Living with sharks

(This essay was published in White Horses, Issue 34. The issue, ‘She Has Stories‘ was dedicated to women’s surfing and was so popular it had a second print run. I was stoked to be part of it.)

This year, like so many people, I‘ve had sharks on my mind.

Amongst the bushfires, floods and pandemic lockdowns, fatal shark attacks have loomed with seeming regularity in the news. By early August, five people have died as a result of unprovoked shark bites, with six others surviving their encounters. Three of the five fatalities were in the southeast Queensland and northeast New South Wales regions where I live and surf and swim. My home stretch had suddenly become one of the most high profile areas for shark encounters and fatalities in the world. Again.

So, sharks have been on my mind.

The public fear and flurry of media attention that accompanied each encounter and attack led to the installation of nets and smart drumlines in Ballina and Lennox Head. Shark net and drum line programmes were first installed in Sydney from 1937, and on the Gold Coast and Cairns from 1962. The lack of attacks in those areas has led to people correlating the nets and drumlines with human safety. But not everyone agrees.

Recent research[1] by marine ecologists uses historical data from Queensland Fisheries to examine the effect of nets on shark populations: it’s devastating. They argue that we have no real knowledge of shark populations prior to the data provided by net catches, that shark net data shows significant declines in hammerhead, whaler, tiger and white shark numbers, and that there is no way for us to know the bigger ecological impacts on the reduced shark numbers in deeper water ecologies. So far as people are concerned, the scientists write that: “the extent to which targeting shark populations reduces interactions with humans in coastal ecosystems is contentious”.

Their study of the Queensland Fisheries data implies that increases in human-shark interactions are occurring at a time when shark populations are severely depleted compared to historical baselines. This echoes a NSW Department of Primary Industries report, which showed that in reports of 38 shark bite incidents recorded in NSW from 1937-2008, 24 of them (63%) took place at netted beaches.[2]

Despite this, nets, drumlines and culls continue to be associated with a sense of safety from shark interactions and attacks.

Alongside the series of human fatalities from shark encounters since 2008, there have been ongoing community debates about the various roles of shark nets, culls, whale migration, over-fishing and the growing numbers of ocean users, set against the seeming increase in attacks and encounters. Given the often-heated nature of these debates, journalists regularly stoke the political flames of regions they are irregular visitors to, with statements like this one on Stab’s website from Fred Pawle:[3]

Byron is full of trippy conservationists who oppose nets and resent any attempt by mankind to influence or control the natural environment; Ballina has more families who just want their kids to be safe while playing in the ocean. 

Pawle’s stereotypes are deliberately inflammatory, but he does highlight a key point, which is the role of ethics and ideologies in how we come to imagine living with sharks. In particular, it’s how we value human life in relation to non-human life that is at the heart of it. I’m not here to say there is a right and wrong way to think, I’m just saying that understanding the beliefs that shape our politics are fundamental to how we make sense of this issue.

As it happens, I’m working on a research project that looks at the ethics of how surfers and swimmers live with sharks. The ideas I present in this essay are an explanation of the scholarship that is shaping my own position on sharks and shark management.

As I navigate my own fears and relationships, I’ve been reading ecofeminist theories.

Ecofeminism questions the assumed authority of humans over the animals, plants, oceans, rivers, soil, air, and all the non-human elements that make up the worlds we live in. The crux of ecofeminism is a critique of Western philosophy going back to Plato and Aristotle, that separates being human from being part of nature. Ecofeminism draws on diverse feminist and indigenous knowledges to challenge Western philosophical notions of a human/nature divide. I’ve found the work of Val Plumwood particularly useful to do this.

Plumwood encourages us to resituate humans in ecological terms at the same time as we resituate non-humans in ethical and cultural terms. This way of thinking rejects the idea that humans are outside of nature and recognises that non-human worlds also have meaning, values, and ethics.

This thinking shifts human authority to be part of ecologies, rather than above them.

Ecofeminist theories are not marginal in the humanities and social sciences – they are not whimsy. This is the work of internationally established, respected and widely cited scholars and philosophers, who have developed their ideas through long processes of thought and reading and research. They also put the theories into practice in their everyday lives as ecologists, composters, foragers, land managers, and poets, which is why I think their work is so interesting to us as ocean users – we already put so many of their ideas into practice, even without knowing it.

