Swimming in the Anthropocene

Human bodies in deep water feel nature’s power and our own relative weakness. As seas rise, we should heed the swimmers.

From late May through early November, I walk down the street each day and throw my body into Long Island Sound. I swim out past the offshore rocks, musing about poetry, the weather, or my current writing projects. Passing over the beach, I recall the privilege of access and think about how coastal real estate in the United States gets distributed by race, wealth, and class.1

When I’m in the water, it takes some effort to concentrate on politics or poetics. While I’m swimming, some part of me is always concentrating on form. Form buoys me up in an alien environment. Like all swimmers, I use repeated movements to propel my body. While stretching my hands forward through the water, I feel on my skin the slippery touch of the largest object on the planet. Ocean swimming is an embodied meditation in inconstant space.

The exercise generates distinctive meanings during the Anthropocene, this era when human actions have become the major driver of global climate disruptions. Rising temperatures and sea levels are making our planetary environment more violent, stormy, and hostile. On a local, bodily scale, swimming teaches partial comfort and uneasy pleasure in dynamic and inhospitable natural spaces. The practice attunes us to groundlessness and disorientation. Being in water can prepare us for the losses of stability our changing climate promises. Swimming teaches endurance and unlearns dominion.

The long history of humans in water reveals distinctive feelings and ideas that flow out of immersion. Journalist and open-water swimmer Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim engages with contemporary swimmers, from her own Pacific waters of San Francisco Bay to a hotel pool in occupied Baghdad and Iceland’s frigid Atlantic. She explores “how to live with water, not how to keep it at bay.” In Strokes of Genius: A History of Swimming, swim trainer and writer Eric Chaline takes a more historical approach. Chaline provides detailed snapshots of the evolution of swimming as formal practice, from dim glimpses of prehistory to the latest trends in undersea exploration. His careful analysis of swimming techniques nicely complements Tsui’s examination of how swimming makes us feel.

Together these books emphasize that swimming operates through the combination and subtle interpenetration of form and feeling. Repeated formal movements move bodies through water. Swimmers go faster, and experience more pleasure, by exploiting what the Australian Olympic champion Murray Rose calls a “feel for the water.”2 Chaline’s descriptions of swim practices from antiquity to the present trace a range of changing forms. Tsui’s portraits of 21st-century swimmers splash a little closer to the shock of water on skin. These combinations of form and feeling open new perspectives on the ways humans interact with water, during this moment of increasing oceanic disorder in the global environment.

As seas rise, we should heed the swimmers. Chaline’s history uncovers a long and sinuous story of physical engagements with fluid spaces. Tsui’s emphasis on swimming as a meditative, lifesaving, and community-building exercise honors the thrill and danger of nonterrestrial encounters. These books also gesture toward a more capacious conclusion: swimming appears in the 21st century to be developing as a distinctively Anthropocene form of embodied practice, a way of inhabiting human vulnerability in an increasingly hostile environment.

The alien sensation of immersion and the feelings generated by the human body in a watery environment become especially poignant during the Anthropocene.

Chaline and Tsui’s books join a flood of swim memoirs that has emerged in the past few decades. A pair of inspiring, Romantically inflected tomes published in the 1990s, Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur (1992) and Roger Deakin’s Waterlog (1999), set the stage for popular narratives including Lynne Cox’s Swimming to Antarctica (2004), Murray Rose’s Life Is Worth Swimming (2013), Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies (2012), and a trilogy of sea memoirs by Philip Hoare: Leviathan (2008), The Sea Inside (2013), and Risingtidefallingstar (2017).3 Earlier works in this microgenre include James Hamilton-Paterson’s Seven-Tenths (1992) and Playing with Water (1987), Diana Nyad’s Other Shores (1978), and swim essays by and about Oliver Sacks.4 Tsui’s focus on feeling and Chaline’s history of swimming techniques help sharpen our focus on two recurring subjects in swim writing: how the human body feels under conditions of immersion, and how it uses distinctive forms to keep itself afloat.

Chaline and Tsui start at the same place: the Cave of Swimmers. Located in the Sahara, near Egypt’s border with Libya, these cave walls are covered with 10,000-year-old paintings of swimming humans. The images provide pictorial evidence of the “Green Sahara,” an area that is desert today but was once dotted with lakes and settled by semiaquatic humans. Tsui traces the idea of the Green Sahara to paleontologist Paul Sereno, who believes the ancient inhabitants of the area dived for clams and used weighted nets for fish.

