Recreation in and on the Oceans

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Recreation in and on the Oceans

Every year, Americans spend billions of dollars and a large amount of their spare time on recreational activities in and on the oceans. Among others, popular ocean-based activities include swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, fishing, and surfing.

In the ocean

Swimming is one of the most popular forms of ocean recreation. Millions of Americans visit the beach every year to swim in the ocean. While swimming, beachgoers participate in snorkeling. Snorkeling, or skin diving, is a form of diving in which the diver swims at or near the surface of the water. Skin diving is simply holding one's breath underwater for as long as possible. The diver can remain underwater for long periods by breathing through a snorkel, which is a hollow tube attached to a mouthpiece. The snorkel juts out above the surface of the ocean, allowing the diver to breathe surface air through the snorkel like a straw. Snorkeling allows divers to explore ocean animals, plants, and coral reefs (tropical marine ecosystems made up of tiny coral animals and the structures they produce) that lay just below the surface of the ocean.

Scuba diving allows divers to fully immerse themselves in the ocean environment. Scuba stands for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Scuba equipment allows divers to go deeper than snorkeling and stay underwater longer. Scuba gear provides oxygen to divers while underwater. Modern scuba equipment is made up of small cylinders of compressed air. The diver breathes through a mouthpiece, and the air tank provides oxygen with every breath.

Recreational scuba divers can explore about 150 feet (46 meters) below the surface and with advanced training they can dive deeper. Dives deeper than 150 feet (46 meters) require gradual rising to the surface and other precautions. Rising too quickly after a deep dive can cause nitrogen to build up in the body, causing a painful, and potentially fatal condition called decompression sickness, or the bends. The world record for a scuba dive set in 2003 is over 1000 feet (313 meters). It took the diver only 12 minutes to reach this depth, but the diver had to rise to the surface of the water over 6½ hours in order to avoid the bends.

On the ocean

Sailing involves moving across the water in a boat powered by the wind. Sailing may be done for pleasure or sport. Sailing for sport involves serious competition. Sailboats are divided into numerous classes, or divisions, for competition based on the size and style of the boat. The America's Cup race and the Volvo Ocean Race Round the World are two of the most popular and competitive sailing races.

Swimming the English Channel

The English Channel is a narrow body of water that separates England and France. The Channel is 21 miles (34 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point. On August 24, 1875, Englishman Matthew Webb (1848–1883) became the first person to swim across the English Channel. It took Webb 21 hours, 45 minutes to complete the crossing. Webb set off a craze, as swimmers from around the world attempted to duplicate his feat.

Since Webb crossed the English Channel, there have been over 6200 attempts by others. There have been over 600 completions by about 470 different swimmers. As of 2004, English long-distance swimmer Alison Streeter has crossed the English Channel more times than anyone with over 40 crossings. These swimmers face numerous difficulties on their swims across the Channel. The average water temperature of the Channel is 55–63°F (13–17°C), swells of over 20 feet (6 meters) are common, and the Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Perhaps the most famous swim across the English Channel belongs to American Gertrude Caroline Ederle (1906–2003). On August 30, 1926, Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Ederle took 14 hours, 39 minutes to accomplish this feat. Ederle had attempted to swim the Channel the previous year, but fell short of her goal. The press criticized her attempt, claiming that no woman could swim across the English Channel. When Ederle completed the task in 1926, she beat the previous men's record by more than two hours. Her record stood for 24 years. Experts estimate that 20-foot (6-meter) storm swells forced Ederle to actually swim 35 miles in order to cross the 21-mile (34-kilometer) wide channel.

In the Volvo Ocean Race, formerly called the Whitbread Round the World Race, each yacht and its crew receive millions of dollars from corporate sponsors to design and build newer, faster ships. The race also tests the ability and stamina of the crew over the course of nine months. The 2001–2 Volvo Ocean Race Round the World, for instance, was 31,600-nautical-miles long. A nautical mile is longer than the statutory mile used on highways (1.15 statutory miles). The race, which ran for nine months, consisted of nine legs, or sections. Sailors traveled on the following routes: England to South Africa; South Africa to Australia; Australia to New Zealand; New Zealand to Brazil; Brazil to Miami, Florida; Miami to Baltimore, Maryland; Baltimore to France; and Sweden to Germany.

Recreational fishing on the oceans generally comes in two varieties: shore fishing and deep-sea fishing. In shore fishing, the angler (one who fishes) casts his or her bait from the shore. This form of fishing catches fish that stay close to land such as redfish, snook, and seatrout. Deep-sea fishing requires boating several miles (kilometers) out to sea in order to catch fish that live far from shore, where sonar (a device that uses sound waves to locate underwater objects) is sometimes used to spot schools of fish. Tuna, marlin, tarpon, and barracuda are examples of deep-sea fish. Some species of deep-sea fish can weigh over 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms).

Deep-sea fishing is a large business. Many tourists in popular deep-sea fishing locations pay thousands of dollars to rent boats and equipment for deep-sea fishing trips. Popular deep-sea fishing locations in the United States include Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and New England.

Surfing is the act of riding a board, called a surfboard, on the waves. Surfing requires strength and balance. Recreational surfers typically ride on relatively small waves 3–5 feet (.9–1.5 meters), although some surfers travel worldwide in search of larger waves. Surfing competitions judge competitors on wave size, distance, and quality of performance. Some professional thrill-seeking surfers, called tow surfers, ride out on personal water crafts to ride waves up to 50 feet (15 meters) high.

Joseph P. Hyder

For More Information


Graver, Denis K. Scuba Diving. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2003.

McManners, Hugh. Water Sports: An Outdoor Adventure Handbook. New York: DK Publishers, 1997.

Slater, Kelly. Pipe Dreams: A Surfer's Journey. New York: Regan Books, 2003.


Channel Swimming Association. (accessed on August 27, 2004).

International Sailing Federation. (accessed on August 27, 2004).

Volvo Ocean Race Round the World. (accessed on August 27, 2004).