In my experience, surfing and swimming literally force us to resituate our sense of ourselves in ocean ecologies. Surfer and researcher, Clifton Evers wrote that surfing doesn’t just involve other surfers and waves. Rather, he writes that “dolphins, storms, driftwood, jellyfish, birds, fish, turtles, surfboards, shells and seaweed are all part of how we experience surfing”.[4] Our encounters with this richness of life changes our relationships to oceans and beaches, and how we view our obligations towards them. Oceanographer, Sylvia Earle, echoed this sentiment in her tweet:

Why is it that surfers are some of the strongest advocates of ocean conservation? Because they’ve spent time in and around the ocean, and they’ve personally seen the beauty, the fragility, and even the degradation of our planet’s blue heart.

Earle points out how the relationships we build in the water change our thinking and actions. We wish to take care of what we love. Donna Haraway’s book, Staying with the Trouble, describes these relationships as a way of ‘making kin’ with the ‘critters’ we share the world with. She says we should make kin with the fish and birds, dolphins and sharks, driftwood and rocks. Thinking in terms of kin relationships with the ocean critters we encounter makes it harder to sacrifice their well-being for our leisure. For example, if sharks are our kin, then why have nets and drumlines that cause them harm, so we can surf with a greater sense of safety? Why is our access to waves worth more than their health and wellbeing? Than their life?

As with our human families, kin relationships aren’t always joyful. I love swimming with turtles, fish and dolphins, but feel terror at the idea of coming across a huge great white shark, and yet, all of these critters are my community. As are the economies, technologies and governments that shape my life. These are all part of the complex ecologies and relationships we are tangled in. Our lives, our health, our deaths, our futures, are shared.

And so, the sharks. The sharks, the sharks, the sharks, and the threat that swims with them.

My fear of sharks comes from the vulnerability I feel every time I swim or surf. Truly, I am nowhere more vulnerable than when I’m in the ocean, in the surf, offshore, immersed, floating, held under, out of my depth, out of my element. Where else do I go that I’m not top of the food chain? I’m nowhere more aware of my lack of control and authority than when I encounter animals so much bigger than me, or which could end my life in violence.

But theorist, Anna Tsing, argues that vulnerability is essential to make sense of the world we live in. Tsing says that vulnerability is productive. It helps us recognise the lack of power and control we have over so much of what comes next, or what comes now. For humans used to seeing ourselves as the planet’s dominant species, this is confronting.

For surfers and swimmers, this sense of vulnerability is with us every time we paddle out. We feel immersed in the richness of life; it makes us feel enlivened, it reminds us that we’re part of multi-species ecologies. We revel in it. The lessons we learn from this sense of vulnerability are what activate us to care for the world around us. It’s why Sylvia Earle recognises surfers as some of the strongest advocates of ocean conservation. We are immersed in the issues and we understand them through our bodies and go on to read and learn more about the worlds we surf in.

The ecofeminist ideas I’m writing about here can be challenging, but that is the point of philosophy. Philosophy questions the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, and wonders about what other forms of knowledge, reality, and existence there might be? It asks us to think about what ideas are at the root of any issue, and in this case, it is two-fold: a question of the rights of humans over other species, and fear of our own fragility.

To surf is to challenge how we know the world and our place in it. It is to seek vulnerability, to encounter new kin, and to ask ourselves ‘who am I willing to sacrifice to feel safe’? We each have to come to our own answer to that question, but as we do, it is worth understanding what shapes the answer we arrive at.

As a surfer, I’m scared of encountering big sharks and sometimes that fear has kept me out of the ocean. But this fear and these choices are what remind me of my humanity and my vulnerability, which makes surfing and swimming more meaningful. It makes me feel like a very small part of something bigger. Finding a way to live and surf and swim with sharks is a challenge bigger than conquering fear – it’s accepting my place living in an ecology.


[1] This open access research is available here: Roff, G., Brown, C. J., Priest, M. A., & Mumby, P. J. (2018). Decline of coastal apex shark populations over the past half century. Communications Biology, https://www.nature.com/articles/s42003-018-0233-1

[2] I found the report and some analysis via: Pepin-Neff, C. (2011). The untold story of shark nets in Australia, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/the-untold-story-of-shark-nets-in-australia-3748

[3] Pawle, F. ‘The Journalist and The Great White Shark’ https://stabmag.com/news/the-journalist-and-the-great-white-shark/

[4] Clifton has lots of great work on this topic, but this quote is taken from his 2009 article, ‘The Point’: surfing, geography and a sensual life of men and masculinity on the Gold Coast, Australia, in Social & Cultural Geography, 10(8), 893-908.