The swimming that inspired the pictographs may have been the practical labor of hunter-gatherers, but the artistic representations hint at water pleasures as well. Chaline finds in the Cave of Swimmers “several figures … shown doing what, as a swimming teacher, I would immediately recognize as the breaststroke.” In Chaline’s account, the postures of these ancient images become legible as technique. He connects Neolithic breaststrokers to controversial ideas about an aquatic “missing link” in hominid development. The “aquatic ape hypothesis,” a theory about an aqueous phase of human evolution popularized by feminist scholar Elaine Morgan in the 1970s, receives scant support today from biologists and archaeologists, even as it remains intriguing to poets and literary critics. The enduring presence of humans near and in water continues to resonate. Chaline traces a long history of swim forms, connecting the laps we do in pools today to immersive images from the Green Sahara forward.

For Tsui, the feeling of swimming becomes meaningful as a “moving meditation.” One key element is the “activation of deep breathing,” combined with what she terms, quoting Australian surfer Dave Rastovich, “meaningful play.” Quoting memoirist Lidia Yuknavitch, Tsui emphasizes the swimmer’s “great intake of air” as memorializing the simultaneous human yearning for water’s embrace and our knowledge that we cannot long endure it. “[T]he air we breathe,” Tsui writes, is “the air we need, even as we put our faces in the water.”


All Tomorrow’s Warnings

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The facedown-ness of Tsui’s crawl stroke seems key: to swim with her requires facing into the element we can’t breathe. The posture of the front crawl forces the swimmer’s face to confront the water directly, intensifying both the feeling of immersion and the risks one takes in an inhospitable space. An “ideal of amphibiousness” traces a slick path through her book’s many voyages. “Each pool,” she claims, “is in fact a potential portal.”

One answer to the “why” of her title may be a simple desire to move through the watery gate into otherness. The alien sensation of immersion and the feelings generated by the human body in a watery environment are becoming especially poignant during the Anthropocene. I feel that pleasing alien touch every time I dive into saltwater. Echoes of that feeling animate Tsui’s writing.

Chaline’s book devotes less attention to the emotional texture or philosophical significance of swimming. In fact, his history minimizes a detail that seems worth keeping in view when examining how and why humans have variously embraced and resisted different strokes. The cover image of Chaline’s book features the curving underwater portion of the butterfly stroke, but I could not help remembering that in the anglophone world the breaststroke dominated for a long time. An eyes-forward breaststroke carried Matthew Webb across the English Channel for the first time in 1875, and that head-up position was still the stroke of choice for Roger Deakin in the 1990s, when his influential example helped instigate the “wild swimming” craze.5

The opposition between Tsui’s eyes-under crawl and Webb’s eyes-up breaststroke seems symbolic: he stares forward as he crosses from England to France, while her face angles down into the water. Webb’s visual fixation on the distant shoreline seems to reflect a quasi-imperial stance, his conquest of both water and horizon for the British Empire. Chaline provides a revealing story about the moment, in 1844, when the front crawl first arrived in European pools, when “two Native Americans of the Ojibwe Nation, Flying Gull (Wenish-ka-wen-bee) and Tobacco (Sah-ma), demonstrated an overarm stroke with alternating flutter kick at a swimming exhibition in London.” After easily beating the English breaststrokers, the Native Americans were called “ungentlemanly” and, truly enough, “un-European.” It took another 30 years for John Trudgen, who learned an overarm stroke in Argentina, to bring something like the modern crawl stroke into practice in England.

In preserving our lives in hostile waters, humans become aware of both the tenuousness of our mortality and the physical pleasure of enduring risk.

In contrast with Chaline’s painfully regular march from prehistory into modern competitive and recreational swimming—his chapters, like a swimmer’s strokes, all follow the same pattern of reach, pull, recovery—Tsui ranges widely around today’s global world. She seeks out communities in which swimming is fundamental, not merely recreational. For many of her swimmers, swimming is lifesaving—literally so for Icelandic fisherman Guðlaugur Friðþósson, who in 1984 swam for hours in 40-degree water after his fishing vessel sank offshore. Guðlaugur remains a reluctant swim celebrity in Iceland today, and on the anniversary of his swim each March, Icelanders, including the visiting Bonnie Tsui, pace out his lifesaving six kilometers in pools. Tsui describes Icelandic swim culture, revolving around the bitter cold sea, the myriad pools, and the natural hot springs, as forging community through “swimming as liturgy.”

