Friday, April 29, 2016

Marine Biologist Christine Howson Shares her Love of the Open Water

As the Open Water swimming season beckons, Chris Kane enjoyed catching up with Marine Biologist and open water swimming enthusiast Christine Howson to ask a few questions.

Chris Kane: A good few years ago when on holiday I saw a poster that invited me to “Come swimming in the crystal clear waters one mile off the coast of the resort”.  In what I’ve always thought was a strange piece of marketing, the same boat company had a second poster alongside it which invited me to “come shark fishing in the crystal clear waters one mile off the coast of the resort.” 

After my 'Come and Try' open water swimming session last year, I’ve talked about it with lots of people who wouldn’t dream of jumping into the sea or a loch for fear of what lurks beneath.  I’m not sure what they’re imagining, but it probably looks like Moby Dick, Jaws or the big squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  

I wondered if there was any substance to these fears and caught up with Marine Biologist and open water swimming enthusiast Christine Howson to find out more. 

Christine says, “In a freshwater loch, there is almost certainly nothing under your feet other than the odd fish.  There won’t even be any plants growing more than two metres under the surface as the light doesn’t normally filter much below that because of the sediment and nutrients in the water – if you’ve been open water swimming you’ll know that one of the surprising things is just how dark the water is when you look into it.”

“The sides and bottom of the loch will be covered in mud and lots of rocks half buried in the sediment.  If one of your fears is getting trapped in the plants, remember the roots are anchored very shallow; if you’re strong enough to swim in open water, you’re strong enough to pull the plants out of the sediment.  I suppose you could bang into a sunken boat, but we know where most of them are and if one was shallow enough to have you strike it, you’d almost certainly see it sticking out of the water before reaching it.” 

So for Scotland’s freshwater lochs there isn’t anything lurking under your feet except, perhaps, the Loch Ness Monster.  If you’re swimming in any of the sea lochs around the country, it gets much more interesting. 

Christine says,

“From a diving and biologist point of view, sea lochs are much more interesting than fresh water lochs. Scotland’s sea lochs are great big, steep sided canyons carved by glaciers thousands of years ago.  If you’ve driven through Glen Coe with the steep sides, you’ve driven through a glacial valley – sea lochs look the same only filled with water.   So these lochs are steep and often very deep – I think Loch Fyne is about 200 metres at its deepest part.  Along the edges you’ll find sea anemones nestled among the rocks waiting for tides and currents to bring them food."

"There are quite spectacular fan worms, which are big tubes with fans at the top - nothing like the things you have in your garden.  Then there are the wonderfully named sea squirts that come in all shapes and colours.  You might see firework anemones which can be around half a metre across with spectacular tentacles swaying in the water, or forests of sea pens which can be a couple of metres tall.  Then of course there are lots of fish, crabs, lobsters, small octopus and all the other things we’ve seen on David Attenborough shows.  There really is a rich and diverse community growing on the walls of sea lochs.”

“The worst-case thing an open water swimmer is likely to come across in a sea loch is probably a jellyfish.  Late in the summer they tend to get quite big and the ones with the long tentacles can sting.  The other one to watch on sea lochs is when you are near seal colonies during breeding time – be a bit weary of that.”

So unless somebody goes onto Dragon’s Den with a pitch for wetsuit for a Great White Shark (“Dragons: think Shortbread Tin Scottie Dog meets Jaws”), most of the things that could devour you are quite happy swimming in the waters off the coast of Australia or South Africa for the same reason we are; it’s warmer.

The biggest threats to an open water swimmer are fatigue, over-confidence and the cold.  Everything else is just in your imagination.  Apart from the Loch Ness Monster. 

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