Water Babies: Our timeless love affair with the Ocean

You know and love that smell- the one that says you’re approaching the ocean. Every time I’m visiting a place anywhere close to the beach, the ocean or sea is the first place I have to visit. There’s no time to check-in. The water is 500 m away, I can feel it. Now its 200 m I can smell it. 100 m and I can hear it. Fast approaching. My feet have acquired a character of their own. I’m running towards it, with all my bags, to do what? I have no idea! I can’t surf or dive…yet. But it really feels like the ocean is calling me, and I must go.


But what is it about the water that we become feverishly possessed like madmen? For a very long time, I used to think that it was just me and maybe a handful of people who felt this way. But this seems equally applicable to most people who have spent quality time at the beach. And this love started way before Instagram posts started cropping up with fancy pictures and quotes.



Author Arthur C. Clarke once said -“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.” The ocean plankton contribute to more than 50 percent of our planet’s oxygen. The earth is more than 70 percent water. Water is the primary ingredient for survival, which is why NASA abides by the ‘follow the water’ rule when looking for alternative life forms.

Two-thirds of the global economy has activities that involve water in some form. We use water for simple everyday activities. Over a billion people have livelihoods directly dependent on water.



Our relation with water is deeper than economics. There is a controversial theory- that early humans were ‘aquatic apes’. Many, include David Attenborough have supported this. The theory says that early lived near and in food-rich water bodies. This is why we learnt to walk upright, to keep our heads above water. We lack fur, have big brains and subcutaneous fat layers, common traits among aquatic animals, but different from other mammals.

The large sinuses we have means larger spaces between our cheeks, nose and forehead, which contributed to our buoyancy. Also, without Omega 3 rich fatty acids found only in seaweeds, we couldn’t possibly have developed the brains we have.
 Our amphibian existence was also to escape predators. Coastal dwellers managed to see enemies or hunters approaching from a distance. This is how early forms of kayaking came into existence. Instead of moving across land, humans simply learnt to build simple structures to move across water bodies.



Surfing, one of the earliest adventures known to mankind was started by the natives of Hawaii. Through decades of losing their traditions and beliefs and eventually finding them back, the activity has remained an important part of Hawaii’s culture. What started from there, seized the world- to passionate surfers, it is a way of life, almost a religion. Many feel a spiritual, meditative tie with the ocean and the sport.

Same goes to the act of simple lounging around near the water. This love even extends to the humble swimming pool. The instant I’m submerged under water, I’ve left the mundane behind and entered a blue-green world where everything happens in slow-motion. Fears and time don’t exist here. My breath seems to go on forever. There is a heightened sense of awareness- of myself and my movements.



Remember the album art of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’? Ever wondered how they could put a baby underwater like that? As infants, we can hold our breath underwater for more than 40 seconds. We naturally start breast-stroking. This ability only leaves us when we learn to walk. Many parents have a strange format of swimming classes- they submerge infants in a pool. Surprisingly, the young ones, who can’t even walk, manage to swim up towards the surface.

Human foetuses display ‘gill slit’ structures in early stages. And not to forget- the first nine months are spent swimming in the mother’s womb. Newborns are about 78 percent water, which gradually drops to about 60 percent, but our brain still is 80 percent water.



Freediving is a sport that has caused much confusion in the scientific community. We seem to share the strange traits of marine animals like dolphins and whales, that can dive to great depths without being crushed by the pressure.

Something happens the moment we put our face into water. The heart rate lowers by almost 25 percent, blood starts rushing into the core. Even our brain waves soften. These reflexes become more and more heightened as we dive deeper, divers have recorded going to depths of hundreds of metres. The equivalent pressure on land would prove fatal.

Some freedivers have reported heart rates as low as 7 bpm, times lower than that of a coma patient. Physiologists stated that a heart beating at this rate can’t support consciousness, yet, in the ocean, freedivers have dived and resurfaced successfully. In the 17th century, sailors reported seeing divers, primarily fishers and hunters stay underwater for up to 15 minutes.


Experiments have shown that approaching or being near the ocean triggers responses in the part of the brain that processes memories. And this has occurred even in subjects that have never been near the ocean before! Water inspires us, it intimidates us. It creates peace and awe at the same time. When humans feel, taste, hear or smell water, some instinctual or emotional responses kick in, separate from our cognitive responses or rational thinking.

For those who have visited a water body, most have clear descriptive memories of every time they dived or paddled or sat at the beach- alone or with a loved one. People’s eyes turn sparkly when they describe their first encounter with the water. While the reason for our emotional attachment is not completely discovered, more and more neuroscientists believing that our emotions actually drive most of our actions. This could be why we’re water-addicts. The first contact with water tastes like freedom.


Perhaps this is why we run towards the ocean.

Every time.

Free, unbound, light.