For a little more reading, you might also like to check out:

Chapman, B. (2017). Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear. CSIRO PUBLISHING.

Gibbs, L., & Warren, A. (2014). Killing Sharks: cultures and politics of encounter and the sea. Australian Geographer45(2), 101-107.

Hammerton, Z., & Ford Dr, A. (2018). Decolonising the waters: Interspecies encounters between sharks and humans. Animal Studies Journal7(1), 270-303.

I’m here for the water, not the swimming

Today, as I pushed off the wall of the pool to start my 400m warmup, I was quickly struck by how clear, sparkling and blue the water was. The Friday before, I noticed how cloudy it was, and I suppose I assumed that it was usual. But on Monday, the water had a particularly striking clarity. Coupled with the bright sunlight, this clarity made the nets of light that cast across the bottom of the pool shimmer more brightly than usual, and the bubbles from the feet and nose of the person in front of me sparkle with definition. Everything seemed so clear and enhanced and turquoise and uplifting.

It felt like swimming in a glass of sparkling water.

After the warm up I came up and called out excitedly to everyone, ‘Isn’t the water so clear today!’ Not everyone had noticed yet – the first 500 metres of a swim can be a bit rough – but the lifeguard close-by, standing with his arms folded, looked at me and nodded proudly. He understood entirely what I was talking about; his joy at the water was there in his eyes as he looked back at the water.   

I felt elated by the colour, light, feel, and sparkle, and was excited to spend the next hour admiring it through my goggles, and feeling it wash on my skin. But the elation made me an inattentive squad member, “Rebecca, listen!” called the coach. I laughed and as I dove under to push back off the wall I called back to him; “I’m here for the water, not the swimming”.

That’s not always true – I love swimming: how it feels to move that way; the bodily orientation the forms of movement, so different to walking or running. But it is always true that water is key to why I swim.

Even when it’s cold or murky or feels heavy, the feel of the water is almost always a tonic; almost always a joy.

Seeing the light (at the bottom of the pool)

These last two weeks, I’ve been back in the pool. The squad I love so dearly was put on hold through the lockdown, as was our access to all the public pools around the city. This makes sense, of course, but for those of us so far from the coast and thus unable to get there due to travel restrictions, it meant that swimming was no longer a possibility. This was hard to bear through such a stressful time. Of course, walking and other things could take the place, but swimming is something in and of itself. It requires a different orientation to the world – immersed, floating, all limbs stretching and reaching and in action to propel us forward, our breathing shaped by our relationship to water. I love walking too, but swimming, most certainly, cannot be replaced by walking – they are different activities that offer different benefits and orientations.

Down the coast, I was able to get in the ocean everyday. I was able to swim along the shoreline and encounter birds, fish, seaweed, dolphins, turtles, ricks, sand, and waves. I swam at my own pace, with people or not, and had to navigate the conditions I was faced with – calm, clear, cloudy, flat, big waves, cold, warm, strong currents, low and high tides, a fatal shark attack along the coast. The conditions were so variable, and one day did not predict the next. The daily decision to swim responded to the conditions; ‘Am I up to this?’ Each day I was. It wasn’t always easy, but it was always restorative.

Back here, in Brisbane, I’m out of the waves and back in the pool and my squad. I’ve been so looking forward to it, but it’s been a change from my daily saltwater dips in the Pacific Ocean. In the pool, the conditions vary little between days – the water temperature is sanitised and moderated, the levels maintained and the critters kept out.

After months of swimming in the sea, being back in the pool felt small, limited and prescribed. The water is chlorinated, the lanes marked out, the coach directing my pace, and no animals or plants to encounter! Heightening this is that our usual 50-metre pool is closed due to a leak, so we’re in the 25-metre pool; a pool I’ve never enjoyed. Even before, this smaller pool felt so constrained and lacking the space to really find your rhythm. As soon as you get going, it feels as though you hit the wall at the other end.

