Why I’ll Always Be an Ocean Person
From a young age, the ocean provided relief from mental illness, something I've been unable to replicate with any other form of nature. It turns out, there's a science behind why some people prefer water.
When I was three months old, my mom took me in the pool for the first time, determined that I would not suffer from her same fear of water. She dunked me under, and by the third time, I had learned that I needed to close my mouth and hold my breath. I haven’t wanted to come back to the surface since.
In high school, I spent weekends working at an aquarium; in college, I spent them underwater, diving off the Florida Keys. In addition to a sailing adventure after graduation, I worked as a dive master in Indonesia and an underwater photographer in Australia, amassing close to a thousand hours beneath the waves.
Several months ago, I was in Florida helping my grandpa, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, acclimate to his new life in an assisted-living facility. One evening, sitting alone in his empty former house, I felt the familiar vice grip of panic in my chest. My mind spiraled into a cascade of thoughts: Why didn’t I spend more time with Grandpa when I had the chance, hear more of his stories, let him show me how to fix things? How am I going to take care of my parents when they get to this age, especially since Parkinson’s is genetic? What will happen to me when I grow old, especially if I don’t end up having kids to care for me? Am I really getting the most out of our limited time on earth?
I ran through my usual techniques to deal with anxiety—deep breathing, counting backwards from 100, naming all the green things in the room—but nothing worked. So I walked to the beach. There was no one else by the water. My heart rate slowed as soon as my feet hit the sand and the smell of salty air wafted through my nostrils. I stripped down to my sports bra and shorts and waded into the Atlantic Ocean. A wave crested in front of me, and I dove beneath it. As my head broke the surface on the other side, calm washed over me.
I’ve struggled with mental health since I was 12, first in the form of an eating disorder that morphed into years of clinical anxiety and depression. At its worst, my brain makes everyday tasks, from getting out of bed to writing this essay, near impossible. But when I’m in or around the ocean, I feel almost instant relief.
Since settling in Santa Fe, a 12-hour drive from the nearest body of salt water, I’ve tried to fill the void with backpacking, peak bagging, and mountain biking. I’ve even taken to interacting with water in its different forms by learning how to snowboard, going whitewater kayaking, and sailing on nearby lakes. But none of those activities have given me the same kind of peace the ocean does, which got me thinking: Is there really a divide between mountain people and ocean people?
It’s well established that nature is good for your brain. Numerous studies have shown that green spaces—from city parks to forests—improve quality of life and can help mitigate various health issues, including anxiety and depression. But mounting evidence suggests that not all nature is created equal. In 2010, the American Chemical Society published an analysis of ten different green-space studies that showed that the presence of water—or “blue spaces”—amplified the mood-boosting effects of being outside. A 2016 survey conducted in Wellington, New Zealand, found that proximity to the ocean, but not green space, was associated with lower psychological distress. And multiple studies in the UK have concluded that the closer people live to the coast, the better their overall health is, especially in those who come from low-income households. Even research into the impact of water on landlocked Middle America has shown that the Great Lakes have a positive influence on health.
Water-related treatments have been around for centuries, from ancient Roman thalassotherapy—the use of seawater to cure physical and mental ills—to Scandanavian cold baths. In more recent times, ocean-based sports, such as surfing and scuba diving, have shown to be effective for treating everyone from veterans with post-traumatic-stress disorder to cancer patients. Open-water swimming has also caught on as a growing trend for psychological healing, buoyed by a series of memoirs that include Alexandra Hemingsly’s Leap In, Joe Minihan’s Floating: A Life Regained, and, more recently, Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim.
Despite growing scientific evidence, the intersection of water and psychology is a relatively new field. One of the people at its forefront is Wallace J. Nichols. Compelled to study marine biology because of the joy he felt around the sea, Nichols became more interested in the neuropsychological effects of water as his 20-year career as a biologist progressed. He wanted to read a book on the topic and, when he couldn’t find one, decided to write it himself in 2014. The result, Blue Mind, consulted scientists, athletes, and artists to examine what happens to our minds and bodies when we’re in and around oceans, lakes, rivers, and even swimming pools.
