing life competing. To help focus my attention and not let the distractions of a busy contest site affect me – the noise of loud-speakers announcing scores, spectators watching, other competitors warming up – I created a pre-surf ritual for myself. Every time, before the start of a heat, I would splash my face with water. It was something that grounded me. Water rituals have a long history in Ireland, with holy wells, once the sites of older pagan rituals, still holding importance today for spiritual practice and pilgrimage. My maternal grandmother would never let us leave the front door of the house without blessing our foreheads with holy water. It marked that transition from the safety of the home, the inner world, to the world outside and whatever journey we might discover. She swore that the sea was a “tonic for the soul”.
My pre-surf ritual also marked my crossing of the threshold from the solidity of the land to the fluidity of the sea, from a human into a more-than-human world. It was a ritual that helped me move through this liminal space. In a way, it also had a familiarity from Catholic Ireland and the anointing of the forehead with holy water as a form of protection and inviting the Holy Spirit to come to us. It was my way of asking for the sea’s blessing but it also woke my senses to the quality of the sea I was about to immerse myself in. I could feel the temperature of the water on my skin and taste the saltiness on my lips. We have three times more cold-water receptors than warm on our skin. This had the effect of priming my body and helping me feel more at home, especially when I surfed unfamiliar spots. I immediately felt more refreshed, and a little calmer. I didn’t fully understand then what I now know to be the “evidence” behind this ritual.
Advancements in neuroscience are exploring the effect of water on our mind-body connection. For example, take our optical nerve and how simply looking at water, even an aquarium or image of water, changes our brainwave’s frequency, putting us in a more meditative, calmer state. Most recently, scientific research is linking regular coldwater immersions with a reduced risk of dementia. The intuitive splashing of water on my face is even linked to one of our oldest evolutionary markers, the mammalian dive reflex. The calm I felt was the slowing of my heart on contact with water.
Water has the incredible ability to reconnect us to our bodies, to our sense of self. It is the fluid medium that has connected and supported societies over millennia.
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