Where would you prefer to swim?

As you bounce around the net, you’ll occasionally encounter images like that on the right. It will be presented as the ideal of clear and clean water. And if you swim in the North Atlantic, you may look at it with longing.

Or often its white sand atolls glittering in an azure blue Pacific.

Or coral reefs heaving with ecstatic Clown and Angel fish.

In these galleries you probably won’t see images like this below held up as an ideal:

Sandycove Challenge 2006 – The Washing Machine Year

But if you rate the last image as the poorest choice, you profoundly misunderstand Open Water swimming. The Sandycove Challenge in 2006 (that’s me in front there, not in front of the race by the way) was one of the those races where the best part was saying you’d been there and swam it. It had to be run inside the island because conditions were so bad, and even inside the island conditions were rotten, with swells running right up the Pil and into the slipway.

But I’ve veered from my original intent, which was to talk about marine life and light.

In those crystal clear waters, what people often fail to understand, is that the water has less life than even the over-fished and over-polluted North Atlantic. Cold water has more microscopic plankton than warm water and it is richer in species richness.

Think about those coral reefs again, with their range of different species. That’s species diversity, the rage of different types of creatures. Coral reefs and tropical rainforests have the highest species diversity on earth. Species diversity is like the world’s great savings account. It is species diversity that helps protect the biological future by having this large range of creatures that speciate (evolve) into other creatures.

But species diversity is only one side of a coin of which the other is species richness. Temperate and cold waters have the highest richness, which means the number of lifeforms in the area. It was the larder of the Atlantic that helped fuel northern population movements, exploration and expansion in the 15th to 20th centuries.

 The gulf stream, the thermohaline circulation system and the cold upwellings off the continental shelves provided huge quantities of plankton as the basis of the Atlantic food chain.

Crystal clear water is generally lifeless water. Pretty but vacant.

Murky water is rich in life. Murky water is what I prefer. It makes my swimming life part of the ecosystem.

Ballinskelligs Summer Light

And let’s not forget the light. Artists have long talked about the Mediterranean light, that particular quality of light only found in a few places like the Mediterranean and Californian coasts. But I propose that not enough of those artists visited West Cork or Kerry in summer and saw the true northern Atlantic light. Of course many have tried, the Artist’s Residence at Cill Realig is always full of artist’s attempts to capture the ever shifting play of shadows and light.

Derrynane Bay to Puffin Island – Click to enlarge

After all, once you’ve seen Ballinskelligs and Derrynane Bay, well, your soul is contaminated with Ireland.

Jen, Rottnest 2011, Mick kayaking

The Pacific is blue, the big blue.

The Atlantic is grey. And green. And black, and brown, and turquoise and mint and dark and light, both lambent and shadowed.

The Atlantic is chiaroscuro.

Sandycove Spring 2010

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