Despite shark attacks dominating the conversation these days, it’s still far better to get into the ocean than to stay away from it. In fact, there is increasing evidence that the ocean doesn’t just make you feel good, but lowers your stress levels – those that cause disease – and keeps you healthy.
Many of us are familiar with the fact that the ocean can be a treatment for challenges like cystic fibrosis and autism, which got me particularly excited by the work of We Are Ocean. WAO is a foundation that takes cancer patients for a week into the ocean for adventure and healing through activities like stand-up paddling, snorkeling, surfing, kayaking, sailing and sea life study.
WAO is a groundbreaking effort that was founded by Jack Shimko, a guy who helped kick his own cancer by paddling over 200 miles through the Channel Islands. Along the way, Jack raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research and was named a Surfer magazine Agent of Change. He wanted to share his ocean experiences with others battling cancer – those who, unlike himself, were trapped in hospitals with seemingly no way out.
Lacking much real evidence, I decided to go on my gut. I felt there was plenty in Jack’s story to support an experiment of my own. And so began the documentary film and Kickstarter campaign, Between Two Harbors. As a filmmaker, I decided to follow those in WAO’s inaugural ocean healing program, held at White’s Landing on Catalina Island for cancer patients and survivors diagnosed with stage 1 to stage 4 cancer. I would take a year to follow the campers, witness their interactions with the ocean, and see how their health might benefit from some time in salt water. I was convinced I would witness magic.
Through the process of making of the film, I met Dr. Wallace J. Nichols. Dr. Nichols, or “J.” as he’s also known, was like a holy grail for a film about ocean healing. Like myself, J. had a gut feeling that the ocean’s power to heal isn’t so far fetched after all. Before he started writing the book, “Blue Mind,” he actually went to the library to research any published work on the subject. Coincidentally, there was no published research, so he wrote the book and the rest is history – New York Times Bestseller history, to be exact.
Science, J. says, is now telling us that ocean healing isn’t just a foggy notion shared by obsessed surfers. If you immerse yourself in water, it reduces stress. In other words, it reduces the stuff that causes more than 60 percent of the diseases we face today. Water makes cortisol levels drop by balancing the flux between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. A 2006 study found that spa bathing greatly decreased the levels of salivary cortisol in college students. Hydrotherapy was also shown to help reduce the psychological stress and physical symptoms of a group of 139 people with rheumatoid arthritis.
So, what would possibly be revealed in the waters off Catalina Island with those first 21 participants at Camp We Are Ocean? In 1997, 10 cancer patients who were experiencing chronic pain, watched a nature video that included 15 minutes of the sounds of ocean waves, waterfalls, and splashing creeks. Afterward, they experienced relief, which amounted to a 20 to 30 percent reduction in the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol. Nearly 20 years later, we had 21 cancer patients bravely jumping into the ocean looking for the same relief.
When Jack Shimko led these courageous souls into the blue waters off Avalon, lives were changed forever. And while not everyone found the ocean to be a miracle cure, each and every person shared a heightened level of experience and understanding. What about those who witnessed life-changing turnarounds due to salt-water healing? Well, that happened too.