Between Cold Water, Algae and the Jellyfish

Even in quite big floods there are ‘safe’ places to swim in the river but it is little fun having to fight against currents and cooler water.  So, as a consequence of recent weather conditions the river has been off limits and sea swimming has begun to feature again.

The sea around here is at its coldest in the middle of February when temperatures can dip to 5 or 6 Celsius. The temperature then trends upwards to 19 or 20 Celsius in mid-September where after it dips sharply towards the New Year.  The most pleasant swimming is to be had therefore between now, early June and September.

There are however 2 factors that stand in the way of a long happy summer at sea and the first is already upon us: the jellyfish are here early this year.  They can be wonderful to watch, the huge ‘barrels’ and the transparent ‘crystals’, but it is the compass that come in greatest numbers.

The compass are undoubtedly pretty but they can leave a rash a little like a nettle and they can trail tentacles with sting cells (nematocysts) for up to 2m.  They are also very quick in the water, they don’t just waft on the current and they can ‘see’.  Often if you are able to swim close to them and throw a shadow on them they will in a matter of moments be heading downwards out of harm’s way.

One compass, two compasses, they are most often seen few and far between but when the currents are just right they can mark out the boundary between apparently indistinct bodies of water.  On one such evening last year off Meadfoot Beach the boundary stretched nearly a kilometre and as a ready reckoner I estimated the number at over 5000.  I was very glad to be on the paddleboard at the time.

The other is the algae.  That has been awful the last few years and out of nowhere the shore waters look like they are filled with mulched tissue paper, except it is reddish-brown and it stinks of prawns beyond their best before date.  Some bays and beaches fill completely and in other places it can form a coastal swathe 100m out to sea.  Swimming in it is vile and it stays with you for a day or two no matter what.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

So between cold water, algae and jellyfish there is a window of opportunity and that would seem to be right here, right now.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall



As I drove out of town the sky brightened showing patches of blue and by the time I reached the small car park there was full on sunshine.  Hah!  It is for exactly these moments that I carry a set of swimming kit under the back seat of the car at all times.

It is a very low spring tide and Mussel Rock is cut off from the beach by only a narrow band of shallow water.  The rock is draped with tresses of kelp around the base whilst the top is barnacle encrusted and gouged into sharp relief.  The centre of the rock is actually hollowed out, not that you can tell from here, and the water flows in and out through two narrow tunnels so that every tide for just a short while there is a perfectly serviceable hidden swimming pool.

Another of the local swimmers is on the beach, we chat for a moment remarking on the improvement in the conditions since the weekend as now the sea is flat calm rather than the raging surf it had been.

I swim straight out into the slightly less sandy water where it is almost blue-green though too silt filled for me to see my toes.  I turn and swim around the back of the rock listening to the waves slurping in and out of nooks and crevices.  The sun makes the kelp glisten and, as always, it puts me in mind of the description of the aliens in The War of the Worlds and, as always, it makes me wonder if the seals are about and are closing in ready to pounce on an unwary foot.

Just to add to the feeling of isolation, low sunshine is so bright off the water that the beach and cliffs in that direction are an indistinct dark blur.

I complete my circumnavigation and run around in the shallows further down the beach towards my towel.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

As I dry a woman wearing a black swimsuit walks down the sand and into the water and for a moment it looks like it could be another of the local swimmers.  It’s only March for goodness sakes, there are never this many swimmers here, swimming is the thing it seems.

I stop and chat to her as I’m heading off the beach.

‘I saw you from the coast path and you inspired me’, she tells me.

Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever inspired anyone before. Conned, browbeaten, and cajoled by other devious means, but inspired is a first.

‘Well at least you had your swimsuit’. I’m making the assumption that everyone carries spare swim kit at all times like me.

‘Knickers and t-shirt’, she confesses, ‘I haven’t swum in ages’.

Proper inspired then. I feel quite positive about that.