Swimming is simply a way of being in, and moving our bodies through, water.
My own definition is not so bothered by the necessity of strokes and distances, of skill or ability. My definition of swimming is inclusive of swimmers from athletes to dippers, and of water spaces including oceans, rivers, lakes, pools, canals, dams and more.
I’ve been researching swimming in oceans and how swimming shapes our relationships to coastal and ocean ecologies. The people I swim with deal with waves and currents, sharks and seaweed, rocks and run-off, and they embrace all of this as part of swimming. They really love being in the water, even if it’s not always the blue and sparkling ideal.
The key thing for swimmers is water, and our immersion in it. It is the water that encompasses swimmers, washes over us, around us, buoys us, weighs us down, creates the resistance we move with and against. The pleasure of swimming is in this movement. The feel of the water against our skin, playing in waves, diving and holding our breath, meeting a fish, a bird, a seal, a dolphin, watching the light sparkle on the surface and enjoying the colours of the seaweed and corals, are all part of why we swim. They’re all part of the health and wellbeing aspects of the “bluespace” sport and leisure that has become increasingly popular.
But health and wellbeing needs to be accounted for in its complexity. When we talk about human-environmental health and wellbeing, we need to think about the impacts we have on environments as much as the benefits environments have for us. Once we think about this, the water gets murkier.
Swimming in water is not a passive experience. Even when we’re still, even when the water seems still, we’re in a relationship. We don’t live, we don’t feel, we don’t float only in the therapeutic materiality of the world we’re immersed in. There is more to the water than sensory joys, mineral infusions and moments of awe. In the water, we are entangled with creatures, plants, climates and chemicals, as well as histories, genealogies, technologies and politics.
We can think of the relationality of swimming as what feminist historian Donna Haraway calls a “making practice”. In this conception, swimming is not only to be impacted by the experience but is to impact the water and ecology in return. With a growth in interest in swimming, including via social media, it’s important to remember how our experiences of water extend beyond our selves.
When we swim, we’re in relation to the water ecologies we’re immersed in. This includes the feelings and knowledges we access through experiences and encounters, but it’s also about our actions on ecologies. The idea of a making practice describes swimming as a transformative action for the swimmer and the space.
I move the water and the water moves me.
Healing waters, polluted bodies
Immersion means that swimming encounters with water are very intimate. The literature on therapeutic landscapes makes clear the impact that places have on our health and wellbeing. The water we’re immersed in, and all it contains, is absorbed through our skin, sucked in through our mouths and seeps between our legs. But this means that along with the health-bestowing colours, sensations, molecules and minerals we encounter in the water, bacteria, chemicals and other pollutants are also absorbed into our bodies. Increasingly, the water we swim in might be less a bluespace than a murkspace.
These encounters are part of what cultural studies scholar Clifton Evers describes as “polluted leisure”, which can involve complex and health-threatening interactions with chemicals, plastics, pollution, bacteria, sewage and radiation. As we swim, these are absorbed into our mouth and eyes, our gut and skin microbiomes and so pollution interrupts our assumptions about blue spaces, sport and human health and wellbeing. The ubiquity of pollution means it is necessary to reckon with how sport and physical activities in bluespaces, or murkspaces, are practices of polluted leisure.
Understanding that immersion impacts our microbiome further complicates the human and non-human exchanges that occur as we swim (or surf, sail, kayak), as part of multispecies ocean ecologies. It reminds us of our vulnerability to polluting encounters, even in what we experience as healthy practices, like swimming.
But vulnerability can be productive. Extending on the idea of making practices, Haraway encourages us to imagine ourselves in relationship with non-human others in order to “make kin” and reject existing Western, heteronormative conceptions of connection and belonging. This is an exciting task when we think about making kin with corals and stingrays and otters and seaweeds and ice.
It is less enticing to make kin with sewage and polyfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS) and e-coli resistant bacteria. But thinking of these as entangled in planetary health relations might help us imagine new ways of creating, consuming, managing and living with them.
While we might find the idea of making kin with pollution disgusting, it is an inevitability of swimming in the world as we have made it. Surfers celebrate the idea of a shared oceanic microbiome, but to access that, we must accept more localised, harmful interlopers to our skin and guts. Just as we excrete chemicals into the water we spend time in – sunscreen from our skin, antibiotics from our pee – we absorb them from the environment in return.
Swimming as a making practice
While, like others, I’ve evoked the notion of entanglement to describe relations among people, places and multispecies communities, in this case we need something that reflects the soaking, immersive interiority of how we impact oceans in real ways. Feminist philosopher Astrida Neimanis proposes that we conceive of ourselves as “bodies of water” imaging our bodies, subjectivities and selves as fluid, and relational with and across place and time and ecology and culture.
Neimanis’ work offers a conceptual approach to the material problem of living in a polluted, colonised, patriarchal world. By thinking with fluids, with flows, with water, by making kin with water and all that the water is and all that lives there – including people – we are offered new orientations to connection and disruption. We are, as Neimanis tells us, bodies of water. We are all that the water is.
But feeling a personal relationship to something, whether it awes, soothes or disgusts us, is not enough to create new ways of living. In Waves of Knowing: a Seascape Epistemology, her work about knowing the world through surfing, scholar and writer Karin Amimoto Ingersoll critiques the idea that understanding something or loving something can change our worldview. For example, becoming skilled at riding waves does not give non-Hawaiian surfers access to the ancestral depth of Kanaka Māoli relationships to Hawaiian waters.
Certainly, being troubled by pollution has not yet been effective in changing the amount we produce, so much as how we manage our knowledge of it and our encounters with it, something promoted by groups including Surfers Against Sewage, We Swim Wild, Surfers for Climate and Divers for Climate. I find myself coming back to Haraway, who wonders how multispecies encounters affect us in real ways, how they change things.
Because, of course, it’s not only human bodies that accumulate experiences or chemicals. Ecology and environment writer Rebecca Giggs notes of the highly polluted bodies of whales:
Giggs makes it clear that we can learn much from the bodies of whales and their permeable, accretive relations with the water around them. Through post-mortems of the bodies of multispecies others, we know that dolphin microbiomes have changed with pollution, while microplastics are found in the filtration systems of oysters. Perhaps it is microplastics, not grains of sand, that more commonly seed pearls now?
As we swim, what might we accumulate in our fat and skin and guts? In our subjectivities, memories and conscience? In our relations with the world? Even after we change the industrial, extractive, unjust systems that pollute and destroy, we must still find ways to live in the ecologies that now pollute us in return.
Taking better care of our waters must be more than an aspiration, an idea or set of values – it must be about action. This is where I find so much value in swimming. Swimming is not conceptual or metaphorical – it is a set of relations to ourselves and to what else is there. No matter my ideals, if the water is polluted by effluent overflows after rain, then to swim, to immerse myself in this, is to become pollution.
Whether we like it or not, we are all that the water is. If feeling that isn’t enough to activate us into action, then I’m lost as to what is.