Victoria Whitworth, author and historian

I SWAM in the sea a lot as a child but it was something I had lost touch with until I moved to Orkney in 2008. I had been living there for three summers when I started swimming in the sea. I had issues with plantar fasciitis in my feet and needed to swim because I couldn’t do any other exercise.

The pool in Stromness was closing down for refurbishment and a friend suggested I joined a group of cold-water swimmers called the Orkney Polar Bears. I got such a buzz from the cold water.

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There is something freeing about the unboundedness of the sea. I had this very powerful emotional reaction. It is about giving yourself over to something else’s power entirely. That is a strange and liberating headspace to be in.

The tide and phase of the moon are like the heartbeat of the planet. There were days that the sea would feel funny. I’d think: “What is going on?” and then look it up when I got home to see a massive storm brewing off Iceland.

One of the joys of being a bobbing head in the water is that few creatures pay attention to you. I had a close encounter with an otter. It was November and I was lying in the shallows watching it on the shore only a few feet away. Because I was immersed in the water it didn’t see me as a threat.

The same happens with birds such as a raft of eider ducks or the little ringed plovers out on the breakwater. Again, they usually spook fairly easily, but I could go swimming up to them and they wouldn’t pay me any attention at all.

The seals do pay attention. You walk along the beach and these little heads start popping up with their great, big, liquid, luminous eyes gazing at you.

When I was in the water virtually every day seals would come to within 12-15ft of me. I would swim out, look back towards the shore and there would be seals between me and the beach often very clearly engaging with me.

I would stop and lift my head and shoulders out of the water and they would stop and do exactly the same thing. We would bob up and down, then I would swim a few yards in one direction and they would come with me. I never felt any sense of aggression, only strong curiosity.

My book, Swimming with Seals, feels in some ways more like a very long prose poem than a piece of scientific, nature and travel writing or a memoir. The images work on many layers. What I am now capable of admitting is a lifelong tussle with depression.

Often when you are very powerfully driven to do something it makes perfect sense at the time and has its own internal logic. But what I have since realised is that I was displacing a lot of my fear and unhappiness.

My way of dealing with stress was swimming. I needed to confront things and I couldn’t do that head-on. The sea itself is a very powerful companion: friend and enemy. I can’t call it a place because it feels too personal.

Swimming with Seals by Victoria Whitworth is published in paperback by Head of Zeus, priced £7.99