Everyone loves the beach, but there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that it’s more than just a nice place to be - it could actually be vital for your health.
By Oliver Berry
(9 minute read)
“Like everyone, I started out with grand dreams and ambitions, in my case about becoming a jet-setting travel writer and bestselling author,” recalls Joe Minihane. “But instead of this glamorous lifestyle I found myself writing about mobile phones, games consoles and Bluetooth speakers. Things just hadn’t gone as planned.”
Sometime in his late twenties, Joe realised he was dissatisfied with life. Gradually, he began to feel anxious. Having suffered from mild anxiety since his twenties, he recognised the feelings – but this time, they were different. He was unhappy – profoundly unhappy – and knew something needed to change. The problem was he didn’t have the faintest idea what, until one hot summer’s day when his wife suggested taking a dip in the Hampstead Mixed Bathing Pond.
“To be honest I wasn’t that keen,” he laughs. “I wasn’t a great swimmer, especially not outdoors. But the moment I got in, I fell in love with it. I didn’t appreciate how calming it was, stepping into natural water. But the interesting thing was that when I got out, I realised I felt a darn sight better about everything than I had beforehand.”
Soon after, he came across a book called Waterlog, in which the late nature writer Roger Deakin recounted his own wild swimming experiences. Joe decided to recreate Deakin’s odyssey by swimming in every river, pond, lake and pool mentioned in the book, recording his odyssey in a blog (waterlogreswum.com) and, later, his own memoir Floating: A Life Regained.
“Swimming outdoors just worked for me. It made me feel calmer, more centred. For the first time, I wasn’t standing on top of the world looking down at it. I was inside it, looking out – experiencing what Deakin called the ’frog’s eye view’. I felt this deep connection with the natural world. And that was when I started to get better.”
It’s long been known that being on, in or near the water can have beneficial effects on our health and well-being. In the Victorian era, people flocked to the seaside hoping for cures for ailments as diverse as rheumatism, tuberculosis and asthma; a century later, people escape to the coast to leave behind their pressurised, urbanised, digitised modern lives.
Some find it surfing a wave. Others find it fishing on the riverbanks, wandering the cliff-tops, or paddling in rock-pools. The result is the same; people feel better when they spend time close to water. The question is, why?
Step forward Wallace ‘J.’ Nichols: marine biologist, conservationist and research associate at the California Academy of Sciences. For many years, Wallace’s research – both academic and anecdotal – had pointed to the health benefits of proximity to water. In 2014, he explored some of his research ideas in a book, Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do, interspersing his findings with background interviews with surfers, scuba-divers, conservationists, neuroscientists, psychologists and researchers. The book became an international bestseller.
The thrust of Nichols’ argument is that the ‘blue mind’ is a natural state which gets drowned out by two other conflicting mind-states: the ‘red mind’ (caused by the stresses, stimulations and chatter of the modern world) and the ‘grey mind’ (feelings of lethargy, lack of focus and general dissatisfaction). Humans, Nichols maintains, have an innate connection with water; being near it helps us reconnect with our own internal blue minds, triggering feelings of calm, contentment and inner peace.
“Water quiets all the noise, all the distractions, and connects you to your own thoughts,” he writes. “For many of us, until that moment of observance or submergence, we work hard and struggle to maintain our ancient, personal connection to water. There is an interdependency with the natural world that goes beyond ecosystems, biodiversity, or economic benefits; our neurons and water need each other to live.”
Blue spaces make us feel happier, calmer and healthier. Our aim is to find out why.
It’s an idea that’s being explored by many academic institutions around the world, including the University of Exeter’s ECEHH (European Centre for Environment & Human Health). Working with inter-disciplinary teams from across the EU, their BlueHealth 2020 project is the first academic, scientifically rigorous programme of research to establish the quantifiable health benefits of water environments, or ‘blue spaces’. Ultimately, the team hopes their data will both influence policy (for example, on health spending, urban planning, coastal management and marine development) and also come up with clinical therapeutic treatments that make use of the ‘blue space’ effect (current topics of investigation include prescribed ‘nature doses’ and virtual reality immersion in headsets).
“We know the stresses of everyday life consume a lot of your ‘cognitive resources’, or brain-power,” explains environmental psychologist and researcher Dr Lewis Elliott. “We also know that getting into natural environments is one of the best ways to restore these resources. But what’s interesting is that blue spaces seem to have a unique edge when compared to, say, green spaces. There are many theories why that might be – more physical activity, perhaps, or improved air quality, or increased serotonin uptake, or most likely, a combination of different factors. What we know for sure is that blue spaces make us feel happier, calmer, and healthier. We want to find out why.”
One person who has an unusually intimate relationship with the world of water is world-champion freediver Tanya Streeter. In 2002, she set a new record for ‘no-limits’ freediving, with a dive of 160m; it’s still the deepest no-limits dive ever performed by a woman. “I’ve never quite been able to explain my relationship with the sea as eloquently as the way I feel it,” she says. “But when I discovered my talent for breath-hold diving, I felt protected in the aquatic environment in a way I have never felt on land. Freediving forces you to look within yourself, because the challenge is great and the solitude deep in the ocean is so pure.”
Sam Bleakley is someone else who has devoted their life to understanding water. An ex-pro surfer, he is now a documentary maker and author; his book, Mindfulness and Surfing, examines the many ways in which being in the water can calm your mind. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more philosophical about the water,” he explains. “I’ve realised it’s not so much about the quality of the wave or what you do on it. The important thing is just to be in there. There’s as much value in paddling out, feeling the spray on your face, noticing the rainbows, waiting for sets, as there is in actually taking off on a wave. It’s about being present; existing in that moment. Appreciating it. Living it.”
Water will always teach you something. You just need to be open to it, and know what to look for.
“For me, it’s to do with the liminality of water,” says Paul Miles, who has spent much of the last decade cruising England’s 2,000 miles of waterway on a 57ft narrowboat. “Water is neither earth, nor air. You exist between two worlds. It’s the simple things you notice: the reflection of sunlight, the rocking of the boat as you move, the sound of raindrops falling on water, watching leaves floating past. It’s incredibly calming. And you get a different view every day. You only get that when you live on the water.”
“Intuitively, people enjoy having a relationship with water,” adds Tristan Gooley, author of How to Read Water, which provides a compendium of techniques to interpreting water in all its myriad forms. “It sounds strange, but water has this incredible cast-list of characters – rip currents, glitter paths, diffraction, undertow – that we all know, even if we can’t put a name to them. And what’s amazing is that you can see these things working in almost any body of water, whether it’s on a great big lake or a puddle in the middle of the park. Water will always teach you something. You just need to be open to it, and know what to look for.”
“Ultimately, I think it’s that sense of limitlessness,” concludes Sam Bleakley. “That endless horizon. It promotes open-mindedness and creativity. It promises possibility. It creates a space in my mind I can’t get from anything else. It’s become fundamental in my spirit, my productivity, my well-being. Even if I’m not surfing, if I’m away from the sea for too long, I just don’t feel balanced. I don’t feel like me.”