Another of Tsui’s swim heroes, Kim Chambers, began swimming after a near-paralyzing accident and subsequently became an open-water world champion. The coming together of swim communities, Tsui emphasizes, takes place in the shadow of peril, because “swimming is … a constant state of not drowning.” In preserving our lives in hostile waters like the freezing seas of Iceland or the gentler bays of my own Long Island Sound, humans arrive at a complex realization, aware of both the tenuousness of our mortality and the physical pleasure of enduring risk. Tsui connects this feeling, quoting the Australian philosopher Damon Young, with 18th-century ideas of the sublime, “pain and pleasure, terror and awe, fear and exhilaration, life and death.”

Immersion in water, Tsui asserts, calls up “the awe and the terror, together” of the sublime. The sublime has a complex history of entanglement with European Romanticism and imperial expansion that Tsui mostly omits, but her bodily engagement with the awe and terror experienced by land mammals in water undergirds all of her swim experiments and reflections. She does not directly make this point, but acknowledging the swimmer’s sublime in an environmental context can remind us, in the Anthropocene, that human mastery of nature has always been a myth—a corrosive myth—that we would do well to reject. Human bodies in deep water feel nature’s power and our own relative weakness.


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Chaline’s narrative appears more prosaic and historical than Tsui’s, but his emphasis on form provides a valuable companion to her rhapsodies of feeling. He explicates the sport’s history of innovation, its flashes and triumphs, and its ability to connect humans to other species. To swim in the ocean requires rigorous repetition, which Chaline details in his accounts of such figures as Cambridge academic Everard Digby, whose 1587 De arte natandi introduced a variety of maneuvers, including a form of breaststroke, to local swimmers. Chaline examines many swim innovators, from Webb and Trudgen to such modern figures as Michael Phelps. He balances his history with a chapter on “imaginary swimmers,” including Christopher Marlowe’s legendary Leander, who drowned while swimming the Hellespont, but also Lord Byron, who wrote a poem about his own triumphant swimming of Leander’s fatal route in 1810. Fantasy and science-fiction writers such as Charles Kingsley and Jules Verne made the undersea a space of magic, a tradition that Chaline traces forward into film and television. Living underwater has become, he concludes, a way to imagine aquatic humans as utopian descendants of the mythic aquatic ape.

Tsui finishes her book with a moving personal story of connecting with her future in-laws through “the ritual of swimming” in Lake George, New York. Her central observation holds that “bodies of water are shared spaces” that form people into communities of practice and unifying caution. Water, for her, promises “an escape from Earth’s terra firma.” In the book’s final image, she watches her son jump off a diving board for the first time into what she hopes will become his “elemental understanding of water.” He leaps, splashes, surfaces, pauses—and then begins to swim. It’s a vision of survival and pleasure in unfamiliar space.

As rising seas encroach on human coastal settlements, turning to the water enacts an accepting of limits and a refashioning of human engagements with our surroundings. I think about feeling and form every day in Long Island Sound. Anthropocene threats and disruptions surround me in the form of tides, winds, pollution, plastic, and stinging jellyfish during high summer. With a repetitive churning of crawl-stroke arms, I navigate my body through this tiny fraction of the World Ocean. My form is decent, but it’s feeling that makes my skin and my imagination tingle each time I get out of the water.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

  1. See Andrew Kahrl, Free the Beaches! The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline (Yale University Press, 2018).
  2. Murray Rose, Life Is Worth Swimming (Arbon, 2013), p. 141. For more on “feel for the water,” see Charles Sprawson, Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero (Pantheon, 1992), pp. 13–17.
  3. Roger Deakin, Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain (Vintage, 2000); Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies (Blue Rider, 2012); Lynne Cox, Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer (Knopf, 2004); Philip Hoare, Leviathan, or the Whale (Fourth Estate, 2009); The Sea Inside (Fourth Estate, 2013); Risingtidefallingstar: In Search of the Soul of the Sea (University of Chicago Press, 2018).
  4. James Hamilton-Paterson, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds (Europa Editions, 1992); Playing with Water: Passion and Solitude on a Philippine Island (New Amsterdam, 1987); Diana Nyad, Other Shores (Random House, 1978).
  5. On this fast-growing practice in the UK and beyond, see Wild Swimming (accessed July 2, 2020).
Featured image: Open Water Swimming (detail) (2019). Photograph by Damir Spanic / Unsplash