So as much as I’ve delighted in seeing my friends and being pushed by a prescribed set, I’ve felt that so much is missing. So much is manufactured and, perhaps, anti-ecological.

But the last few days have felt different. I’ve been finding my way back to the delights of pool swimming, something I was previously enjoying so much. I’ve been finding the treasures that used to delight and revive me, and distract me during my kilometres along each side of an immovable black line.

The friendships, yes, but I didn’t need help to relocate those. Those are front and centre at the joys of my tri-weekly squad. The people I swim with are so supportive and caring of each other. Swimming together is something so important in all our lives, and our tri-weekly swims, that used to include a post-session coffee, meant we came to know a lot about each other. I’m a newcomer to this swimming group, having only joined this year, but the warmth which I and others have been welcomed is inspiring. Some of these people have been swimming together for 20 years, and the significance of these relationships was maintained during lockdown via group messaging of check-ins, memes and photos.

The relationships amongst swimmers were easy to locate and find joy in.

It’s been the elemental, the other-than-human, the ecological that I’d lost in the Pacific Ocean. In the pool the fish are gone, replaced by clear water, devoid of life. The odd sunken ban-aid, perhaps, but nothing alive beyond the other swimmers. But then over a few days, I remembered that the pool is outdoors, under trees, next to the river, and diverse pleasures have been awaiting me in the chlorinated water. From the cool bright blues of the pool itself, the nets of sparkling light at the bottom on the tiles, the bubbles that form in great clouds from the flippers and exhalations of my friends, to the trees that surround us and the clouds that float above us, there is much in which to delight. The way the colours stand against each other – orange, yellow, pink, green, and black swimmers, caps and fins flash against the world of blue in which we are immersed. These flashes bring me such joy as they measure the proximity and personality of the people I swim alongside.

The light, the bubbles, the safety, the care for each other, the water itself, all of these have left me session with a sense of gratitude and escape that I had failed to recognise in it’s complexity.

Last year (or this year?) I heard someone tell a seminar group that they always felt they were cheating when they swam in a pool, rather than the ocean. There was a sense of people nodding in agreement. At the time, I felt so angry at these folk in their beachside city, who seemed so smug in the superiority of their ocean access. Certainly, being able to access beaches and oceans is very beneficial for our health and wellbeing. The sense of freedom, and the joy and humility that comes from encounters with conditions and animals is really something. So it might be that I’m just jealous of their access to all this, as I’m not able to make the hour plus drive to the coast to swim in the sea every day, nor every week. The time and petrol would cost me too much. In the city where I live, the public swimming pools that dot the suburbs are the key places I have for my immersion, floating and swimming. I used to feel so pleased for that, so it’s nice to have that feeling back.

A pool is a treasured resource in many communities, acting as a place to learn, to play, to feel safe from the rigours of the sea. In the beachside pool of the town of my childhood, I spend countless hours diving, swimming and holding my breath, and then warming myself on the concrete as my skin dried and unpuckered.

Swimming in the sea is a spectacular joy, and one that I treasure and learn from. But far from a sad compromise, pools are alive in multiple ways and with multiple pleasures. They’re a rectangular escape from my terrestrial life.

Understanding Blue Spaces: Sport, Bodies, Wellbeing, and the Sea

by Rebecca Olive and Belinda Wheaton

We’re really pleased to share a project that we’ve been working on for well over two-years; a double special issue called ‘Understanding Blue Spaces: Sport, Bodies, Wellbeing, and the Sea’ that will be published in Journal of Sport and Social Issues in early 2021. For now, the articles in the special issue (SI) are all available online, albeit sometimes behind paywalls.*

Since the articles are already sitting individually online, we wanted to take this chance to tell you about the topic and to promote the work of the authors who have been part of this project.

More than ever, oceans, seas and coasts seem to be promoted as key places for our health and wellbeing. New programs for cold water swimming, surf therapy, and more seem to be emerging everyday, with the benefits for women’s health, mental health and ageing key areas of focus. Certainly, oceans and seas have long-been examined as spaces of historical, scientific and economic significance, but over recent there has been significant growth in research about bluespaces across a wide range of disciplinary areas, including humanities and social sciences. The term, ‘blue space’, is used to refer to water spaces (e.g. oceans, rivers, lakes and pools), in contrast to green spaces which can be described as terrestrial spaces mostly covered in vegetation including parks, fields, forests and gardens. Reflecting long-standing traditions of the seaside and coastlines as lifestyle and leisure destinations (e.g. thalassotherapy) promoted as beneficial for health and wellbeing. It is contemporary understandings of oceans in human health and wellbeing that this SI seeks to contribute.

