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Tips on overcoming fear of open water.

Underwater gardens in pink, orange and yellows with an blue ceiling.
Close up of a Compass Jellyfish with a watery reflection.
Wrasse swimming over summer blooming seaweed gardens in Falmouth.s

When you start swimming outdoors there is nature. Seaweed, waves, jellies, flotsam and jetsam, rip currents, unknown depths… I could go on. Fear is a natural and, I’d argue, sensible reaction to open bodies of water.

For newbies and hardened outdoor swimmers, I think everyone has experienced some form of ‘eeeek’ or ‘what was that’ and general uncontrollable jumps. The feeling of fear is unmistakable and frankly not very nice, but it should never stop you from enjoying a dip where (providing you are doing it safely) little harm can come to you.

Underwater shot of swimmer in Batoko swimsuit.

Also, things make you jump in the water full stop. A wrasse might suddenly shoot off or an extra long piece of thong weed might get wrapped round your leg. With any fear and especially being under/in the water, you need to alert whoever is with you, float on your back and steady your breathing until you feel calm. Whatever you do – don’t take the mick out of someone for being scared – encourage them but don’t force it.

Some fears are grounded in misunderstanding and lack of knowledge but some you really should listen to. I’m going to list some different types of fear that we might encounter and suggest some ‘face your fears facts’ – or FYFF for short.

Thalassophobia – the persistent and intense fear of deep bodies of water such as the sea, oceans, pools, or lakes. This overarching phobia generally refers to marine life too.

Fear of going out your depth

By this I don’t mean jumping in the middle of the ocean – I mean shore swimming and not wanting to go where your feet can’t touch the sand/rock/concrete. I’ve never experienced this myself but I can understand the fear of being out of control, not being able to secure yourself with something solid and generally the idea of sinking. Here are some FYFF and advice:

Human buoyancy is a thing – humans float and more so in salt water! I was hoping to give a great scientific fact but after researching it – it’s too complicated to simplify into one sentence.

Neoprene – the more you wrap yourself in, the more buoyant – and warmer – you will be. Get yourself a thick suit – the difference is very noticeable.

Tow Float – one of the many benefits of floats are they are buoyant and act as great support when you are in need of something to hold on to – be it for rest or a natter.

Goggles – I am a firm believer that seeing is believing. Wearing a mask provides a completely different perspective. Perhaps being able to see the bottom might help with inching out your depth.

@katetocoast holding a spiny starfish.

Fear of seaweed

Fykiaphobia is the phobia of seaweed and kelp in open waters. The fact it has its own name highlights just how common it is. I used to be mega jumpy over seaweed – the loose pieces in the waves I got over relatively quickly. However, when I started free diving, just being in the water with a kelp forest beneath me made me panic and scram. But fear not, with a little curiosity and knowledge, you will be swimming along (mostly) unfazed and actually enjoy nature’s stunning underwater gardens. Here are some FYFF and advice – the main thread here is building familiarity:

Do your research – Trust me when I say knowledge is power. Reading about the native seaweed and learning about their life cycles, individual names and varieties allowed me to identify them when on the beach and in the sea. I was able to treat them as plants and not terrifying aliens out to entangle me.

Touch it and wrap it round your body – Get used to how it feels so it doesn’t become a shock in the water – but try not to do it May to September as this is most seaweeds ‘spawning’ period. This means the seaweed is going to be extra slimy. Best to do it October – April.

Practice makes perfect – Time is the greatest teacher. You won’t get over it straight away. Each time you do willingly expose yourself is a step closer. Sometimes you’ll be fine, sometimes you’ll freak out – but eventually you will get there – it took me about 1 year and I still jump sometimes now if I’m not mentally prepared.

Goggles (again) – Wearing goggles will increase the fear initially because you can see EVERYTHING. But they are an amazing tool to help overcome the fear. And eventually see the beautiful colours, patterns and shapes the underwater gardens of this world have to offer.

Rockpool with golden yellow seaweed and pinks and blues.

