SECP PhD researcher Sean Heath reflects on his experience during the COVID-19 pandemic

In the post-covid era where close quarter indoor contact, particularly in sports has been nearly entirely nulled, outdoor physical activity has seen a large uptake. Individual pursuits have been highlighted as being the safest form of physical activity as they do not involve close physical spacing between individuals. Running, cycling, and walking have all exploded as outdoor leisure pursuits. Another outdoor leisure activity, or sport, which has seen more uptake in participation is outdoor or wild swimming. With swimming clubs around the world locked out of swimming pools for 5 months or more during 2020, many clubs and individuals took to the open waterways to get in their aquatic exercise. This has meant many more people are exploring their local environments and noticing the effects of climate change through their outdoor recreational pursuits.

I was one of those indoor length’s swimmers who “took the plunge,” along with several other Masters swimmers of the group with whom I swam regularly, into the sea these past few years. What became immediately apparent to me when hopping into the sea clad in a wetsuit for the first time in UK waters was the barrage of sensory experiences, so unlike those I experience in the pool. The cold water stung my feet, the crash of waves breaking against sand and pebble beach produced an auditory cacophony, the reflection of the sun as it danced along the wave tops blinded me through clear goggles, and I could barely see my own hands with the lack of clarity to the water as sand was churned up by the movement of the tides. I would soon come to relish in the variety of sensory experiences in this seemingly bland stretch of beach throughout the yearly cycle of the season: Swimming amongst schools of mackerel and balls of white bait in the late summer or overtop herds of spider crabs crawling along the mussel covered rocks dotting the shallow bottom in the spring. The shift in abundance of fish and crabs, and the seasonal timing of these events was noted by fishers casting their lines out from the beaches where we swim and was something my swim buddies were keen to comment on when grabbing tea or coffee after a weekend morning swim. This immersion in blue spaces brought with it a shift in my understanding regarding the physical, social, and sensory effects of outdoor swimming.

The popular term for swimming outdoors in the UK is “wild” swimming. This “wild” moniker has been critiqued as being overly romantic, harkening to a colonial form of appropriation and conquest which separates humans from nature (Olive 2020). This “untouched” wilderness of “wild” swimming creates an artificial divide between a remote “nature” and our urban and suburban lives. In this way, nature has been turned into a thing, reified as a consumable “natural resource.” While this vision of humanity as somehow separate from the word around us is changing in many camps, much of the popular discourse surrounding our being-in-the-world (or more accurately, lack thereof) still views nature and the world around us as exploitable, to be conquered, and dominated. Yet many people are swimming outdoors in lakes, rives, lidos, canals, and oceans that flow through their very cities. By moving outdoors for their aquatic recreation, swimmers have increasingly incorporated experiences of the natural world as central to their lives, reattuning their senses to the wonders of the world around us. Thus, rather than “wild” swimming as an act of romanticized adventurous exploration swimmer’s attitudes have shifted to incorporate the outdoors as an essential element of their swimming. Outdoor swimmers are now more interested in the conservation of their local swimming spots, the flora and fauna, and the water quality, which are all being effected by climate change.

backpack and swimming gear laid out on pebbles

Outdoor swimming kit laid out on the groin before a sea swim, 2021 (image: author’s)

The affective senses of freedom in the undulating waves of the sea (Humberstone 2015), the slow-moving current of a river, or the calm ripples on the surface of a lake as we float, paddle, play, bob, plunge, and swim, all evoke memories and experiences of water. In these open blue spaces there is no need to conform to certain styles of swimming, indeed “beyond keeping yourself safe there are no rules in wild swimming” (Wardley 2017, 33). In this way, outdoor swimming provides a space that actively encourages people to explore the sensuous experiences of their own being and opens up the possibilities of healing for mental and physical health in natural environments. These outdoor blue and green space then are critical to our health and wellbing. Social science scholars have taken a keen interest in more holistic attitudes towards health and wellbeing within these outdoor blue spaces (Olive and Wheaton 2021; Foley et al. 2019), which includes a plethora of popular press books on the benefits of outdoor swimming adventures (Kelly 2021; Hudson, Hudson, and Hudson 2020; Cracknell 2019; Britton 2021).The effects of being in nature and natural environments differ with the types of exposure and the sensory engagements which we approach and experience blue spaces (Bell et al. 2015). My initial inquiries into outdoor swimming have highlighted the need to directly address how we understand the variation in health benefits of outdoor swimming by accounting for the cultural and social aspects of sensory experiences in nature.