Significantly, a growing number of projects explore experiences of physical activities and cultures in oceans not only through Western notions of health, but through diverse cultural ways of knowing and being. By engaging in politics of knowledge, research has challenged notions of oceans as ‘placeless’ by highlighting that how we experience, access and manage blue spaces is no less place-specific than with urban or green spaces. It is embedded in history, community and identity.

In this SI, authors explore the role of sport, physical activities and leisure in understanding oceanic blue spaces as fluid and yet emplaced in local/global politics. Sport, physical activities and leisure practices play a key role in how we understand, experience, access, and develop relationships to seas, oceans and coasts, as well as to self, others and communities – human and non-human. These articles can be read as a conversation across disciplinary areas of work on blue spaces, local, national and trans-national contexts, and diverse recreational practices. The policy and practical applications of blue space range from environmental politics, planning and community development to public health and leisure/recreation management, and these articles offer insights into cultural politics and policy implications of access to, and exclusion from, blue spaces.

We’re really pleased with the collection, and thrilled with the range of authors, topics and activities that are included. In this collection, most authors focus on being in and on saltwater, focusing on being immersed in seas and oceans, and activities span a range of sports and physical cultures including ocean swimming, surfing, sailing/yachting, and waka ama paddling. Articles don’t only explore the joys of being in the water, but the challenges too, and oceans are not assumed to be places of ease and pleasure; racism, sexism, elitism, fear, pollution and more can act as barriers to people accessing the benefits that can come from being around oceans and coasts.

 We have divided these papers into the two issues by mixing the different sporting activities they explore, regions they discuss, and by including both established and emerging blue space and ocean researchers from different disciplines.

Issue 1/2

Issue 2/2

We encourage you to explore this collection of articles, and hope that you’re able to find value in what they offer, individually and collectively. For our part, we’ve learned so much from the work of these authors and are grateful for their continued patience and enthusiasm for this project. We’re also really excited to see this area of work continue to develop as an area of research, but also in terms of activism and policy that establishes healthier oceans for all.

*For those of you not working in academia, this may seem a bit weird, because how are things published but not published? As with many administrative processes in academic life, it’s best not to focus too much on the what seems illogical, and instead accept our explanation that this is an attempt to make information available much faster in what is clearly a world of long timelines.  If you’re unable to access to any of these articles, please feel free to contact us, or the authors.

You can’t swim without walking

For the last 6 weeks, I’ve been lucky to join in with a group who swims in the ocean every day at 8am. It’s not an official, organised, incorporated club, so much as a loose collection of people who like to swim in the ocean and don’t want to do it alone. It’s an ocean-swimming social collective. Not everyone involved swims every day, but any day you turn up, at least a few people will be heading off along the beach to swim the 1-1.5 kilometres back.

As someone who lives in a city, I’ve felt so lucky to have these weeks to spend with the group as well as the beach, ocean and the critters who live there. I’ve felt lucky to have this block of time to see 6-weeks of weather and ocean conditions and how they shape the swim, as well as the place itself. I’ll be going back and forth to swim with them when I can, but I live two hours away in another state, so there are frustrating barriers to going along too often. Hence feeling so lucky I had such so much time.

Spending time with a practice and place gives an opportunity for your expectations to be challenged and expanded, and, of course, this was certainly the case for me.

One of the things that surprised me was the joy and significance of the collective walk along the beach before the swim itself. The walk plays a number of roles: from physical activity, to socialising, to connecting with the place and conditions.

To get to the place they swim from, the swimmers walk, barefoot, a kilometre or more along the sand. Like the physical activity of the swim, the walk is good for the swimmers’ physical, psychological, and emotional health and wellbeing, and acts almost as incidental exercise. Walking isn’t why anyone swims, but it’s a pleasant added bonus.

While everyone meets at the same place and time (a couple of regulars join in further down the beach), the actual departure time is loose, with folk leaving in groups as they wish. Everyone is heading in the same direction, but they can be alone or in small groups of between 2 and 6. On a busy day, you can see people scattered hundreds of metres along the beach, taking their time in at their own pace.

