Gazing down from a birds eye view over a gloomy quarry on a winter day in Wales, a tiny red dot is seen steadily crossing the lake below, stroke by stroke. The next shot drops to sea level, revealing the face of Laura Owen Sanderson, a Welsh wild swimmer and conservationist, as she glides across the frame in a short-film about her Hydrotherapy. Sanderson can be often found, but rarely seen, in the remote waterways of the national park that surrounds her home in North Wales. Stealthy amphibious activity, stark black hair and a matching wet suit renders Sanderson near invisible in the water, enabling her to blend in and connect with the landscape. On the chilly overcast day this documentary was shot, the director suggested a red swim cap to counteract Sanderson’s disappearing act.
“Swimming in nature strips backs and simplifies the material world” says Sanderson who spent her youth hiking Snowdonia National Park and surfing some of the U.K’s best shorebreaks located just a stone’s throw of her childhood home. Raised in a family of environmental scientists, Sanderson chose a different route as she pursued studies in the arts and education. She moved onto a successful career as a teacher trainer, but success came at a cost.
As Sanderson’s career took over, her local wilderness became foreign. Life as a single parent and full-time educator of 15 years took its toll on her mental and physical well-being. Her busy life left little space for outdoor pursuits, as she describes in the opening sequence of the film that documents her journey from chronic illness to recovery, “I carried on working because I felt a great sense of expectation on me and guilt. I had to get the work finished even though I’d felt really really ill. Everyone else had left and gone home but I decided to stay and work and work and I worked myself into the ground”
Her strenuous lifestyle eventually landed Sanderson in the emergency room, an incident that resulted in a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, a chronic and debilitating musculoskeletal condition that Sanderson describes as “hardly being able to walk across the room”. She visited multiple doctors with little success or solution to relieve the symptoms until one eventually asked “have you tried cold showers to help the inflammation?”
Admittedly hesitant to voluntarily stand directly under a cold shower, but willing to try anything to ease her symptoms, Sanderson turned to the familiar coastline where she had once loved to surf. Results of her cold water bath were immediate, says Sanderson, “Straight away it worked! I think it’s the salt in the water, it just really eased up the muscles”. In lieu of her revitalized physical freedom, Sanderson quickly integrated her love for hiking to search out more remote locations like mountain lakes and rivers in the nearby national park, mentioning that,“Once you start, you get quite addicted to it.”
Sanderson’s newfound form of hydrotherapy had her spending more time in natural bodies of water and with that came some shocking observations of plastic pollution, even in the most remote of areas. Charged with an increased sense of stewardship, Sanderson began organizing beach and waterway cleanups which she notes, “were getting upwards of 80 people every time at a local beach”. Simultaneously, a study on microplastics pollution emerged from the lab at the local university laboratory of Dr. Christian Dunn. The study reported local water samples testing as high as 76.9 pieces of plastic per liter. With this news, Sanderson reconsidered the impact of her cleanups saying “I thought that we can’t keep doing this. It’s great for highlighting the issue, but the tap is still on and you can’t keep cleaning up when it’s still pouring out.” These efforts were not enough to quench Sanderson’s thirst for cleaner waterways, although they inspired her to tread closer to the source of the problem and take further action on the detriment of these silent contaminants.
Combining both her skills and passions, Sanderson founded We Swim Wild in 2018 in collaboration with Dr. Dunn. We Swim Wild is an organization with a mission to protect wild waters through adventure, education, campaigning and scientific research. The organization coordinates a wide array of citizen science and environmental education activities, retreats, swimming courses, and eco-tourism experiences that integrate the gathering of scientific data so, as Sanderson explains, “we can make real changes in the UK by bringing science into the everyday and people can take care of the places where they swim and visit.”
As a non profit organization, all proceeds circulate back into operation costs and to the funding of the flagship research initiative, Source to Sea.The research expedition, in part, follows Sanderson on an epic journey as she swims 1000 kilometers of waterways in all 15 of the U.K’s National Parks. Aside from swimming rivers from beginning to end (hence the name Source To Sea), along the way Laura is collecting 220 litres of water samples that are then sent to the lab where Dr. Dunn is investigating the impact of microplastics on the health of humans and ecosystems at large.
The main objective of the project is to evaluate so-called “safe” levels of microplastics and determine how appropriate removal and mitigation processes can be implemented. The goal of obtaining this data lies in multiple outcomes including a national awareness campaign accompanied by a documentary film of the research expedition, implementation of citizen science education in schools and to put data-based pressure on legislators to pass a ban on all microplastic usage in National Parks.
The massive project would not be possible without the meticulous data collection done by a crew of aboutone hundred volunteer citizen scientists. Appropriately dubbed The Waterloggers, this motley crew of everyday wild swimmers, artists, activists, and researchers have been enabled,according to Sanderson, “to protect the place they love and find out what’s in it.”
Sanderson was admittedly surprised at first by the public support for the project, saying that she “thought it would be quite hard to get a few people on board, but it’s been so popular we’ve actually had to turn volunteers away considering the expense of postage for transporting samples and cost of labtime involved.”
Thanks to the Waterloggers, the Source to Sea project extends from the bottom of Great Britain, including waterways in cities like London, to remote locations of the Island nation such as the Isle of Skye in Scotland and the Shetland Islands. The project is considered the most comprehensive study on microplastics pollution in the U.K. to date.
For those who aren’t able to volunteer as a Waterlogger, there are other ways to to take action and join Sanderson in the fight against microplastics whilst taking care of one’s own well-being. Sanderson’s new initiative, Wild Soul Swim, which she describes as “tourism with a purpose”, provides guided outdoor educational experiences and wellness retreats that focus “reconnecting with nature, wild waters and rejuvenating our wild spirit.” Initiatives like this continue help fund future projects like Source to Sea.
Sanderson’s journey from personal struggles with physical and mental health draws an uncanny parallel with the stress that modern society puts on the ecosystem. Somewhere between personal well-being and the well-being of the earth, Sanderson found herself at an intersection that ultimately connected her needs with the needs of the world. Reflecting on her life changing health scare and her decision to “live with purpose” Sanderson confides, “I wasn’t afraid to die but more afraid I hadn’t made the most of every opportunity. I was waiting for a day that might never come when you retire or when you’re thin enough or when the kids have grown up and there was a sudden realization that that day might never come”. — — — — — — — — — — — -
Laura is an active environmental campaigner, public speaker and artist from Snowdonia, Wales in the UK. More information about her organization We Swim Wild can me found on her website www.weswimwild.com
Originally from Florida, Josh Bennett is an Environmental Educator, Journalist and Outdoor Guide based in Norway with a focus on communicating for Socio-Cultural and ecological sustainability via learning experiences.