Elemental Alchemy: How the Pandemic Reveals the Power of ‘Blue Space’

words :: Dan Rubinstein // photo :: Zak Erb.

When the world went haywire last March, I was on my way to Maine for some solo SUP surfing. I had just dropped off my wife and daughters at the Ottawa airport, bound for a visit with family in Alberta, and was driving toward the American border when the radio said schools in Ontario would remain closed for two weeks after March Break. Had we known how quickly and destructively COVID-19 would wash across the continent, we would have bailed on both trips. But they were in the air, and I had a van full of paddleboards and cold-weather gear. Despite the sense of looming chaos, bobbing around the ocean by myself in a rural corner of the U.S. felt pretty safe—a perfect place to steel myself for the storm ahead.

A few weeks later, back home in Ottawa and settling into lockdown mode, the rivers began to melt. It was freshet and standing-wave season. As coronavirus cases spiked, there were debates about the need for physical distancing while running and walking around the city.

 

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ZAK ERB

 

Heading to my put-in for early-morning surf sessions, I justified these outings as contactless mental health interventions. On the water—whether gliding back and forth on a river wave or getting tossed into the Atlantic—my worries were soothed by finding sync with forces far greater than I.

Just like spending time outside in green space has been proven to be good for our mental health, hanging out in the aquatic equivalent—blue space—is a tonic for the brain. In fact, according to a growing body of research, the therapeutic powers of coastlines, lakes and rivers are even more pronounced.

 

Despite the sense of looming chaos, bobbing around the ocean by myself in a rural corner of the U.S. felt pretty safe—a perfect place to steel myself for the storm ahead.

 

Dr. Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter in the U.K., says blue space has “consistently been shown to lead to significantly higher benefits, in inducing positive mood and reducing negative mood and stress, than green space does,” reports The Guardian. White attributes these benefits to cleaner air, blue space’s incentive and infrastructure for physical activity, and a psychologically restorative effect with evolutionary roots. Even walking along a beach, he says, “there’s a transition towards thinking outwards towards the environment… putting your life in perspective.” Something more immersive, such as swimming or surfing, really puts you in tune with nature, says White: “You have to understand the motion of the wind, the movement of the water …. We’re kind of getting back in touch with our historical heritage, cognitively.”

White’s research meshes well with the ideas explored in Blue Mind, by marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols. The book dives into “the physical, ecological, economic, cognitive, emotional, psychological, physical and social benefits of healthy oceans and waterways” and “shows how proximity to water can improve performance, increase calm, diminish anxiety and increase professional success.” Nichols, who has worked on conservation issues ranging from sea turtles to ocean plastics, now focuses on advocating for “emotional connection to waters of all kinds,” for the betterment of ourselves and the planet.

 

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JASON LEUNG, UNSPLASH

 

Such words aren’t only the domain of scientists. Every instructor or guide I’ve paddled with has said something similar. Squamish-based Norm Hann, who leads SUP expeditions in the Great Bear Rainforest, loves the perspective one gets atop a board. Olympic triathlon champion Simon Whitfield was drawn to the defiance of SUP as he navigated the transition away from intense competition. And Karl Kruger, who once paddleboarded from Washington State to Alaska in 14 days, craves intimacy with water as an act of personal healing. “My joy in that experience was slipping back into the skin of what it means to be a human being and move through this environment happily and safely, and not just survive but thrive,” Kruger says about completing the unsupported Race to Alaska. “We crawled out of the water a long time before we walked. It’s integral to who we are.”

 

 

My sojourn to Maine was tame, as were my spring and summer in Ottawa’s blue space. Water levels dropped and the ocean remained off-limits because of pandemic travel restrictions, yet flatwater paddling kept me sane. Then my family snagged a cottage rental on Lake Huron, south of Tobermory. At the head of our bay, the limestone shelf extended into the clear waters, creating a small surf break. Every morning, I’d paddle out and ride the breaking waves. Skimming toward the rocky shoreline, there was always a humbling touch of fear. But mostly bliss. Pivoting to head back, the swells pushed and jostled me from behind. But balanced on my board, I knew to stay loose in the turbulence and let the water do the rest.

Excerpted from the Spring ’21 issue of ML Blue Mountains.

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