Writing and publishing in peer-reviewed, academic journals and books is a big part of my job as a researcher. It is also a process that takes years of work, sometimes taking more years than you might expect. ‘Taking more years than you might expect’ is certainly the case for this journal article, Swimming and surfing in ocean ecologies: encounter and vulnerability in nature-based sport and physical activity, which I began meaningful work on during the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020.
This piece of work explores key parts of the human-ocean health and wellbeing framework I’ve been using to think about what the experiences we have when ocean swimming and surfing and sailing mean for people. As Western nations come to emphasise the important of time spent in nature to human health and wellbeing, there has been less emphasis on how those benefits are shared with environments in return. That is, how does the health and wellbeing of oceans benefit from the time we spend immersed in them?
In this article, I think about the kinds of encounters we have in the ocean and at the beach, and how they come to impact how we see ourselves in relation to nature; how we are more immersed in nature and thus vulnerable. My interest in understanding how sport and physical activities can shape our relationships to nature is about challenge the human/nature binary that continues to dominate Western relationships to environments, and thus enables extractive approaches to how we live. For example, if we only ‘take’ our own health from oceans then the relationship is not sustainable or ethical.
Using theories from ecofeminist and First Nations scholars, I explore how the experiences we have when immersed in the ocean challenge the idea of human dominance. In our everyday lives, it is easy for us to think of ourselves as separate to the foodchains and risky implications of living in multispecies communities. We can build walls or cages to keep out animals or use traps and poison to kill them if they come too close. But when we swim and surf, we’re immersed and in encounter with all kinds of animals and conditions that remind us we are, as Val Plumwood, wrote, ‘part of the feast, not a spectator to it’.
When we talk about swimming and surfing we mostly focus on the joys of the encounters and these are real and important. But I’m interested in other, less romantic or pleasurable aspects of being in the ocean and how the effects of these are just as important. The ways we feel vulnerable in the ocean are myriad; encounters with animals like jellyfish, sea lions, and large sharks can cause injury or death, waves can hold us under, and pollution can absorb into our bodies.
Being honest about the fullness of how we experience being in the ocean is about recognising the fullness of what these sports and activities can teach us, and the value of encouraging greater participation for more ethical human-ocean health and wellbeing.
[NOTE: Sadly, this article is behind a paywall. If you don’t have access through a university and would like a copy please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org