Recently, there has been upset amongst outdoor swimmers over a piece by Eva Wiseman in The Guardian. The column titled, ‘RIP wild swimming! Nature’s ‘cure all’ has thrown in the towel’ posed a very different approach than The Guardian’s usually super supportive and celebratory take on ‘wild’, ocean and outdoor swimming. The Guardian has become the go-to publisher for celebratory accounts of folks’ discovering the benefits of outdoor swimming for their physical and mental health and wellbeing, and the experiences of finding a welcoming and caring community amongst swimmers.
Outdoor swimming is all these things and more, and it has become an activity that is deeply meaningful in thousands of people’s lives. As we float amongst the water, animals and plants with our friends, outdoor swimming offers a way of connecting to places, communities, and multispecies ecologies, and of finding a sense of perspective that can make our problems seem more manageable.
So Eva Wiseman’s gleeful amplification of recent discussions about the potentially serious health impacts of both cold water swimming and of the water pollution swimmers can immersed in was upsetting for many swimmers. Seeking clicks, Wiseman’s column aimed to do exactly that; to ridicule and insult an activity that she is sick of hearing about.
Yet, as inflammatory as her approach was, Wiseman is right that swimming is not for everyone and that it cannot be understood only as a “healthy” practice in clinical terms. To concede this point is not to defend Wiseman but is to recognise that every sport and physical activity has potential risks. The many responses to Wiseman from outdoor swimmers are right to highlight how swimming is an important health and wellbeing practice for them. It’s a wonderful activity and I love it and advocate for it, but it’s folly to pretend that outdoor swimming is exempt from risk or romanticisation. To allow for complexity in how we talk about outdoor swimming recognises that health and wellbeing are not straightforward. We can swim in polluted water and still experience wellbeing and we can participate in activities that can have potential cardiac or circulation issues. We can also do so with a genuine awareness of how to minimise the risks.
It’s this complexity that Wiseman glosses over in her dismissal, but it’s also a complexity that outdoor swimmers need to do more to engage with themselves.
At the very least, we should admit there is a tendency to romanticise it as a radically inclusive and accessible activity. It’s not. There are many barriers to outdoor swimming for many people, including fear of waves, a lack of water skills, a lack of locations accessible by public transport, issues with accessible swimming spots for people with mobility issues, forms of discrimination, ongoing issues of colonisation, and more. Of course, these issues are not unique to swimming. All activities have multiple barriers and being honest about them helps us identify and address them, such as in the work of Mental Health Swims. From my experience, outdoor swimming groups do their best to be welcoming and inclusive and I’ve always found this part of outdoor swimming culture to be really lovely.
But there are other reasons that people might not be keen to swim, because to swim in nature comes with all kinds of risks. Some easy examples are the need to navigate pollution, animals and ice. While we mostly experience these as pleasures, outdoor swimming requires accepting that these things will have potentially negative health impacts on us. Pollution can be absorbed into our bodies and cause illness (and it can excrete from our bodies into environments), animals can injure us (and we can injure them), and despite how popular ice swimming is right now, water that cold can have health implications (and I’m curious as to the impacts of people breaking ice on the associated ecologies).
The UK has a long established culture of activism against sewage releases, with Surfers Against Sewage leading that charge. Like surfers, outdoor swimmers are navigating issues of pollution every time we immerse ourselves and so have developed ways of knowing about pollutions levels and where to swim safely after rain. In Australia, there is a lot of campaigning against non-enclosed ‘shark nets’, which were introduced to create a sense of safety for swimmers and surfers, but which have resulted in the deaths of many thousands of animals, including sharks, whales, dolphins, turtles, and rays, including animals that are endangered. There is an increasing sense that our leisure should not result in the deaths of animals, but the nets remain a highly charged political issue. And of course, all ocean swimmers have experienced jellyfish encounters, whose sting can vary from mild to deadly.
When we swim, we are vulnerable, and that is part of what makes it so wonderful. That is part of the perspective that we gain from our immersions. Our vulnerability reflects the choice to participate in the world as it is, and to swim out into it. It reflects the reality that nothing we do can ever be in total isolation from risk or from the unknown. Our vulnerability should not represent the end of an activity. Instead, it should be part of how we come to talk about the value of it. That it makes us think about how we live in multispecies ecologies filled with animals whose lives have meaning and value beyond those we impose on them. That it makes us more aware of the injustice how sewage and pollution is discarded into oceans with little long term planning or consideration of who it might impact. That free, public access to nature places can be at the whim of wealthy land owners, and that our use of the land and water without their permission can be an act of trespass. Our vulnerability as outdoor swimmers is personal, but it’s political too.
Certainly, as people who love being in water, there is more we can do to take care of environments and the animals who live there. We can be active in the movements for better production and management of pollution and sewage. We can learn about and respond to behaviours and migration and breeding seasons of the animals we share the water with. We can think about what we leave behind in the water – moisturisers and sunscreens from our skin, microplastics from our swimmers and robes, analgesics and antibiotics from our urine – when we swim in remote places. We’re vulnerable when we swim because we’re part of the ecology we’re immersed in.
Wiseman’s column shouldn’t be taken seriously – it was written to generate outrage. But we can certainly reflect on the upset it generated and the various defences that followed. Swimming is a pleasure, a joy, and a health and wellbeing practice for so many people, but we’re reaching a critical mass where we need to ensure that these health and wellbeing benefits extend beyond the people who participate and into the places we swim in return.
A practice to generate outrage amongst many or a practice to generate joy amongst many. I know which side I am on.
Oh I’m on the joy side too! But it’s always more complicated than an either/or. Outdoor swimming is wonderful and a joy in my life and I love it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think critically about the potential impacts of the many as well.