The wonder of water — and why we love to swim

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“There's nothing on earth like the feeling of that freezing cold water biting at your skin, but holding it at the same time,” says author Katherine May, on the feeling she gets from swimming in cold water. Graphic by Gabby Quarante/KCRW

Whether it’s splashing in puddles, watching the rain, surfing a wild ocean, or just sitting by the still of a lake, water has always entranced humans. 

Essential for life and covering over half of the earth’s surface, bodies of water are not only sources of nourishment and exploration, but of joy and wonderment — magical, unique entities we can sit beside, float atop of, and dive into and swim within.

What explains our deep connection to the water — the way it moves,  shimmers, and glistens, and the way it captures all of our senses? What is it about being totally immersed and surrounded by water that makes it so transformative?

For British author Katherine May, her love affair with the sea began as a small child. 

“I was always having to be held back from running into any given body of water,” says May. “I love the soundscape of the ocean. I love that rhythmic crash of waves, the birds calling above it, the way that the sound you make echoes off the sea, [and the] very particular space that [the sea] takes you into.” 

In her book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, Katherine May, pictured here, shares why the winter is a “very particular spiritual time, actually a time for celebration, but also for contemplation, for reflection.”  Photo by Alexa Loy Dent. Photo: “The sea gives my skin so much pleasure,” says Katherine May, pictured here swimming off the coast of England. “I find it just an amazing feeling to have something touching the whole of my body at once, and to have that entire sensory landscape kind of unfolding around me. It feels like a very complete experience in an age when there are so many things competing noisily for my attention.”   Photo courtesy of Katherine May. 

For May, who focuses on the winter months’ feelings of “heaviness, desolation, doubt, and worry” in her book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, says there’s an under-appreciated beauty surrounding that cold and dark season. When it comes to swimming, May says that a dip into a frigid sea is “like nothing else on earth … the feeling of that freezing cold water biting at your skin, but holding it at the same time.”  

In the winter months, May says the water is so cold that “it feels almost thick,” but the lure and the sheer joy of being in water is, for her, overwhelming.

“I love the way that when you get out of the cold sea, it feels like the blood in your veins is sparkling,” she explains. “There's almost a sense that something inside you has cooled down and it tingles. It's really beautiful. I've often found that on a day when I've swum in the sea, when I get into bed at night and close my eyes, I still feel the waves in me, I can feel that kind of rise and fall.” 

In her latest book Why We Swim, author Bonnie Tsui explains some of the history and mythology surrounding our love of the water, from the Cave of Swimmers in the Sahara Desert, to Stone Age burial sites at a time when the Sahara was green and had lakes, to the legend of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, the Icelandic fisherman, who survived for six hours in 41 degree water after his boat sank.

Tsui, an avid swimmer and surfer, shares her personal connections to water, including how her parents met in a pool. She explains that breathing while swimming acts like a kind of “moving meditation” that impacts both the body and the mind.  

“The nature of the thing is that you take a deep breath, you hold it, and then you breathe out slowly,” notes Tsui. “The moment that you plunge into the water and float back up to the surface, it’s really like this [sigh] that changes your perspective and helps us to look at the world differently.”

In Why We Swim, author Bonnie Tsui says swimming is both a “useful skill, but also magic. It is existing and suspending yourself in a medium that, really, we don't have any business being in, but we figured out how to survive it and also, beyond that, to have joy in it.” Bonnie Tsui, pictured here, says that being in water “was a place in which I first really felt at home in my body … it changed my life. I just think that we need to do so much more to work towards equity in swimming and swimming education in this country.” Photo courtesy of  Lynsay Skiba.

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Andrea Brody