“When people tell me they’re a mountain person, not a water person, I always ask what they aim for when they’re out on a hike,” Nichols says. “Whether it’s a lake, river, waterfall, or glacier, there is something that attracts people to water.” It comes down to an evolutionary need; before it came instantly out of our taps, water was a source of life and comfort, something our brains are hardwired to seek. “The sight, sound, and touch of water triggers a neurochemical response that makes us feel safe,” he says. In fact, studies have shown that being immersed in water can cause the brain to alter the balance of epinephrine and dopamine in the same way meditation does. Nichols puts it more bluntly: “The best medicine for our physical, social, and emotional health is water. Period.”
But if Nichols is right, then why don’t lakes and rivers do it for me? In the Santa Fe summer, a dunk in fresh water brings temporary respite. But I have yet to feel the same effects on my mental health as I do being near the ocean.
The mountains, though wild in their own way, appear stoic, a constant. There are very few peaks left to be climbed, while 80 percent of the ocean remains unexplored.
In a 2015 study, British researchers put participants in front of a large aquarium tank in different stages of being restocked. While simply looking at water produced a calming effect, the more fish that were added to the tank, the greater the positive impact became. “The ocean provides a broader visual array, because you can see farther, and it also moves and changes all the time, especially waves and tides and patterns of light,” says Mathew White, one of the study’s authors. “There is more to be softly fascinated by—something that maintains your attention and stops you from getting bored.”
In all likelihood, though, both White and Nichols agree that my preference for the ocean over fresh water likely goes back to childhood. Just like the smell of Grandma’s fresh-baked cookies triggers a flood of positive emotions, many of my favorite memories are associated with the ocean.
My ideal blue mind might be open-water swimming through bioluminescent algae while a whale breaches nearby. For someone else, it could be a babbling brook next to their tent. Either way, Nichols asserts that any time spent in water is better than none. “Sit in your bathtub and crank up the freaking whale songs as loud as you can,” he says, “It’s not the same, but it’ll help.”
Or maybe it’s something more philosophical. I see a lot of myself reflected in the ocean: restless, constantly changing, unpredictable. To me, the mountains, though wild in their own way, appear stoic, a constant. There are very few peaks left to be climbed, while 80 percent of the ocean remains unexplored. Nothing thrills me more than going somewhere I haven’t been and doing something I haven’t done. Nothing scares me more than stasis.
The happiest I’ve ever been was bobbing on a sailboat in the Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night, with hundreds of miles of salt water in every direction, all of it illuminated by a golden moon climbing up from the horizon. I sat outside for hours, staring, thinking of nothing, and awash in a feeling of tranquility I’d never felt before and haven’t since.
In this way, the appeal of the ocean, as Nichols puts it, is “as much about what it brings as what it takes away.” Any form of moving water produces negative ions (invisible molecules that some research has suggested can make people feel more energetic and improve overall mood), rhythmic sounds, and a sense of supportive buoyancy, all of which have been shown to be therapeutic on their own. But for me—and others, from what Nichols has observed—half of water’s power is its ability to rid us of stressors.
My grandpa died unexpectedly in April, a few days after his 88th birthday. I inherited my love of the water from him. In his youth, he was known to go bodysurfing during nor’easters and spent most of his retired days at the beach. I have never needed the ocean more than I did when my mom called me at 6:30 A.M. to tell me the news. But because of the pandemic, there was no funeral, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back to the place he and I treasured so much.
So on the day he died, I sank into a bath and, as Nichols suggested, cranked the whale songs. Laying my head down beneath the water, I brought my mind back to the sea, the moment right before my face breaks the surface after diving under a wave. For a second, I was there, a sense of calm quieting the churning gears in my brain. As soon as I came up for air, the image faded, but the peace stayed a bit longer.