What colour is the sea?

The weather and tides can change in an instant but so does the seascape. What colour is the sea?

The question everyone asks me is “What is the temperature of the sea?” The question I always ask myself is “What colour is the sea?”

When I swim off Brighton’s beaches, with a flock of Seabirds there is a lot of routine to what we do. We find a sheltered spot to change. But this spot can change depending on the state of the beach and the direction of the wind. We check our phones to make sure we haven’t missed any stragglers or welcome fledgling swimmers as we always swim in company. But it is never the same group of people. We look at the tides and conditions and consider the direction of the flow and which way to swim. But we don’t always get it right. We shout, scream and sing on entry into the cold water and gradually split into smaller groups to chat while we swim. But it’s not always the same person you end up swimming with each time and sometimes there is a bit of silence.

It’s in these moments of silence that I always, without fail, consider the colour of the sea. No But. There will always be a point during the swim that I focus on my hands in the water and look at the colour. The seascape changes all of the time. Sometimes the shingle is up on the prom, sometimes you can walk across sand to the pier, sometimes, just sometimes you get lovely lines of surf. Twice a day there is a high and a low tide. All of these changes are obvious to all. But how many people notice the change in colour of the sea?

sea colour1

We all use the term ‘Sky blue’…but what is sea green? I have rarely swum in the sea when it is green. But there is a palate of colours it has been and will be throughout the year.

A the sea warms up and the season moves from Spring to Summer, May bloom appears.  May Bloom, is an algae bloom that is caused by increased sunlight and water temperature. This causes a massive growth in plankton, which colours up the waters. In 2018 it lasted longer and reached further across the sea surface than I have ever known. It not only changed the colour of the sea to a rusty orange, but gave it the consistency of a really yeasty beer. You literally had to wade through froth to find clearer water to swim in and you left the water with a slimy film on your skin. At high tide the water was too deep to wade through and we ended up with dirty Father Christmas beards. In the magic of one swim as the tide turned to push you could clearly see the plankton in the strong current and swimming through it, head immersed, it was like being in an episode of Stranger Things and swimming through the ‘Upside Down’

In the winter months, storms that sweep across the Atlantic create large swells and the colour of the sea couldn’t be more different from the warm water bloom. It is a dark foreboding pewter in colour, almost metallic. It’s dark colour is almost warning you not to get in. This colour is normally accompanied by large waves that sharply break just before the shingle known as shore dump. And the colour warning should be heeded when the tide is high and the waves are big. It creates a striking contrast against a normally light grey sky and coloured pebbles but it is my least favourite colour for swimming in.

Every now and then there are summer days when the wind is offshore but not cold and the water turns a Mediterranean turquoise. It is so clear you can see the seabed right up until the end of the Pier. As well as being crystal clear, it is a flat as a millpond and the sunlight reflecting on the surface creates mesmerising shimmers and sparkles. This is when the sea is at it’s most inviting and unfortunately in Brighton it’s most busy. There will be days like this over the colder months that ensure the tranquillity of the water can enjoyed with less company but the pay off is ice cream brain as you submerge your face to experience the water clarity.

Aqua green waves are my favourite colour. Again this is a rarity and seems to accompany clean swell that has managed to make it’s way round the Isle of White without finishing at the Witterings. The waves come in regular sets and don’t churn up the seabed leaving the water awash with sand. Instead the sun catches the wave face and creates a shade between green and blue. Like the aquamarine gem it glistens. The colour is just as wonderful experienced from above as it is below the waves.

These really are just a few of the colours the sea can be. There are peaty browns, bright blues and pea greens. It’s all to do with the colour of the light and how it is absorbed by the water and the depth of the water….or so I am told. Not sure I really care how or why the colour if the sea changes, I just love that it does meaning no two swims are ever the same.

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Author: Seabird Kath

Footnote 1: The regency iron railings along the promenade in Brighton are ‘Brighton Blue’ a kind of aqua/turquoise colour. It changes colour from Brighton Blue to Hove Green at the Peace Statue marking the boundary between the once two separate towns.

Footnote 2: 100 Flags and Colour Wheel. Over several weeks throughout 2010 Finch observed the ever changing tone and colour of the English Channel. He then selected a pantone colour swatch for each moment observed resulting in a palette of 100 variants of sea colour, which was used to dye 100 flags. The four existing flagpoles at Christchurch Gardens were used to hoist a different sea-coloured flag every day. The colour of each monochrome flag was determined by an observer of the sea every day of the Triennial following Finch’s swatch. The flag hoister chose the corresponding flags and raised them at midday

I am a Tidal Bore

My place in the seabirds flock has always been the one to work out which direction to swim in. Not only is this because I am bossy but because I am a science geek and am slightly obsessed with tides and waves. However, I get it wrong as much as I get it right. Follow me, when we swim,  at your own discretion. So a while back, whilst I was I was searching for my next read I stumbled across The Book Of Tides by William Thomson and hoped it may explain why sometimes the sea really wasn’t flowing in the direction I though it would.

I read it in a day. A cold wet Sunday spent on the sofa under a blanket with the most beautifully illustrated book you can imagine. Some of the information contained within I knew as it is included in my Surf Life Saving training, but much of it I didn’t. Ocean and sea occurring phenomenon like rip currents and  eddys are simply explained and accompanied by wonderful illustrations. By his own admission, the author is not specifically trained in Oceanography but has gained his knowledge through a passion for the coastline, the sea and reading, researching and chatting to other coastal dwellers whilst travelling around in his van. His Tide Maps are not just a visual explanation but literally a work of art – you can commission a tide map for anywhere in the world.

Once I had finished the book, I did what all modern day readers do. I posted a picture of it on Instagram . And received a reply from @TidalCompass the author’s IG persona, informing me that he runs Tide Walks and there would be one in Brighton in the coming months. Naturally I booked myself and another Seabird on!

Whilst we waiting for the date of the Brighton Tide Walk I kept swimming with the seabirds boring them all with my knew found knowledge. Hence the nickname Tidal Bore. Five of us spent a sunny Sunday swimming as hard as we could against the flow of a spring tide flow only to find ourselves stationary in the water. Due to the conveyor belt swimming it meant we could get out exactly where we had set off. An efficient use of the tidal flow.

On the day of the Tide Walk, we met at Brighton Beach Bikes to the west of the Palace Pier. It was fully booked with 20 participants, many of whom were regular and local sea swimmers.  We walked west and stopped every few hundred metres for William to explain various bits of sea knowledge. He explained how a tide wave travels around the UK and that it’s peek and trough creates High and Low tide. This was visually demonstrated with a length of rope.  Details were shared on slack tide, frequency of spring tides and the phases of the moon. Again props were used to enhance the transfer of information. Swell and wave formation. Rip tides and eddys. And lots more including the effect storm surges and perigee phase of the moon can have on the height of tides.

It was a brilliant 2 hours spent on a sunny Saturday. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about their local coastline. Future walks are scheduled for  various dates across the South East and South West. I have since downloaded the Imray Tides Planner app  so that I have a better idea of tidal flow before I set out swimming. Although I may skip it sometimes and just go with the flow……………………………