Barbara Flanagan | Essays

Epiphany of an Ocean Swimmer

California coast slightly north of Santa Monica. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Admit it. When you hear “Save the Whales” don’t you wonder why those big, smart, uber-mammals can’t take care of themselves in a place larger than anywhere else — the whole ocean? If we’re going to exert ourselves, spending money and worry, shouldn’t we use those resources on something more urgent, immediate, and terrestrial where we live?

Last year, when I moved to Santa Barbara, California, home of numerous ocean-saving foundations plus Jacques Cousteau’s relatives, the Pacific looked just fine to me. In fact, it was gorgeous: blue, fragrant and vast. Coldness was its only flaw, but that kept it empty of everyone but its most elegant fans: surfers.

To survive the cold water, these lean surfers dress like cetaceans and pinnepeds (whales and seals). Their second skins, slick, black and blubbery, are neoprene wetsuits with neck-to-ankle coverage. Whenever the surfers are out of the water, back on land wearing normal clothes, they talk about getting back into it. So, what’s the lure?

“Find out.” That’s what surfers of all ages kept telling me. “Get a wetsuit, and c’mon in.”

Not an easy purchase. A wetsuit reveals the same bodily truths as a Spanx bodysuit, only much more expensively and publicly. Certainly, I admired the idea of a wetsuit both as an American (CA) invention and, as a product of the early 1950s, just like myself. The invention — a body glove of neoprene — relies on the properties of a petroleum product, synthetic rubber, to lend humans three extra attributes: thermal insulation, buoyancy and solar protection. Neoprene, a closed-cell foam, contains nitrogen bubbles, and those air spaces contain body heat while absorbing solar heat and reducing the heat conduction of water and the heat convection of wind. Certainly, the wetsuit is the apotheosis of product design: a new material shaped into a device that transforms human abilities and perceptions. (Beyond sport, there’s undersea rescue and exploration, too.)

Without Monica I never would have put a wetsuit to its highest and best use: ocean swimming. There’s no board to sit or stand on, no gear; it’s just you and the water — and anything and everything that appears in the water. You spend hours, way past the breakers, traversing miles of deep water by swimming slowly and efficiently, and eventually, becoming philosophically amphibious.

I was shopping in Trader Joe’s when Monica, a non-lean woman older than I, rounded the coffee aisle. She was wearing a full wetsuit, wet braids, Tevas, and a happy countenance patinated by the special tan that’s created by sea-washed sunblock. I tapped her rubber shoulder, admired her outfit, and asked where I might buy one. Back then, I didn’t know that Monica was a local swimming activist and I’d just activated her fondest mission: getting people into saltwater. (I think Monica, a Buddhist and former professor, feels that swimming makes you happier, and that the world would be a nicer place with happier people respecting their fellow creatures — many of whom are swimmers, too, on 70 percent of the earth’s surface. )

Monica insisted that I enroll in an ocean swimming class at a local seaside college, along with a pool class to learn the “total immersion” swimming technique triathlon swimmers used to corkscrew their way through the water without kicking. Before I could finish the phrase, “But I’m not a swimmer...” Monica had, mid-aisle, phoned the instructor to enroll me in classes meeting five mornings per week. Next, employees cheerfully mopped up the saltwater puddle she’d left behind.

Advised by Monica, I bought a full triathlon wetsuit, prescription swim goggles, swim cap and ear plugs. Total: $175. At the start, it seemed like a big outlay for a whim, but after three months of ocean swimming that small sack of gear had delivered plenty of payback. By befriending the Pacific, I added new acreage to my backyard. And, in exploring my backyard, I learned that it needed some tending. My new-found real estate brought with it a new perspective.

As it turns out, it isn’t real estate at all — not just vacant surface — but a giant, indivisible liquid habitat teeming with beautiful, mysterious stuff. Sure, that sounds creepy. That’s because we’ve demonized and Alien-ified sea life for so long we tend to think of it as a single species: enemies.

When it comes to the ocean we’re xenophobes, just like we are on land. It turns out that learning to like sea life is much like learning to like, say, French people. Their reputation may be offputting, but once you master their daunting language, visit their intricate country, and eat their complex food, you learn to love and respect them.

Full-immersion, cultural or aquatic, is the way to go. And the route has three big steps. At first, you’re disoriented, even terrified by the foreignness. Next, you’re humbled, if not humiliated, by your ignorance and ethnocentricity. And finally, you’re exhilarated to take part in a much larger world, with its mind-blowing perks.

