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The importance of blue spaces with Clare Osborn

In this guest blog, Clare Osborn, SUP Instructor and Surfers Against Sewage Regional Representative for Brighton & Hove, shares with us the importance of blue spaces, why we should care about them and what we can do as paddlers to protect them.

Take a moment to look around you and notice how much untouched wild nature you can see around you. It’s likely that there isn’t very much or at least it may have been a while since you stopped and noticed the natural world in this way? Nowadays we have to adventure to far-flung corners in order to find true wild which leads me to thinking that maybe the biggest threat facing the natural world right now is our disconnection from these wild places and spaces.

Pollution is rising to such an extent that only 14% of our rivers meet good ecological status and water samples taken from Surfers Against Sewage’s citizen scientists last year showed that 75% of those monitored pose a ‘continuous serious risk’ to human health. If we want a clean ocean we must have clean rivers. 

We forget that we are made up of the same atoms as the oceans and the trees. Indeed 80% of the oxygen in the air we breathe is provided by our ocean and so the health of our waterways is imperative for our own wellbeing and is not an optional extra.

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​Blue state of mind

Water spaces evoke in us a state of mind that was referred to by Wallace J Nicholls as Blue Mind in his book of the same name. He said: “The term ‘blue mind’ describes the mildly meditative state we fall into when near, in, on, or underwater".

"It’s the antidote to what we refer to as ‘red mind,’ which is the anxious, over-connected and over-stimulated state that defines the new normal of modern life. Research has proven that spending time near the water is essential to achieving elevated and sustained happiness.”

Why paddle sports help to reconnect us

Being immersed in nature is now well documented to have huge wellbeing benefits for both our mental and physical health. A study at Exeter University found that blue spaces can have even more wellbeing benefits than green spaces. 

Studies have also found that bio-diverse nature has even more wellbeing benefits and so unhealthy waterways without a flourishing ecosystem are not as effective at making us feel good as those that do. If that isn’t a great reason for us to act and protect our waterways now, then I don’t know what is.

How exactly does paddling help our wellbeing?

Well, I can't think of a better community to pioneer change for our waterways – paddling meets all of our wellbeing needs. Just as we need clean and biodiverse waterways that are thriving, the waterways also need us now.

The New Economics Foundation devised a useful structure for approaches to wellness ‘The Five Ways to Wellbeing‘:

  • Connect
  • Be active
  • Take notice
  • Keep learning
  • Give

These five elements can be translated into paddle sports in many ways! For instance:

The latest neuroscience has found that we need connections to help us to self regulate and in order to survive. Connections with others on the water, in a club or just a social paddle helps our nervous system to co-regulate both on and off the water. It's easy to see how paddle sports tick the ‘active’ box so no further explanation is needed here.

Being ‘mindful’ or simply noticing how you feel when you are on the water, before and after your paddle can help you to tune into your inner landscape. Sometimes we get too busy thinking about what is coming next or dwelling on things that have happened in the past that we forget to live in the moment. 

Paddling brings us back into our bodies and out of our heads, into ‘being’ with whatever is going on in the environment rather than ruminating on ‘to do lists’ or if you should have done or said something differently. None of that matters in the moment, it's just you, your trusty steed and your paddle.

We can enhance this by being intentional, by purposefully noticing your surroundings when out on the water, what sounds can you hear, maybe birds, maybe the water itself, what textures and colours can you see and how does the air feel on your skin.

There are always new techniques to learn, new waterways to paddle, and new safety factors to consider. As well as learning more about the blue spaces that you are in, make a point of learning more about the wildlife that lives there and how your presence affects it. Maybe you can impress your friends with your wildlife facts on your next social paddle.

You can give back to the spaces you use by going on a paddle cleanup and by lifting others around you with that big grin after a great day on the water. There are plenty of groups that you can volunteer with to give back and support the water. Volunteering has been found to reduce stress, increase happiness, develop confidence and increase your sense of purpose. 

Dr Catherine Kelly has written a book all about the benefits of Blue Spaces and was inspired to do so after her scientific paper ‘I need the sea and the sea needs me’ was picked up by the Guardian.

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How exactly do blue spaces make us feel better?

As humans, the ability to respond and recover from the stresses and challenges of daily life depends on the actions of our nervous system. Our nervous system is regulated for the main by your vagus nerve. Just like toning a muscle you can stimulate your vagus nerve to achieve good vagal tone and paddle sports, cold water swimming, singing, laughing, and humming are all activities that do this. 

As we emerge from the collective trauma that was the pandemic it is now even more important to seek out activities that help you to regulate out of stress and into restoration. Being on and around water does exactly this helping you to switch into your parasympathetic nervous system, reducing your stress response and in turn your heart rate and blood pressure. The great news for non paddling parents and chums is that just being in blue space is sufficient to feel the benefit, but get stuck in to enhance the effects!

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Clare is the founder of Wild Ocean Soul. They deliver eco-wellness coaching for ocean lovers and purposeful teams via 1:1 and group coaching & facilitation, nature retreats and paddleboarding. 

You can follow Clare on Instagram at @wild_ocean_soul