I gasp. The cold penetrates my chest and constricts my lungs.
My heart races and a dull ache spreads across my skin; the result of my neurone pathways firing off explosively. I submerge my head, the only part left of me that’s dry, and I am rewarded with the onset of brain freeze. The sensations are overwhelming, my breathing is still laboured, and I taste the tang of salt on my lips. Droplets of water roll off my eyelashes, my vision is blurred, and there’s water coming out of my nostrils. I’m experiencing pain and exhilaration all at the same time and I’ve never felt more alive. This is the pull of wild swimming in action.
As I surrender to the cold, wintery waters of the UK and lean into the discomfort, a metamorphosis occurs. My body’s natural stress response begins to subside, and I am once again able to regulate my breathing. Adrenaline is coursing through my system and as I look around, I once again become aware of my surroundings. I am floating out of my depth in a sheltered Cornish cove. It’s mid-tide and I have entered the water from a narrow beach, draped in fine grained sand and occupied by dog walkers and fellow outdoor swimmers, preparing to undertake a metamorphosis of their own.
Small headlands rise to either side and as I look east and out across the water, I can see a castle perched atop a distant outcrop of land. There’s a slight ripple on the water and a bite to the wind, but we are blessed with excellent visibility both above and below the surface. It has turned 7.30am and I am consumed by a feeling of excitement and apprehension for the adventure that is about to take place. We are preparing to take a tour of a three-mile stretch of the British coastline and the abundance of wildlife it is home to – some of which we have seen before, but never from this perspective.
We gather as a pod and our spirits are high. We adjust our goggles and prepare to move through the ocean as one, totally exposed to the elements and at the surrender of mother nature. We get into formation before submerging our faces and taking our first strokes. It takes several minutes for us to acclimatise to the cold and to synchronise our movements. Before long, we have found a rhythm and are able to take advantage of the slipstream of bubbles from the person in front of us.
As I settle into the swim, I immerse myself in the underwater world. I am a few hundred metres from where I waded into the water, but it couldn’t feel further away from the responsibilities of life on land. All signs of anthropocentrism are left behind, replaced by the deep greens and browns of kelp which sways ever so gently, the leaf-like fronds reaching up towards me. It doesn’t take long before I spot my first golden grey mullet of the day. As sunlight penetrates down into the darkness, it reflects off of the fish’s back, illuminating its silver scales which are patterned with lines of golden brown.
As we stop to rest, I take a deep breath and dive. The water is cooler down here, but my body has familiarised itself with the burn of the cold and I am rewarded by feeling in tune with the natural world. I feel surprisingly at home as I swim through kelp and learn what it is like to see the world through the eyes of the fish native to Cornish shores. I descend further, reaching the seabed to collect a handful of fine white sand, before releasing it and watching it drift down towards the floor once again. As I turn my gaze upwards to resurface, my vision is a filter of blue and light.
We continue around the headland. The water deepens and the ocean floor transitions from sand and kelp to rocks and sediment. It’s more difficult to spot the fish here, as the dark rock absorbs the light, but I capture glimpses of them darting in and out of crevices as they become aware of our arrival.
As we familiarise ourselves with the kelp forests and the fish that reside within them, we are soon greeted by Cornwall’s largest marine predator. A grey seal, well-known to inhabit these parts of the coastline and distinguishable by the hooked shape of its nose. She swims within several metres of us before pausing to observe. We stop and observe her in return. She is so close that I can make out the dappled grey pattern of her fur and see the light reflecting off of her head, which is slick with salt water. Peering below the skin of the ocean, I become aware of just how big she is. Perhaps seven or eight feet in length. I feel an extra dose of adrenaline pulse through my body as I am both mesmerised and startled by the sheer size of this apex predator. I am wary, as I know its pup season and she more than likely has a young family to protect not far from here. Her placidity offers a small amount of reassurance, but we decide to take no risks and resume the swim. She joins us for a while, before heading back. We continue to swim towards our destination, hugging the coastline as we go.
We get out of the water at a cove inaccessible by foot to explore the caves and rock pools. We’ve been here many times before, yet each time we are gifted with a new surprise as the ebb and flow of the tides deposits an ever-changing microcosm of our local ecosystem. I peer into one of the many exposed pockets of water and spot a common Blenny, propped up on its fins atop a stone. The water in its temporary home looks purple, as the light reflects off of the mauve coloured coral weed, its tips white as a result of calcification.
Satisfied, we pick up the pace and swim back to the shore exhilarated yet refreshed. We are being physically challenged; however, we are in a meditative state as we breathe in rhythm and are fully immersed in the awe-inspiring beauty of the ocean. We continue to take in our underwater surroundings before coming to a pause. The head of the pod has sighted something, and as I look ahead, I recognise the distinctive blue sac of a Portuguese Man o’ War. Blown off course by the recent autumn storms, it is drifting towards the rocks just ahead. We change direction, eager to avoid its tentacles, which are near impossible to see, up to fifty metres in length and notorious for delivering a painful sting. As the shoreline nears and the water shallows, we encounter a final spectacle. There are cormorants bobbing atop the water, before taking on a transition of their own. We watch, as they dive down for long periods of time in search of their next meal, before reappearing up to 20m away from where they started.
Arriving back on land, our bodies are pumped full of endorphins and smiles stretch from ear to ear. There’s a buzz in the air and we’re proud of our achievement, but also humbled by the beauty we have seen. We’ve interacted with a plethora of wildlife and feel like we’ve performed an underwater dance with it. We have forged a deeper appreciation for UK waters, the biodiversity of our local ecosystem and its capacity for adventure.
From here, I depart with my heart fuller and more buoyant. I have connected to nature and to my fellow swimmers in a more fulfilling way than I’ve experienced before. My perspective has become more eco-centric and it impacts my behaviours as I continue my life on land. I am more conscious of my impact on the ocean and ultimately, I am more passionate about protecting it.
Photography by Max Campbell and Ross Taylor.
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