In the ocean, the perks start as soon as you walk in. The tangy, ionized air lightens your head as the water lifts your body, massaging it with currents and waves, as it removes gravity. Vertical garlands of giant kelp, tickle your arms and face. The longer you swim, endorphinizing your whole system, the better you imagine yourself to be flying over the ocean floor, sightseeing as you go.

Live scenery appears out of the blue as you fly, heading underneath or, around you. Some of it is strangely oblivious: rays. Some looks right at you. (Big-eyed harbor seals turn upside down as they swim under you). And, some actually try to converse. (A pod of feeding dolphins once swam in to hang out with our class, pacing back and forth, as they made clicking sounds underwater.)

Once fear subsides, it’s all entertainment: a free, non-stop Sea World show with performing cuties you want to name. After a few weeks, however, immersion causes a new emotion: empathy. Once you’re drinking what the fish drink (while swimming you inhale quarts of seawater), and hearing what they hear, you notice phenomena inconceivable on land.

For instance, sound travels. As soon as swimmers hear a whining sort of rumble, they expect to be sliced up by a propeller within seconds. When they jerk up in a panic to look for the oncoming boat, though, it may be a mile away. Without this sort of visceral scare, new research — claims that human-made noise wrecks the ocean acoustics sea creatures need to talk to each other and migrate — seems implausible.

Toxins travel, too. Oil slicks from those far-off boats sometimes paint the water surface, and flavor it too. After it rains, ocean swimmers stay out of the water for a day or two to avoid getting sick in various icky ways. Some take an extra measure of caution. They check out an online posting, by government health officials, that shows exact toxicity of the stream water heading into the sea. We all know that rain washes bad stuff into the storm drains, (everything from household and automotive chemicals, to biological waste and agricultural pesticides); drains dump it into streams, and streams pour it onto the coast. But it all sounds very remote, until you become the canary in the mine shaft: a swimmer absorbing all that through the pores, and reporting gross symptoms to a doctor who can’t pinpoint the cause: a cocktail of residues.

Sharks are another feature that expands the imagination and inspires humility. On land, we consider ourselves to be at the top of the food chain, safe from surprise attacks from wild animals. If fact, we seldom think of the food chain, and our influence on it, at all. Because Pacific swimmers and surfers share the water with Great White sharks, they soon adopt a survival philosophy that surprises those who shun saltwater.

We clarified this way of thinking last fall, when a large shark, 60 miles up the coast and near the shore, killed a local college student by removing his leg. Before we got back in the water, we looked at the shark mortality statistics and composed our own odds. “We’re more likely to win ten years of lotteries, in every state, than get eaten alive,” etc. For decades, surfers have used a classic response to explain why they take the risk: Sharks live in the ocean. When we’re visiting their turf, anything can happen.”

Thanks to ocean swimming, my full immersion program, and thanks to the activist who got me into the wetsuit that got me into that cold, scary water, I’ve learned something outrageously simple. Wet or dry, we’re all sharing the same turf, where all species, even the humans, are just visitors passing through.

In other words, save the whales, okay? And, what the hell, sharks, too.

Posted in: Social Good

Comments [4]

What a great testament to the power of the ocean. Its healing potential and the empathy it will bring to your life if you just spend some time in it. Thanks Barbara great writing!

Have you seen Claire Nouvian's The Deep? You'd LOVE it. I got it for the pictures and was blown away by her passionate, articulate writing. I just bought a copy for my cousin's birthday – I definitely recommend it, especially with everything you're saying above. I love it – thanks for sharing.

You know, we all came from the ocean...? We fell from the stars and grew up in the water. How amazing is that?

One more recommendation and then I'll get out of your hair – SymphonyofScience.com. If you only watch one, watch We Are All Connected. Then Glorious Dawn and Poetry of Reality. They seriously made my mind supernova.

Spread the wonder!

xo :))

wonderful. you know you've joined an elite (and rather crazy) club. here are some fellow members:


(scroll down for the whole story.)
wendy macnaughton

we are lucky enough here in SW Australia to not to have to wear wetsuits for the full year, if you are looking to swim for lengthy times. although many people do.
you get a clear snapshot of the seasonality of the weather. and maybe the general direction of the climate.
this summer the water temp was between 3 & 4 degrees warmer than average. not sure what is happening of the coast of california or elsewhere in the world.
as for the sharks, they are always there. somewhere. feels good not to dress up like a seal.

Jobs | April 12