Words by Lydia Paleschi
When we head outside, we are provided with the opportunity to connect to our natural surroundings. Our senses, often dulled by the safety and comforts of modern life, come alive. The background chatter of our brains, largely the result of being overwhelmed by artificial stimuli such as lights and screens, begins to quiet. Whilst there are many ways to spend time outdoors, wild swimming provides us with the opportunity to completely immerse ourselves in it, to soak up our surroundings, and to fully connect with nature. We’re also more likely to see a greater variety of wildlife.
A grey seal spotted near the Isles of Scilly. Credit: Max Campbell
What is wild swimming?
Wild swimming has seen a huge increase in participation in recent years and involves seeking out wild places to swim, where nature is all around you. As an island nation, the UK is particularly well equipped for wild swimming. England and Wales’ Right to Roam Laws mean we can swim in most rivers and lakes, and in Scotland all waters are accessible as long as swimmers uphold the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
What wildlife can I expect to see on a wild swim?
Where you live, and whether you’re swimming in fresh or saltwater, will affect which wildlife you encounter. For those swimming by the coast, expect to see a number of fish species including mullet and mackerel, starfish, crabs, lobsters, sea urchins and more. Kelp forests and rock pools are teeming with life and it’s rare to visit either without happening upon something interesting. A wide range of aquatic flora inhabits the UK shorelines and for those willing to submerge themselves below the surface these can be investigated and admired. Whilst wild swimming, it’s common to see ocean mammals such as dolphins, porpoise and seals, the latter of which there are two species in the UK – the common and the grey. On rare occasions, it has been known for whales to appear. Last month in Cornwall, there were numerous sightings of a humpback and its calf, an exciting and humbling reminder of the multitude of biodiversity the ocean is home to. The UK coastline also accommodates a wide range of bird species. Amongst the most familiar are gulls, cormorants, shags, terns and gannets. For those up to the challenge of swimming in all weathers and seasons, it is fascinating to observe their migratory patterns and feeding habits.
Freshwater swimming locations have a diverse range of wildlife too. Pike, carp and roach are amongst the most common fish to be found in UK rivers and similar to the coast, there are a large number of plant species to be discovered. Kingfishers, dippers and swans are amongst the many species of birds which can be sighted at river locations and black-throated divers feed and nest on lakes and lochs. Amphibians such as frogs, newts and toads can often be found frequenting freshwater locations.
It’s worth remembering that it is not only whilst swimming that we are able to connect to nature. As we walk to and from swimming spots, there is plentiful flora and fauna to admire. This provides the perfect opportunity to practice and improve our knowledge of botany – for example, learning to identify the plant and tree species in our local area and understanding their unique characteristics. We are also likely to see and hear other creatures; a hedgehog scuttling through damp undergrowth, a mouse springing through grass, a fox skulking with its belly close to the ground.
Why connect to nature?
Heading outdoors into natural spaces it’s hard not to feel a part of something much bigger. As we travel to, and swim at, our chosen location, we are immersing ourselves within the natural ecosystems on which our survival depends. We are provided with the opportunity to observe our local habitats and to learn more about the mannerisms of the species which live on our doorsteps – valuable and interesting information that these days a large amount of us don’t possess. Not only does a wild swim allow us to soak up the beauty of the natural world, and better understand our place within it, but it also serves to improve wellbeing. There is a growing amount of research into the benefits of green spaces, and now blue spaces, on human health. ‘Eco-therapy’ is increasingly being prescribed by GPs as a holistic remedy to a broad range of health conditions.
‘Eco-therapy’ is increasingly being prescribed by GPs. Credit: Max Campbell
The environmental implications of wild swimming
As we head into the water, we begin to nurture a deep level of respect and appreciation for the natural world. Whilst it is a rewarding and enjoyable experience to connect to nature through the act of wild swimming, an even deeper connection can be created through giving back to it as well. There are a number of threats facing our local ecosystems, including but not limited to: poor water quality and sewage incidents; agricultural runoff and eutrophication; overfishing and ghost fishing nets; kelp harvesting and deforestation; and plastic pollution. As persons utilising outdoor spaces, it is important to educate ourselves on these threats and to act to overcome them. Supporting organisations such as Surfers Against Sewage, carrying out litter picks whilst visiting wild swimming spots and taking care to limit our use of plastics helps us to preserve these precious ecosystems and to forge an even closer connection with them.
Words by Lydia Paleschi, Freelancer Writer and Co-founder of Wild Swimming Cornwall
If you’d like to learn more about wild swimming and how to give it a go, visit wildswimmingcornwall.co.uk.