“The coldness of the water brought about a kind of calming. It allowed me to empty my mind and realise what was important in life.”
For Orkney jewellery designer, Alison Moore, that first experience of sea swimming has been the catalyst for both physical and emotional change, providing fresh creative inspiration for her work in the process.
Her remarkable underwater images, particularly of seaweed, have captivated followers on her social media accounts, revealing the lush hidden world beneath Orkney’s waves.
But the ocean wasn’t always a natural environment for Dounby based Alison, who only took up sea swimming less than two years ago.
“I was always terrified of what was in the ocean, but a friend of mine had started to swim regularly and I figured that if she could do it then there couldn't be anything much in there to worry about,” says Alison. “So, I confronted my fears and asked her to take me along with her.”
An Orkney winter, with its single digit sea temperatures, might not be the obvious time to launch yourself into the ocean without a wetsuit, but that’s exactly what Alison did.
“That particular day the sun was shining and the water was a relatively mild eight degrees C,” she recalls. “We swam from a white sandy beach at Evie, rode the waves and had an incredible amount of fun.
“I never actually thought about what was in the sea lurking beneath me at that point and it was a pretty mindful and relaxing experience. I enjoyed seeing Orkney from a new perspective too.”
Mental barrier overcome, there was no stopping Alison, who has continued to swim without a wetsuit since, gradually acclimatising to the bracing water temperatures around the islands.
“For fear of losing my bottle, I decided that I needed to swim in the sea every day to gain confidence,” she says. “There’s a group of sea swimmers called the Orkney Polar Bears who communicate on Facebook, so I always found someone to swim with who knew the waters and made sure each swim was a safe one. For the next three months I swam at least once daily.”
Although her fitness and confidence grew with each swim, Alison admits she still had some deep-seated fears about the ocean environment. But, as someone fascinated by the natural world – she has a background in geology – she knew that further exploration would bring greater understanding.
“In spring I began to notice things floating in the water, and periodically something would touch my leg and give me a real fright!” she laughs. “The only way I was going to confront this and get over it was to take a look under the waves. Of course, the things touching my legs weren't in fact sharks but seaweed, and that's when my love affair with the sea really began.”
The underwater realm Alison discovered had an immediate appeal, washing away her remaining aquatic anxiety in the process.
“It was as if I’d turned a key and unlocked a gate to a secret garden,” she says. “I was taken aback by the textures and colours of each variety of seaweed, and how they grow together to form the most magical ethereal gardens.”
From that moment on, Alison’s daily swimming trips became snorkelling adventures, undertaken at different locations around the Orkney coastline.
“I became hungry to see what was under the waves at different points,” she explains. “Each location has a different feel to it with varied combinations of seaweeds growing. I never quite know what I'm going to see and I can't wait to get my head under and explore.”
Nature inspires much of Alison’s work in jewellery, so it was perhaps inevitable that the environment she was encountering beneath the surface of Orkney’s seas would spark a new creative outlet – underwater photography. Alison has continued to upgrade the equipment she uses to capture the stunning seaweed images and scenes she shares on her Instagram and Facebook pages.
“The colours and textures I encounter are incredible,” says Alison, who also plans on creating some ocean themed jewellery collections in the future. “I think many people are surprised when they see the underwater images as they don’t realise they’re taken in Orkney waters. Nature always has a way of finding the perfect colour combinations. I never expected to find what I do there.
“And the colour of the sea changes too,” she continues. “In shallow areas where there is a lot of sand, the sea appears to be turquoise, but in the open sea the water is the most gorgeous shade of emerald green.”
The more time Alison has spent exploring the ocean, the more she’s wanted to continue on her own journey of self-discovery within it, freediving (without air tanks) and also becoming a qualified scuba diver.
She hopes those new skills will take her to even greater depths, once the current lockdown restrictions are lifted.
“I’m itching to scuba dive the Scapa Flow shipwrecks this summer, if we’re able,” says Alison. “I’ve been discovering and exploring nearshore wrecks, so these deep shipwrecks are going to be an absolute adventure for me!”
Although missing her daily swims right now, Alison is continuing to share the images and videos she’d managed to capture before the lockdown began.
She’s also been taking the time to reflect on the positive impact the ocean has had on her fitness and self-confidence, and just how far she’s come on her personal journey.
“I’m not sure if anyone who knew me two years ago would recognise me now!” she says. “It’s also made me more mindful and slowed me down a little, while giving me an enormous passion for the outdoors. I'm quite smitten with my own watery back garden.”
You can see more of Alison’s underwater images on her Instagram account @alisonsisland.
Open water swimming is potentially risky and Alison recommends that anyone wishing to pursue it should join a local group of experienced swimmers, such as the Orkney Polar Bears. The Outdoor Swimming Society also has information for those seeking to take up the sport.
The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020