Healthy Water, Healthy Mind

Posted on by Sarah Lafontaine

Photo credit: Heather Young / Wallace J. Nichols

Have you ever wondered why you almost immediately feel better standing on a beach while the waves crash over the sand? Or, why there is a sudden calm that comes over you when you’re wading in water, whether it be the ocean, a river, a lake, or a pool? There’s science behind it, and Dr. Wallace J. Nichols has made it his mission to find your answers.

A bestselling author, a leader in conservation, a world explorer, a scientist, a marine biologist, a dedicated father and an advocate for healthy water, J. sat with down with us to talk about travel, inspiration, unlikely dive spots, and a whole lot more.

What three words describe how you like to travel?

Wet. Light. Family.

What makes a responsible traveler?

[K]nowing what you’re getting into so that you’re supporting the trend of the place you’re going. Whether that’s a pro-conservation trend, or pro-human rights trend. If there’s a cultural transformation underway, [making sure] that you’re participating responsibly in advancing that, not causing it or screwing it up. To be aware of that context, the social or cultural context, and that you’re a supporter of it.

Where and how do you find solace at home?

Usually by the water – I live near the ocean and I found that I can almost always find a spot, if not a huge stretch of coast, that I have all to myself. In California, people think it’s all “Baywatch” or “LA” or it’s all “Santa Monica” and wall to wall people at the beach.  On any given day, particularly if it’s winter or mid-week, I can usually be out on the coast alone and find a patch of ocean, waves or no waves, that nobody is using.

In the summer of 2003, we took a sabbatical and walked from Oregon to Mexico, a 1200 mile walk or “trek” down the coast, so I know a lot of kind of “secret” spots or lesser known spots, so I like to go back to them. And, I’m not going to tell you where they are!


Nichols with his daughter Grayce – Photo credit: Wallace J. Nichols

Did you have a favourite part of that trek?

You know, many favourite parts. The halfway point turned out to be a place that we now live. It’s a little town with a population of 400. [T]hat was the favourite outcome, I guess you could say.

[Also] literally climbing through the border fence into Mexico. It was all just a rusty, metal wall. My daughter was 1 (year old), and I was carrying her and I climbed with her through a rusty hole in the fence, across the border into Mexico;  meeting the people who were coming the other way, waiting on the other side until it got dark to try their luck at whatever they were going to do to come to the United States. That was kind of a cool moment, they were like “What are you doing?” And we’re like, “We just walked from Oregon to Mexico, what are you doing?” And they’re like “We just walked from El Salvador to the United States.”

Here we were, I had this little 1 year old baby girl, and they had a little sack of all of their possessions, so the recognition of privilege, you know, we walked for 4 months for fun, and they walked for 4 months out of necessity. The hope and the dream at the end of it, may or may not have been satisfied.

There are a lot of more epic beauty or nature moments, but that was a pretty poignant stop along the way.

How do you find balance when you’re travelling?

I am not a fan of balance. I was, [but] I never could do it. I think I am a pretty mellow, “balanced” guy but the pursuit of balance seems to always be elusive. Whenever I thought I was close, I would come out the other side and not be close anymore. So balance seemed like a moment, you know, you sort of never quite get there and you’re always trying to get there. [P]eople try to sell you things to help you get more balance, you know things to eat or things to wear and things to do that make you balanced. Finally, I decided that creative disequilibrium is kind of my new goal. I’m good at that. Not a chaotic mess, but a creative disequilibrium.

When I struck on that as a concept, it felt really good. [It] better describes everything – travel, career, family, having 14 year old and 11 year old daughters – there’s nothing balanced about that!

Where have you traveled that has had the greatest personal gain? How did that impact you?

Recently I went back to Bayfield, Wisconsin up on Lake Superior. It’s the jumping off point for the Apostle Islands, a group of islands and national seashore. The last time I had been there I was a teenager in high school and I got dropped off on an island and picked up 10 days later by the ferry.  I camped and hiked and slept in a blueberry patch and ate as many blueberries I could reach and then rolled a little bit and ate more. I jumped in the lake to wake up and in going back was able to recognize how important that was.

In a way, I kind of knew, but not completely. So it was 100 degrees colder when I went back; the lake was frozen, and it was foggy and snowing and [it was] the kind of cold that kills you if you’re not prepared. But there I was, in this place that I had been when it was 100 degrees warmer and I was 30 something years younger – it made me feel like the best version of myself up to that age. I recognized it as one of those places that, along the way, kept me going in this direction. A sort of lifelong pursuit of awe and wonder. So, that’s one of the places.


Nichols and daughter Grayce diving with blue marbles – Photo credit: Wallace J. Nichols

Do you have a favourite dive spot?

