King George Island, Antarctica.
“The breaking of a wave cannot explain the whole sea”.– Vladimir Nabokov.
This recording was captured on the southern coast of King George Island, Antarctica. It’s the height of summer, so the sun is visible 24 hours a day – it won’t set for a few more months. The landscape is bleached by sunlight as our microphone picks up waves crashing onto the shore.
King George Island is the largest of a cluster of islands around 70 miles off the coast of Antarctica. The temperature is just below freezing, which means that wildlife can survive, even thrive here. The island is home to terns, penguins, petrels, gulls, albatrosses and a wealth of marine life including whales and seals.
These islands have a thriving ecosystem when compared to mainland Antarctica. This is as far south as most wildlife dare to venture. South of here only leads to hardship – less food, less shelter and even lower temperatures.
Soothing and Relaxing
It’s windy here. It always is. Seasons change, but the wind on these exposed isles never relents. Further out at sea, these colossal gusts cause turbulent swells and dangerous, choppy waters. The Southern Ocean is vast, cold and unfathomably deep. It has some of the largest waves in the world, some reaching heights of over 60 feet. Here on these stony shores, those waves have been tamed. Their energy has dissipated, and they can now be enjoyed, rather than feared.
The repetition of ocean waves allows many people to enter a very particular mind-set. Some may refer to it as mindfulness or meditation – others may simply think of it as relaxing. As we hear the same sounds of nature repeated over and over, our minds grasp onto them. These sounds act as an anchor and ultimately free our mind of wandering thoughts.
The predictability of the waves mean that we often align our breathing to match them, even if it’s subconsciously. It is not only our breathing that changes, but our heart rate lowers as we listen to the waves constantly fizzing up onto shore.
Ocean therapy has started to become recognised around the world as a way to better the lives of those suffering with stress, depression and a variety of mental and neurological issues. The idea stems from surfers and what they describe as ‘flow’ – a zen-like state accomplished when riding waves. This optimal state of consciousness is the ultimate form of mindfulness. It overpowers the most invasive thoughts and opens the way for more positive, creative thinking. As more research was done into this phenomenon, it became clear that the ocean itself played a huge role in improving people’s mental states. You don’t need to surf to reach this state – just being in, under or around water naturally leaves us feeling more mindful. As we listen to these waves breaking like clockwork, part of us is on that beach, ankle deep in the freezing water – why wouldn’t our mood improve?
Wallace J Nichols, in his book ‘Blue Mind’, wrote about how these sounds have been comforting us since before we were born:
“We spend our first nine months underwater, hearing sound through water in the womb… These fluid, rhythmic sounds are very much like the ocean. Perhaps that’s why the ocean often brings up feelings of relaxation and tranquillity.”
Much like the dawn chorus, ocean waves allow us to connect with nature in a meaningful way. We have no choice but to succumb – as long as the sun rises, the birds will sing. In turn, as long as the sea exists, there will be waves.
Tranquil and Inspiring
‘When we look at the ocean, we see that each wave has a beginning and an end. A wave can be compared with other waves, and we can call it more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer lasting or less long lasting. But if we look more deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. While living the life of a wave, the wave also lives the life of water. It would be sad if the wave did not know that it is water.’– Thich Nhat Hanh
The ocean can be intimidating and fierce, but it can also be tranquil and inspiring. This soundscape lends itself to the latter, but every wave has its own story, and thanks to our incredible field recordists, we’re able to hear how the story ends.