Swimming with Seals: A Review

“I assert kinship with hippos, walruses, manatees, seals, orcas, polar bears: all the other land mammals who have gone some or all of the way back to the water” (p.27). 

God I loved this book. Only occasionally do you find a book that perfectly suits a particular moment, this did for me. I read it interspersed with cooling swims in a pool, and in the Atlantic. I would recommend this strategy. You will want to get into the water before the end. I don’t know quite why it took me so long to read this particular swimming memoir. Over the last 18 months or so, I have read many others: The Outrun, Leap In, Floating, Turning, Swell… I have loved them all but this one might just be my favourite. (If nothing else, the paperback cover is a joy.)

The book charts the swimming adventures Victoria Whitworth dives into around Orkney. But (and I think this is why I love it so much), the book is steeped in the history, the folklore, and natural world of the island.

“Two hundred years ago this beach was an industrial workplace for the processing of kelp into potash […] Today it’s a place of recreation, dog walking, sandcastles in the summer. But for me it’s also still a place for processing, for emotional and spiritual alchemy. This sea and these islands, the wind pimpling my skin, the spray on my right cheek, these are palpable presences in the here and now, transforming me physically. They also reach far back in human and pre-human time. […] they extend sideways into parallel universes, counterfactuals: making me ask how history might have been different; how my own life might have taken other paths” (p.7).

As Whitworth explains in the beginning, the book really began in Facebook posts she started to write after her swims. These posts made her pay attention to her surroundings, but also allowed her to process change (both her own and the islands) over time. The book has no chapters, and is interspersed with these Facebook writings. Whitworth has a lifelong love of the Orkney islands. She first ventures there after finishing university, and having studied history, the Norse and Anglo-Saxon texts are alive in the landscape for her.

I identified with much of Whitworth’s experiences of depression, overachieving personality (“I am never aware of what I manage to do, only of the yawning gap between vision and reality, and I live in permanent terror that someone will notice” (p. 59))  and her need to pretend that everything was fine, even when it was anything but. She starts swimming to alleviate pain, joins a swimming club that swims in the cold seas around Orkney and is soon addicted to the “endolphins” one experiences from being in the cold water – feelings that push pleasure to the edge of pain. “I can visualize my endolphins so clearly, tiny, silver-blue and bottle-nosed, charing exuberantly up vein and down artery” (p.199). She explains how she dashes into the water as if to a lover, escaping her marriage problems, her sadness, in the sea.

But the book is more than just sea swimming, it is a history of the islands too. Whitworth describes the Picts, who left no written trace; the way christianity came to the north (via Columba of Iona, St Cuthbert who was the patron saint of otters, St Rognvald). She talks of the Vikings and their legacy. She is a historian by trade and I loved the way she weaves history into her story. I have been drawn to Scottish history and legends ever since I first visited so this book is wonderful for those with an interest.

Throughout the book there are animals. The seals, who laze about on rocks with one eye open, those lolling in the sea, the ones who unexpectedly turn up for a closer nosy of the swimmer. Whitworth describes the myth of selkies, those human-seal beings who belong as one form in the sea world, as another form in the land one. And always she is on the lookout for orcas. Her secret fear is one day they might swim too close… “[…]the sea’s choppiness this morning means that my eye is caught over and over by little dark triangular shadows, shapes and splashes in the water” (p.188).

I don’t have a favourite part of this book because I loved it all: the sea, the swimming, the history, the legends, the relationships. Read it.