People end up in regular collections – they walk with the people they tend to swim with or that they are feel closest to as friends. The small groups chat about their lives, about current affairs, about books, about changes to the beach, about shark attacks, about each other. They talk and listen and help each other out, learn about newcomers, and give advice.

This time is social but is not composed of the kind of performative conversations that happen at parties. Instead, these are the kinds of daily conversations we have with people who we see often, and who know things about our lives – what we like to eat and cook, where we work, what we did on the weekend, how many kids we’ve got, that we’re buying a new vacuum cleaner, what moisturiser we prefer. And all of these conversations are conducted by people dressed in garments ranging from a pair of speedos, to bikinis, to a full wetsuit. Some of these options offer more coverage, but all of these are far from the usual ways we dress and socialise out of the water. So, there is an intimacy there too – chatting, while almost naked, is a state that becomes the new normal.

Despite the spectacular setting, these relationships are intimate in a mundane way, notable for their domesticity, banality, care and trust. Some of these relationships stretch back decades, with all the attendant knowledge that comes with time – for better or worse. Others, like the relationships I made, are new and settling in. But all of them were filled with warmth and familiarity.

These were the kinds of relationships that I always think define being part of a community. People know so much about you, and yet might not be the people with whom you share your hopes, dreams, and fears. These relationships can be quite surface level, developed in regular one-hour interactions over weeks, months and years, but this does not mean they are without meaning or significance. To the contrary, they are relationships that impact the swimmers every day.

The people in this group know me in a way that, perhaps, none of my more significant loved ones do. The swimmers understand the strength, vulnerability and pleasure that characterises the swim. They understand the encounters and interactions that we experience in the water and on the beach, and what they can mean. They speak a language that I have been learning as I come to share in what they know.

This language comes to bear in multiple ways, including conversations about the conditions and how they will impact the swim. As we walk, people keep an eye on the water, watching the swell, the rocks and the currents. They’re reading the ocean, getting a sense of the conditions, and making decisions about how they might approach the swim that day; where will they get in, what line will they take, who will they swim with, how close to shore. You can never really know what the conditions will be like until you get in, but for those who have been doing it for a long time, they can get a sense of it.

So much of the joy of the swim happens out of the water, which is something I find with surfing too. The friends I’ve made at my usual surfing places know me in a way that other friends might not. They know what it means to be hit by a set, to unexpectedly make a wave, to get caught in a particular section, to see the bommie breaking. They’ve seen my achievements and failures, my growth and wipeouts. Like my new swimming friends, they’ve seen me vulnerable, and they’ve seen me strong in ways that make swimming sense to them.

Once I’m swimming, I’m alone. We can call out to each other, or swim near each other, but the nature of the water makes this difficult as the currents and swell shift us around. Surfing is the same – it’s not a team activity. There are folk who swim and surf alone by choice; who avoid the social part of it all. This might be because their days don’t allow for it, or that they’re not interested. Certainly, the chatting adds time onto the activities, which extends the investment in the day. But for many, these social interactions become an important part of the benefits of the swim itself. For those who invest, the rewards are friendship and community, and access to knowledge about the place itself.

Of course, there are myriad conversations at the other end of the swim too. As they get out of the water and change back into their clothes, people chat about the swim and their various encounters. Many go for coffee to a café across the road, where they sit and chat and debrief more. These are different conversations though – on land, in clothes, with coffee, post-swim. There is a different energy.

Many of the swimmers have told me how much they enjoy the socialising that happens during their walk along the beach. For those with busy lives, it is an important joy to share with friends. For those retired or with more time, it is an important motivator and activity that gives them a sense of purpose and connection in their days. In either case, it is a time to connect with themselves.

Short as they were, I learned so much on these morning walks; about the people, the swim, the beach, and the critters who live in the water. People told me about how the dunes have been eroding for months, pointed out a python stretched out along the sand, and compassionately suggested the illegal tents camped in the dunes belonged to homeless folk, not backpackers. I learned and I shared and I watched and I delighted in feeling the play of cool air and warm sun on my bare skin, on seeing the clouds, the mist over the hinterland, the light on the water, and, most of all, the care and friendship I found there.

