On an absurdly picturesque Thursday evening at Encinitas’s Moonlight State Beach, a stretch of white sand on the coast of Southern California, 50 of us circled up under a 100-foot-tall palm tree. Bryan Mineo, an enthusiastic 37 year old with the abs of a Marine and sleeve tattoos that reflect his dual passions in life—the ocean and music—gave us our brief. Sprint to the ocean with buoys, swim for 500 yards, exit to pick up beach trash, dive back in the water for another 500 yards, and emerge to pick up more litter. Rest, then repeat.
For the nonprofit One With the Ocean (OWO), the world’s largest open-water swim group, it was just another Thursday night “SLOG,” or what Mineo, OWO’s founder, described as the swim version of the Swedish fitness trend of “plogging": jogging plus plocka upp (picking up) trash. A random sampling of OWO’s collection this year includes dental floss, cigarette butts, rugs, broken chairs, discarded clothing, sex toys, and countless plastic items—bottle caps, buckets, bags. I looked around at the happy beachgoers bathed in this golden-hour light, seemingly incapable of chucking anything like a dildo or a doughnut wrapper into the sand. But humans will do as humans do, even at the beach.
“So what we try to do,” Mineo said cheerfully, “is clean up after them.”
As the sun descended over a mercury-hued Pacific, setting the beach’s bluffs aglow, we tumbled out of the water, each of us by turns chatty and euphoric. (Picking up trash on the beach was the focus, but if we saw some in the water, we grabbed it, too.) Mineo, an open-water swim coach, wasn’t swimming that night. From his perch atop a surfboard, he was acting as safety spotter, monitoring the group’s whereabouts, cheering swimmers on, and providing a resting place for anyone who needed it. But he was smiling just the same. Forty-five minutes later, we came away with the flush of exercise, a sense of communal accomplishment, and a dozen inflatable neon swim buoys filled with garbage.
The first time Mineo swam in open water, as a teenager at a lake near his childhood home in Dallas, he nearly drowned. Years later, in 2010, it was this same lake that hosted his earliest OWO-like action: a free, all-levels, open-water swim group. Since then, Mineo has expanded the nonprofit into a 19-chapter, 4,000-member open-water swimming organization that focuses on conservation and community building. OWO is inclusive of swimmers whose ability levels range from beginner to Olympic. Currently all chapters are in the United States—including O‘ahu, Long Beach, Portland, Maine, Miami, and Boston—and their members range in age from teenagers to octogenarians. In 2021, with many public pools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a glut of people desperate for movement and beauty and fresh air, OWO’s membership grew by 30 percent.
As the author of the book Why We Swim, I’m often asked about the best way for people who don’t necessarily call themselves swimmers to begin open-water swimming. One nice thing about wild bodies of water is that they’re almost always open for business. And immersing yourself in them brings you acutely closer to nature—floating to observe the changing colors in a predawn sky, or taking a breather to watch seals and dolphins cruise the coast. You don’t have to worry about speed or distance or getting in the way of anyone in your lane. This kind of swimming is, well, freeing. I usually offer two pieces of advice: Find a buddy, someone who knows the body of water you want to swim in and can help familiarize you with currents and hazards. Start slowly, doing a little bit more each time as you acclimate to the conditions.
Though the Encinitas sunset swim was my first with OWO, I knew that Mineo had created something special: a group of conservation-minded swimmers who supply the knowledge and meet you where you are. Anybody can join for a swim at any chapter. New attendees are given OWO swim caps and welcomed for a free swim. Membership dues and donations go toward supporting core initiatives, including regular organized swims, more than 600 beach sweeps a year, and Play in the Waves, a program that offers free ocean education and swim lessons to kids in underserved areas.
That night on Moonlight Beach, I met OWO coach Antony Nguyen, who made it a priority to make everyone feel welcome at the swim. I swam to shore alongside a chatty swimmer named Ricardo Villa (“call me Ricky Ricardo”)—I’d learn later that he taught salsa dancing and was often the life of the party. And I met Anne-Marie Coman, who told me that she’d just started swimming with the group several months before. Like a lot of us, she’d had a hard year. As we watched the stars wink into view in a cloudless sky, we talked about the relief and joy to be found in the open water. To float is to forget, if just for a moment, the weight and worries of the world. It is improbable magic, a liminal state of grace that is not gotten to without some effort. Coman quoted back to me a phrase from my book: Swimming is a constant state of not drowning.
“That’s my mantra now,” she said. Then she teared up, and I did, too.
Swimming has the power to give us an out-of-the-ordinary perspective on a place, whether that place is beloved and familiar or brand new to us. I love entering a location alongside the fishes—the dramatic limestone and lush green of Barton Springs in Austin, Texas, say, or the view of the Golden Gate Bridge on the swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco. Both grant sensory immediacy: the metallic scent of a limestone spring, the cold dark pull of the open ocean. Perhaps goggle vision also grants a kind of imaginative sight, allowing us to expand our perception of what’s possible.
Imagination is necessary for generating hope during a dark time. The specificity of place—this body of mine, in this body of water, right now—is important. We humans are wired to care about the communities closest to us. If swimming can generate an intimate connection to places nearby, it’s a good starting point to caring for the larger world. As the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has said, every action matters: “To those already suffering the impacts of climate change,” she wrote, “there is always something we can do to help each other.”
Each OWO chapter offers a range of training swims, workouts, race events, and beach cleanups. Of all the initiatives, Mineo said, the SLOG swims have been the fastest growing. “We’re running around in Speedos with bright buoys attached. People are watching us and saying, ‘What is that?’ And every time, there are three or four people asking us how they can help. It’s a visual reminder of a problem that is easy to forget,” he said.
Over the ebb and flow of a year, OWO swimmers said they have noticed that summertime produces the most trash, due to the increase in people on the beach. The ironic thing about the mentality around disposability, of course, is that when it comes to the ocean, what you leave behind ends up traveling somewhere else—and may well end up closer to home than you think. With the idea that all paths point to the ocean, OWO also gives each member a recycled beach cleanup bag and tongs and encourages them to do “solo sweeps,” cleaning up a mile of local beach, park, or road whenever they have time.
Since January 2020, OWO swimmers have held more than 1,500 beach cleanups, covered more than 3,000 miles of beach, and collected more than 53,000 pounds of litter. It won’t make a serious dent in an estimated 17.6 billion pounds of plastic we dump into the ocean every year. But it doesn’t mean that OWO’s work is insignificant.
It’s easy, of course, to despair. It’s harder to muster up the effort to think carefully about a problem and try to help solve it. These swims, though small in the scheme of things, are about connecting to a place, and its people, through water. They’re about taking care of that place and leaving it better than we found it.
Late one evening, as I was finishing this story, my phone dinged. It was a text message from Mineo.
“We just picked up 50+lbs of tar at SLOG from the oil spill,” he wrote. A major pipeline breach had just been detected off the Southern California coast, releasing an estimated 25,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean, which washed up on beaches and wetlands.
“Was epic and really sad.” It was also, he noted, the group’s most successful cleanup to date.