The Big Blue

This story was originally commissioned for Watergate Bay Magazine.

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  

Sometime in his late twenties, Joe Minihane realised he was dissatisfied with life.

“Like everyone, I started out with grand dreams and ambitions, in my case about becoming a jet-setting travel writer and bestselling author,” he recalls. “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.”

Gradually, Joe 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.”

We are all water

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 for an escape from 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 catch is no-one really knows 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 gaining ground in academic circles – including at Exeter University’s ECEHH (European Centre for Environment & Human Health). Working with inter-disciplinary research teams across the EU, their BlueHealth 2020 project is the first scientific study that aims to quantify the benefits of ‘blue spaces’ (water-based environments). Ultimately, the team hopes their research will provide a framework for influencing public policy – on health spending, urban planning, coastal management and marine development, for example – but also suggest therapeutic treatments that can harness the benefits of the ‘blue space’ effect (their current avenues of research include prescribing short ‘nature hits’ and creating ‘blue space’ VR headsets).

“We know the stresses of everyday life consume a lot of your ‘cognitive resource’, or brain-power,’ explains the project’s director, environmental psychologist Dr Lewis Elliott. ‘We also know getting outside is one of the best ways to perform a so-called ‘cognitive reset’, with all the health benefits that derive from that. But what’s really interesting is that blue spaces seem to have a marginally, but statistically significant, 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 factors. What we know for sure is that blue spaces make us feel happier, calmer and healthier. Our aim is to find out why.”

Into the blue

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 160 m; 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 most recent 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 2000 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.”

RESOURCES

+ wallacejnichols.org

+ bluehealth2020.eu

+ joeminihane.com

+ thenaturalnavigator.com

+ sambleakley.co.uk

+ tanyastreeter.com

@EnglandbyBoat

Water 101

Tristan Gooley, the Natural Navigator, picks out five things to look out for the next time you’re walking on the beach. Find out more at thenaturalnavigator.com.

Rip Current

Formed when water on the beach is pulled through a narrow gap, causing the water to accelerate, like when you put your thumb over the end of a hose. They can flow at two metres per second, faster than any swimmer.

Glitter Path

The line of reflections that form on the sides of waves: they get narrower when the sun is lower, and broader as the waves get steeper.

Rill marks

These ridges form when water that has sunk into the sand gets pulled back to the sea, carving channels.

Swash & backwash

Swash is the foamy water that is pushed back up the beach by a breaking wave. The water that flows back down to the sea is known as backwash.

Pin Holes

These tiny holes are caused by water sinking into the sand, which displaces air bubbles between the sand particles. The holes are formed as they bubble up.