The therapeutic effects of cold water immersion have been known for centuries (Cracknell 2019; Strang 2015). Yet the increased popularity of outdoor swimming, in part due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, has garnered a noticeable shift in outdoor swimming literature. Taking up the challenge of our times, the ecological crisis caused by our wanton destruction of the natural environment around us and the burning of fossil fuels, ecological sustainability including the preservation or blue spaces and rewilding of swimming locations has increased in all forms of media and social discourse amongst outdoor swimmers. For example, a dedicated section of the popular magazine Outdoor Swimmer has recently focused attention on ecological issues including rewilding the environment, flora and fauna species located in waterways throughout the UK, and what can be done to help local and national conservation issues. Increased attention to the ecological footprint of materials such as neoprene have also been highlighted. Of particular note have been national campaigns in the UK to stop untreated sewage floating into rivers and the ocean (Purnell and Ebdon 2021), which have been staged by leading groups such as Surfers Against Sewage and Sheffield Outdoor Plungers. These organizations, among others, help support, lobby, and engage with holding local and international waters in custodianship for future generations.

In further research I aim to provide detailed understandings of the multitude of cultural sensory knowledge present amongst communities of outdoor swimmers. By examining people’s phenomenological experiences of outdoor swimming, we can take account of the cultural embeddedness of alternative taxonomies of sensory systems going beyond the narrow “five-sense” vision of our interaction with the natural world. This will help provide a holistic framework for health and wellbeing of humans and the natural environment through attention to the senses, advancing our knowledge the cultural, historical, social, and environmental entanglements which shape our environs. These knowledges can then be mobilized in local settings to help affect change to tackle climate change.

Bell, Sarah L., Cassandra Phoenix, Rebecca Lovell, and Benedict W. Wheeler. 2015. “Seeking Everyday Wellbeing: The Coast as a Therapeutic Landscape.” Social Science & Medicine 142: 56–67.

Britton, Easkey. 2021. 50 Things to Do by the Sea. 1st edition. Pavilion.
Cracknell, Dr Deborah. 2019. By the Sea: The Therapeutic Benefits of Being in, on and by the Water. 1st edition. Place of publication not identified: Aster.

Foley, Ronan, Robin Kearns, Thomas Kistemann, and Ben Wheeler, eds. 2019. Blue Space, Health and Wellbeing: Hydrophilia Unbounded. New York: Routledge.

Hudson, Jack, Calum Hudson, and Robbie Hudson. 2020. Swim Wild: Dive into the Natural World and Discover Your Inner Adventurer. London: Yellow Kite.

Humberstone, Barbara. 2015. “Embodiment, Nature and Wellbeing: More than the Senses?” In Experiencing the Outdoors: Enhancing Strategies for Wellbeing, edited by Margaret Robertson, Ruth Lawrence, and Gregory Heath, 61–72. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Kelly, Catherine. 2021. Blue Spaces: How and Why Water Can Make You Feel Better. London: Welbeck Balance.

Olive, Rebecca. 2020. “Swimming Wild.” AustLit (blog). 2020.

Olive, Rebecca, and Belinda Wheaton. 2020. “Understanding Blue Spaces: Sport, Bodies, Wellbeing, and the Sea.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 45 (1): 3–19.

Purnell, Sarah, and James Edward Ebdon. 2021. “Sewage Pollution: Our Research Reveals the Scale of England’s Growing Problem.” The Conversation, 2021, sec. Environment + Energy.

Strang, Veronica. 2015. Water: Nature and Culture. Earth Series. London: Reaktion Books.

Wardley, Tessa. 2017. The Mindful Art of Wild Swimming: Reflections for Zen Seekers. London: Leaping Hare Press.