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Blue spaces

Words by Chris Tuff

Exploring the colours and sounds of the ocean, and their associations with both mental and physical wellbeing.

In 2019, around 40% of UK holidaymakers chose a beach holiday. Perhaps this comes as no surprise to anyone who lives in a coastal location like Cornwall, where around 4 million visitors make an annual pilgrimage to rest, renew and replenish themselves on our coasts. It is also probably no surprise to learn that it is good for us! A growing body of scientific evidence seems to confirm that spending time near water is beneficial to our mental and physical wellbeing.

Our relationship with water, throughout the ages, ranges from the sacred and spiritual, to the perceived medicinal benefits much lauded by the Georgians and Victorians. Perhaps then, science is only confirming what we, as human beings, already instinctively know and feel? Despite being land dwellers, it seems we are as powerless to resist the draw of the ocean as the tides are to resist the pull of the moon. Maybe it is because all human life begins in a watery womb or perhaps it is a product of our evolutionary origins. It is in a primal sense where we come from.

In recent years the Blue Health movement has gained momentum and a range of studies have indicated the positive benefits of living near the coast. One recent study has found that people living close to the coast report that their general health and mental wellbeing is better.

A recent residents’ survey conducted by Cornwall Council confirms that overall, people’s wellbeing in Cornwall has not been as badly affected as the rest of the country during the recent lockdown. While 33% of people nationally said their mental health had suffered, the figure in Cornwall was much lower, at 17%. People in Cornwall also had a more positive attitude to aspects of lockdown, such as the outdoors, cleaner air, and wildlife than the national average.

Numerous studies over the years have concluded that exercise and exposure to nature can reduce anxiety and stress, however it seems that access to blue spaces is particularly beneficial.

So, why might this be the case? The abundance of negative ions in certain environments such as the ocean, mountains, and waterfalls are believed to produce biochemical reactions that help alleviate depression; the colour blue itself is often associated with calmness or serenity; the sound of the ocean can induce changes in our brain waves; and the regular, rhythmic sound of the waves can induce a calming, meditative state.

Living near the coast can also make for a more active lifestyle. Water sports, swimming in the ocean or just walking the coastal path, all have a positive impact on our physical and mental well-being.

Then there is the awe factor! Studies have found that the captivating, immersive, and attention‐grabbing nature of awe stimuli reduces self‐reflective thought. This changes our perception of ourselves relative to the larger world – what researchers call the ‘small self’ effect. As a photographic artist, this is something I can relate to. Being on a vast beach with an uninterrupted horizon can be a humbling, spiritual experience and in that kind of environment and state of mind you are far less likely to sweat the small stuff!

But the power of blue spaces is such that you do not even have to be there. Studies show that just looking at images of blue spaces affects our mood and promotes a sense of wellbeing… A recurrent comment about my own minimal photographic artworks, in particular, is that they are calming, tranquil and meditative.

Researchers are now even investigating the possibilities of using VR technology as a therapeutic aid to improve health and wellbeing in hospitals.

One of the pioneering exponents of blue health therapy is the Falmouth based mental health charity, Sea Sanctuary. Founded by Joseph Sabien in 2006, Sea Sanctuary offers a wide range of programmes for both individuals and groups based on marine activities, including sailing and water sports in conjunction with psychological therapy sessions, emotional education, lessons in practical life skills and creative classes.

Joseph grew up in the care system and as an adult became a mental health practitioner, working within the Crisis Intervention and Community Mental Health teams in Cornwall. Through both of these first-hand experiences Joseph was acutely aware of the limitations and pressures on the available services to deal with children who had suffered trauma and the sterile, clinical environments in which treatment and therapy was conducted.

Having also had a life-long love of the sea and been a lifeboat crew member it occurred to him that combining mental health provision and the sea might be a good idea.

“The next thought was that perhaps this needn’t just be land-based on the coast but might involve going to sea. It took several years to raise enough funds to buy a suitable boat. The problem was that the interiors of most modern GRP boats seemed too clinical so I began looking for a wooden boat. They are more alluring, organic and there is something about the nature of bringing a boat back to life that has parallels with nurturing ourselves and looking after our own wellbeing.”

Fourteen years on, Sea Sanctuary has more than forty staff, working across a number of projects and services. At the core of their services is a 55m Dutch Coaster ship run as a wellbeing facility and the yacht, Winter.

“Our yacht-based programmes are usually based on a four-day voyage with a qualified therapist on hand for group and one-to-one sessions. The Blue Health element obviously comes from that experience of being at sea and all the sensory input that comes with that. Sailing works well because people have to engage with each other and work together as a part of a crew. It is an inclusive and levelling experience, they are all literally in the same boat!”

“The sea works for us in a way that is beyond language so for people who can’t articulate their emotions, the sea is something that makes people feel and connect with their emotions. There is also something about the silence, the serenity and peace that can only be found in or near the sea. Once the engine is turned off and it is only the wind and the sails there is a real sense of exhilaration and peace that makes it quite an extraordinary place to be.”

Joseph Sabien

Finally, I ask Joseph about the science behind Blue Health.

“I’m perhaps coming at this in a different way to the scientists. I’ve considered the effects of sensory engagement, the movement of a boat on the water and negative ions etc. But, what I have concluded is that perhaps there is no answer. What I mean is that trying to rationalise and analyse it too much takes something away from what we feel, our instinct and innate emotional connection with the water which perhaps may never be fully understood. In some ways I don’t want to know. That is part of the wonder and enigma of the ocean.”

He concludes the interview with a quote: “The sea…has moods…to fill the storehouse of the mind…The sea is the matrix of creation, and we have the memory of it in our blood.” (The Cruise of the Nona - Hilaire Belloc)


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