Like many, one of my Christmas day traditions includes running into the sea wearing a Santa hat followed by flasks of tea and well wishes amongst the swarm of merry swimmers. Christmas Day swims are nothing new and have served as a strong fundraising tactic and symbol of Christmas spirit for years. One thing that has changed is that sea swimming is not saved for only Christmas day and the, albeit short, Irish Summer anymore. It has become popular beyond the small pockets of ‘brave lunatics’ that have always participated in daily dips.
Communities of year-round swimming groups popped up and grew in popularity all over the country during the many COVID lockdowns, and it seems they are here to stay. These swimming groups provide a chance to engage with nature, keep fit and, perhaps most importantly, maintain a social network. For instance, my local swimming group aptly named ‘The Point Swimmers’ meet every day at Ned’s Point at 11am. Some bring baked goods, some bring tea, and every month they host a seaside party to celebrate birthdays gone by.
Another attractive element of sea swimming is that it does not discriminate – it is for the young and old, and only really requires your body (maybe a neoprene suit or dryrobe if you’re dedicated). From pro-athletes to fashionistas, sea swimming is for everyone. Influencer and fashion designer Grainne Binns took to Instagram to document her ‘100 Days of Dips’ challenge, which saw her cold-water swimming for 100 consecutive days throughout winter. Physically, Grainne highlights benefitting from a stronger immune system, reduced muscle soreness, higher energy levels and improved sleep. As for mental benefits, she credits the meditative state she experiences when immersing herself in nature, a sense of purpose, stress relief, feeling present and the social element shared with strangers, to name a few.
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However, it could be argued that similar benefits could also be gained from walking, running or outdoor exercise groups. So what is it that draws so many into, or near to, the cold sea?
Research shows that ‘blue spaces’, meaning any body of water including rivers, lakes, the coastline and sea, have positive impacts on our overall health, with coastal blue spaces proving to be particularly therapeutic and restorative. At the heart of the blue spaces discussion is the concept of welfare or well-being, which can be described as an absence of illness and a presence of physical, psychological, and spiritual health. It is not surprising then, that blue spaces are becoming increasingly recognised as having the potential to contribute to healthier communities.
This is not new information – after all, a common trope in Victorian literature sees characters suffering from any kind of illness being sent to spend time by the seaside to cure their ailments. In fact, this is a trend that is returning in modern times thanks to charities such as the Blue Prescribing Project in the UK, who promotes and provides nature-based therapy centered around wetlands. Sea Sanctuary, the marine-based counterpart in the UK, unfortunately closed in January 2023 due to a lack of funding, despite its success as a form of therapy and education around blue health.
Importantly, entering the water isn’t actually necessary, simply being near the ocean shows proven benefits to physical and mental wellbeing, meaning it can’t all be chalked up to cold water exposure therapy. For me, a walk to the beach clears my head, relieves stress and leaves me feeling refreshed. So while we know that humans feel almost intangible benefits from spending time by the coast, exactly what causes these benefits is somewhat of a mystery, although it could be linked to Attention Restoration Theory (ART). ART proposes that time spent in nature can restore attention when we feel mentally drained by enhancing focus levels and improving concentration. An environment must satisfy four requirements in order to facilitate ART; fascination – intrigue into one’s surroundings, being away – psychological distance from distractions or demanding tasks, extent – the quality of the surrounding environment and the comfort one feels in it, and compatibility – one’s needs being met and the enjoyment one may feel in the surrounding environment.
Recognising the many benefits that people receive from time spent by the coast makes a solid argument for why people should care for their coastal environments. A 2016 study indicated that, unsurprisingly, littered beaches are less restorative than clean ones. And it goes without saying that good water quality is more attractive to bathe in than the murky alternative. This means that humans and the sea can and should engage in a mutually beneficial relationship – a healthy coastal environment can contribute to healthy and happy people.
What’s more, research shows that time spent actively protecting our coastal environments, picking litter on the beach for example, could have a positive impact on an individual’s wellbeing by creating a meaningful and restorative experience. One incredibly successful example of how sea users can give back is exhibited by Surfers Against Sewage, a grassroots environmental charity formed by Cornish surfers who aim to be ‘the voice of the ocean’ and which has grown into one of the UK’s most active charities. If you’re looking for an Irish environmental charity to support, while also reaping the psychological benefits, find your match through the Irish Environmental Network.
Beyond individual action, policies that aim to increase protection of coastal waters and that recognise the relationship between blue spaces and health are welcome. PIER, a research project being undertaken by University of Galway is investigating the barriers to blue space use in Ireland, research which will help to “develop collective strategies to make our rivers, lakes and seas better in the future”. The NEAR health project was a 2020 study funded by the EPA and HSE to investigate how nature and the environment can help society attain and restore health. The policy recommendations proposed off the back of this research included “Invest in and plan for greater access to and responsible use of biodiverse outdoor public spaces, especially coastal and urban blue spaces” and “Initiate nature-based activities to build social connection and wellbeing benefits, as well as pro-environmental behaviours. Shared experiences embed a sense of community and care for the environment”.
The growing recognition of nature-based solutions as tonics to our doses may be key to improving the overall health of our world and ourselves. So on your next sea swim, surf, paddle or walk – ask yourself, what can you do for the sea?