I have an embarrassing dive spot [but] my real favourite dive spot was diving in the cenotes in the Yucatan. They’re way cooler than I ever thought they would be. When I think about that now, it makes me feel really good. [You’re in] crystal clear waters and diving in caves is really spooky and interesting and different from diving in the ocean.

And then the other, sort of embarrassing and sort of scandalous dive was in the Georgia Aquarium in this 6 million gallon tank. [I] wanted to hate it because there are these huge whale sharks and large animals in this tank that is in downtown Atlanta.

I was there to do a lecture, and they’re like “Do you want to dive in a giant tank?” So they threw me in and it’s big enough that it feels like you’re in the ocean, it’s a big, big tank. There are these whale sharks, tuna, sharks and rays and a lot of big animals and you’re never going to have that many animals swimming around you for that long in the ocean. So, I was having a angsty moment, of like “Wow, this is awesome” and “Wow, this is weird” – in downtown Atlanta, above sea level. I actually had a panic attack, [I was thinking] “What is going on?”

I’ve never been uncomfortable under water. Even in dangerous situations, I’ve just kind of held it together and worked it out –  but I was kneeling on the bottom of the tank and could feel my heart just pounding through my chest. I was [thinking], “Seriously, am I gonna die in this tank? It would be really really bad”.  I think it was because I had this, kind of, guilt, and joy pulling at the same time. It was awesome but I felt guilty that it was awesome.

What inspires you?

I’m so inspired all the time. I kind of get too inspired sometimes. It’s kind of weird to say, but I’m definitely not lacking in feeling utterly inspired. It’s like I’m too empathetic sometimes.

I just like to look at things outside, the weather, the clouds flying into Vancouver today, I’ve never seen anything like it. Everything is inspiring. What’s not inspiring? All the good things people are doing, and even the bad things are inspiring in the horror of it. It’s inspiring in a horrific way, to hug somebody and do something better than you were going to, as a result. Say something nice, cause you never know who needs it.

Do you have any travel plans coming up?

This year coming up, starting in August and lasting until the following August is the rolling anniversary of Adelita, a turtle that we tracked from Mexico to Japan. It’s the 20 year anniversary of our tracking her across the ocean, which took the whole year. She was the first animal ever tracked swimming across a whole ocean. It was really fun having that tracking online and people all over the world tuning in and sending messages and cheering her on. It took 368 days and [she swam] almost 9000 miles. Just this little turtle in this big blue space on the planet. So, I want to do something really cool to commemorate that, but I’m not sure what. Maybe sail out to north of Hawaii to one of the spots on one of the days she was at that spot and take a swim, or sail the Transpacific, which could take a month. A visit to where we released her or a visit to the Japan side, or maybe a visit to the middle, or…I don’t know. We’re talking it about. I’m sharing the vague vision.

Courtesy of Wallace J. Nichols

Courtesy of Wallace J. Nichols

Any last thoughts to add?

[One of the topics we discuss is how] neuroscience meets water. You know, all my best memories involve water, and I’m not the only one.  People aim for destinations that have really great water or at least a really great pool. It’s a frame for thinking about your life and what’s ahead.

Water is important for hygiene and hydration. It’s good for the economy to have good water. It gives us oxygen, gives us food, makes life possible and makes life worth living. Water gives you play and joy and solitude and peace and romance. If you’re stuck in your thinking, go hangout near water and it may unstick you. If you’re stressed, it may calm you. It may boost your creativity, artists and musicians and poets and scientists go to the water to get bigger ideas flowing.

We don’t talk about it that way, as well as we could. So, that’s what I’m thinking a lot about these days. How can we connect healthy water to our healthcare system better, so that when people are really stressing out and getting sick, a doctor might say “You should go spend more time near, in or under water”. You know, as with medicine, actually write a prescription. Maybe it’s accompanied by some pharmaceutical prescription as well, but it would help people a lot if the medical authority in their lives says “Go hang out at the aquarium once a week. Get a lifetime pass, go once a week, walk to your favourite spot in the morning and just sit there”. Or, “Go sailing. Go out on the water and paddle. Sit by the water or go scuba diving.” [It works] in health care, in education and parenting – if my kids are fighting, I get them out to the water and then they’re hugging. It changes it like that! That’s a great educators tool.

[Water] is medicine, it should be prescribed. [But] it only works if the water is healthy. If the water is dead, it makes you mad and sad and sick, instead of happy and healthy and creative.

Describe yourself in one word: Buoyant

To find out more about Wallace J. Nichols’ studies, book, tours and more, check out the website:
Make sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@wallacejnichols).