Fear of marine life

Scyphophobia is the fear of jellyfish themselves and cnidophobia is the fear of getting seriously stung by one. Nothing specific for fish but I do know some people struggle with fish too. Reality is that most of the jellyfish you will find along our coast are not dangerous. Also, for further reading from The Outdoor Swimming society’s blog on “Getting to Grips with Jellies.” – Some FYFF::

“Stinging nettles of the sea” – Sometimes it just takes one sentence to swap your perspective. When a friend flippantly told me this, a switch flicked in my head. I am not afraid of bumping into stinging nettles with bare legs on a walk – so why should I be scared of a jellyfish, who’s ‘sting’ might be less painful.

Frightened Fish – Fish rarely swim at you and will always scatter/swim away from you. Unless a bigger predator is chasing them from the other direction, like a seal. Speaking from experience, even if you are in the middle of a massive school of sand eels they never touch you. Unless you are slow and approach carefully it’s very difficult to even film them up close!

Get familiar with the four – Again knowledge is power … Four types can be spotted regularly along our coast: Moon jellyfish – does not cause skin irritations. Blue jellyfish (yellow when juvenile) – typically can sting. Compass jellyfish – likely to cause skin irritation. Barrel jellyfish – will not cause skin irritations.

No Jellies = No Turtles – Another way to think of jellies in a positive light is considering their wider impact on the oceans population of turtles. Turtles eat jellyfish. Due to our oceans warming up the amount of jellyfish blooms has increased dramatically over the years – but this has also resulted in two recent sightings of leatherback turtles off the coast of Cornwall.

Diver swimming next to a bright orange adult compass jellyfish.

Fear of man made objects underwater

Submechanophobia. This is such a strange sensation which I can fully appreciate. I couldn’t get close to the Ben Asdale wreck off Maenporth and the buoys at Swanpool held down by a chain and concrete block gave me the screeps. Maybe it’s how unnatural an immovable solid object looks or the idea they could be moved by the sea and crush you somehow – I don’t know. But I know I don’t like it. FYFF – I’m still working on this so not got a lot to give!

Be rational – Chances are the man made object will be safely beneath you on the sea bed. Take the time to focus, breathe and think about it rationally. If you aren’t scared of fish – you shouldn’t be scared of a piece of metal or concrete. Much easier to say, but practice and exposure should help us overcome it.

Dark image of diver with orange thongweed in the front.

Fear of illness/germs

Hands up who avoids going into the sea even days after sewage has been spilled. I don’t have anything to combat this fear and I actively encourage people to think about it – lots. Don’t be dipping your bod in sewage – go find another beach or wait until it is safe. And also think about the conditions – if sewage is released and it nice and calm – chances are the sea wouldn’t have shifted it. Furthermore, during the summer beaches get hella busy and diseases can be present – read ‘Eight Diseases To Watch Out For At the Beach’. In this case there are no FYFF. Nasty.

Dan getting hit by a wave at Perranporth beach whilst body boarding.

Fear of waves

Cymophobia (not to be confused with Cynophobia – the fear of dogs) is an abnormal fear of waves, sea swells, and other wave-like motions. Again I’ve not had any experience of this but I generally don’t plan wavey swims – unless I know there will be waves and it’s more a ‘fun’ beach day. However I would advise that you get clued up on conditions and go swimming when you know it’s going to be flat calm.

WINDY.COM – This weather app gives you the wind direction and speed, tide direction, tide details like swell and wave height. I use it daily to help plan my swims – you can use it to see if there will be any ‘waves’ forecasted.

Start small – At low tide with a little wave you can often see the wave coming from a distance. Start by watching them – and then next visit go up to your ankles – then your knees – waist and so on.

Watch out for shelves – Beach shelves are easy to spot when the tide is out. The sand will suddenly or gradually dip to a lower level. Gylly beach in Falmouth has one. When the tide height and waves are breaking at the shelf, the pull of the water returning can be quite strong. I have definitely lost the bottom half of my swimsuit more than once due to the turbulence.

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There are baths cut into the cliffs of Portreath, a visit at low tide and you will discover many of Lady Basset’s Baths.

If you have any questions or comments, pop them below or email me. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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