In the ongoing search for activities that benefit mental and physical health, people have taken to the ocean. Sea swimming, also known as ‘wild’ or ‘open water’ swimming, sees people plunge into the cold UK open waters despite the season’s bracing weather. People that brave the water are said to experience various health benefits, including improved mental health and blood circulation. Along with this comes the opportunity to join a community with a shared passion. The COVID-19 pandemic saw an increase of people flocking to join the fun, as the added advantages of the sport being cheap and easily accessible provided a glimpse of freedom throughout the various lockdowns. Easily accessible from London, Brighton and Hove see floods of tourists trek down throughout the summer months to enjoy a dip in the water. The cold months are no different, with many Brighton residents taking an annual dunk on Christmas Day. People make use of the ocean on their doorstep every month of the year; however, the wellness benefits are swiftly being overtaken by the growing risks that come with jumping into the water. 

The release of untreated sewage all along the  UK coastline threatens the possibility of sea swimming and destroys any benefits found from local waters. In 2023, Surfers Against Sewage reported that untreated sewage was dumped into the UK ocean upwards of 399,864 times, which is more than a thousand times a day. The year before, the local Liberal Democrat politicians accused Southern Water of polluting the water near Brighton beach with raw sewage at least 45 times, lasting over 107 hours. The germs in the unsanitary wastewater can cause symptoms ranging from a common cold, eye infections, vomiting and diarrhoea; while in more serious cases, this form of pollution can foster infections such as E-coli and Hepatitis. The risk of illness only compounds swimmers’ concern and disgust at swimming in contaminated water. 

The UK’s sewage system sees rainwater and wastewater travel in the same pipes to sewage treatment facilities. Heavy rainfall, which is increasing with climate change, easily overwhelms this system. This is counteracted by the adoption of combined sewer overflows, which legally allow water companies to dump raw sewage into local waters in “exceptional circumstances” to prevent it from backing up in the pipes and damaging homes and infrastructure. The problem lies in the clumsy actions of water companies that continue to accidentally offload massive, undisclosed quantities of sewage into the oceans through leaks, intentional or otherwise. Brighton’s main enemy in the fight for safe oceans, Southern Water, has vowed to improve. This follows a staggering £90 million fine the company received in 2021 for discharging sewage on 6,971 unapproved occasions. However, 2024 is not off to a good start, as swimmers near Shoreham harbour were once again urged to stay out of the waters following a leak on 12 January. 

These difficulties imposed on wild swimming shouldn’t mean people have to give up something that brings them joy. Those who still want to swim should follow these tips:

  • Don’t swim following heavy rainfall 

The period following heavy rainfall is when sewage is likely to be found close to the coast. 

  • Track sewage spills in your local area

You can do this by downloading the Safer Seas & River Service app or by accessing the Beachbuoy page on Southern Waters website, both of which provide up-to-date reports of potential spillages in the ocean and local rivers.  

  • Support Surfers Against Sewage

This activist group is fighting to reduce plastic and wastewater pollutants and bring back cleaner oceans. Find them online to donate or join their campaign. 

  • Swim in local pools when the sea is polluted

Even though this might not have identical benefits to wild swimming, Brighton and Hove are full of local swimming pools. Plus, if you’re a Sussex student you can swim in selected local pools for £1.50!

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