The walk before swimming is a time to breathe deeply, to shift perspective and to connect with what is to come in the water. The walk is a transition time that could be called ‘liminal’, a word that describes a between space; between land and sea, waking and working, starting and finishing. The swimming takes me to a whole other world, but for me, there would be no swimming without walking.

International Day for Women & Girls in Science

Annual days of recognition can often pass us by. When they do, there is no real consequence, but taking time to think about the issues such days mark, can be helpful. For me, these days remind me that the freedoms, privileges and technologies that I enjoy are not given, but are available by virtue of the work and activism of many people before me.

Since 2015, the 11th February has been observed by the United Nations as an annual ‘International Day for Women and Girls in Science’. Across STEM fields, women’s achievements have been long been marginalised or ignored. As the UN notes,

“At present, less than 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women. According to UNESCO data (2014 – 2016), only around 30 per cent of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. Globally, female students’ enrolment is particularly low in ICT (3 per cent), natural science, mathematics and statistics (5 per cent) and in engineering, manufacturing and construction (8 per cent).”

This day offers a chance to recognise and celebrate the many and varied scientific contributions that women and girls have made, and highlights the importance of visibility for changing cultures to be more inclusive.

On this day in 2020, I want to recognise four women in science that have inspired me in my work. As a feminist cultural studies researcher, I am not a scientist in the positivist tradition, but their work has been key in my own understandings of complex ocean and coastal ecologies.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) Rachel Carson was an ecological researcher and writer whose words and work led to changes in how chemicals were used in farming, across the world. But her original work was about the sea in all its ecological, geological and multi-species glory!

Her book, ‘The Sea Around Us’, was published in 1951 as a multi-issue feature in the New Yorker and was a beloved and awarded achievement.

My quarrel with almost all seashore books for the amateur is that they give him a lot of separate little capsules of information about a series of creatures, which are never firmly placed in their environment.

Carson wrote more than one book about seas and oceans, and each of them were well received. Reflecting on The Edge of the Sea (1955), Jill Lepore wrote that “Carson’s seashore book was an explanation of the shore as a system, an ecosystem, a word most readers had never heard before, and one that Carson herself rarely used but instead conjured, as a wave of motion and history” (Lepore in The New Yorker, 2018). We have new ocean knowledges since then, but Carson’s beautiful words continue to sing about the seas today.

Beyond her writing, Carson’s life was marked by care for others, and her long-term, deeply loving relationship with another woman. You can read more about Rachel Carson in the beautiful New Yorker biography I mentioned above.

Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) While not a scholar of saltwater, Ellen Swallow (later, Richards) is credited with developing the science of ecology. Her passion for science saw her become the first women to graduate from MIT in 1873, with her degree in the science of chemistry.

By the time of her graduations, she already had established her expertise on the industrial chemical pollution of urban water supplies.

In 1892, she adapted a word, ‘oekology’, which was being used by a German scholar to describe economies of nature, to refer to “the science of the conditions of the health and well-being of everyday human life … let Oekology be henceforth the science of [our] normal lives” (Robert Clarke, 1973, Ellen Swallow: The Woman Who Founded Ecology). She emphasised human ecology by linking home economics and sciences. For Swallow, ecological thinking was domestic thinking.

As she later claimed, “The environment that people live in is the environment that they respond to and perpetuate. If the environment is good, so be it, but if it is poor so is the quality of life within it.”

As a last note on Swallow’s studies, it’s important to note that during her degree, she worked on domestic tasks for her lecturers in order that they would allow her into classes, for which she didn’t always get full credit.

Barbara York Main (1929-2019) I first learned about Barbara York Main through a beautiful episode of the podcast, Off Track. The episode was released not long after her death at the end of 2019. Like many women scientists, she was not granted full admission into the Faculty she worked within, even as her husband was employed there.

York Main is best known for her work on trapdoor spiders, which fascinated her from when she was a child. She focused on one particular group that included a spider, Number 16, who is recorded as living for over 40 years (1974-2016).

Like Carson, York Main’s writing about the ecologies she studied were poetic and aimed to capture the spirit of the spaces. Like Carson, she was as talented a nature writer as she was a researcher. Her research story is one of love, commitment and passion, and I found the stories of her relationships with the spiders she studied and the students she supervised to be inspiring and moving. I highly, highly recommended listening to her story on Off Track.

Mahuru Wilcox (alive and kicking) I met Mahuru when I moved to Whaingaroa (Raglan) in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2014. She works in landcare research, with her particular expertise in freshwater ecologies. Mahuru completed a Masters that advocates for greater inclusion of Maori knowledges and sciences in landcare practices, so her science is not only evidence-based, but deeply political and ethical. She reminds us that,

It’s important to remember that science is a tool. So how does this tool support the aspirations, goals and knowledge of Māori? And if science is not appropriate for a particular situation, then we look at developing new tools based on mātauranga ā iwi/hapū/whānau.

My many conversations with Mahuru have helped me recognise my place in settler colonial politics in Australia, and to make sense of the pathways I could follow to more effectively decolonise my work and life.

Like the other women in this post, Mahuru’s work is hugely impactful and inspires me in being more respectful, ethical, inclusive, open-minded, and activist in my research.

Moving Oceans: Beginnings

The sea is all around us.  

Not only do seas and oceans cover our world but they’re increasingly important in humanities and social science scholarship. Studying seas and oceans can help us to better understand human and multispecies health, culture, society, literature, geographies, mobilities, ethics, environmentalism, architecture, adaptation, and survival.  

Blue humanities, blue spaces and blue health are all growing areas of research focus, with the consistent finding that our fate is tied to the fate of oceans. As Rachel Carson wrote in The Sea Around Us,  

It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself. 

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As our oceans rise and release their carbon stores, as kelp forests die, as species disappear, as discarded plastics form gyres, and as our waters are fished into deserts, Carson’s words continue to resonate 70 years later. In the face of these threats it is difficult not to feel despair and sadness, but in order to adapt and survive, it is important for us to face these problems as they are and to proceed with hope.  

The project we are launching with this website, Moving Oceans, follows this approach of honesty, hope and action.  

Moving Oceans faces the precarity of ocean and coastal futures, explores how we are living with oceans and coastlines, and imagines how we can learn to see ourselves as part of the vastness of these ecologies in new ways – wet, polluted, multispecies, colonised, and salty.  

The aim is to take our research offshore and into the saltwater. To do this, we’re focused on the role of ocean lifestyle sports and physical activities as they relate to oceans and coasts, with a focus on swimming and surfing. Although a little clunky, the term ‘lifestyle sports’ captures the sense of recreation, leisure and lifestyle that is core to activities like swimming, surfing, mountain-biking, snowboarding, rock-climbing and more. For the majority of the population, they’re activities we do more for pleasure and connection to nature – oceans, mountains, forests, rivers – than for competitive achievements.  

Some critics argue that surfers, snowboarders, mountain-bikers and other lifestyle sports people see nature simply as a background against which their activity is practiced. This project explores how these activities are key to changing how participants see themselves as part of nature ecologies. In this case, we are interested in how surfers and swimmers come to know and care for ocean and coastal ecologies.  

The focus on sport comes from existing work in sport and physical activities and cultures. In these fields there is increasing analysis of the role that nature plays in our physical, mental, emotional and social health and wellbeing. This project wonders what sport and physical activity do for nature-places in return, and how our experiences of nature can change how we think about our relationships with it. 

More and more people are surfing and swimming, so it is important that governments and community organisations better understand how these, and other lifestyle sports shape our relationships to, and impacts on, oceans and coasts.

To help do this, our research will explore the ‘everyday’ individual environmental ethics that we develop through surfing and ocean swimming, often outside of organised initiatives. It will also focus on how sport is key to current activism about ocean pollution. Everyday ethics and politics are linked to individual relationships and emotional connections to ecologies, which come to shape our day-to-day decisions about waste, consumption and activism. Since personal experience is a key factor in whether we develop such ecological sensibilities, the role of lifestyle sports in ocean and coastal care is a vital but understudied field of research.  

Moving Oceans is funded through an Australian Research Council Fellowship, awarded to Dr Rebecca Olive. The project will develop through collaboration with researchers from multiple disciplines and groups including cultural studies, gender studies, literature studies, geography, coastal management, marine social science, media studies, environmental sciences and more. It will also include contributions from people in media, the arts and community organisations.

We’d love to hear from anyone interested in the ideas and issues that Moving Oceans is exploring.