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Protecting the environment as you swim


There are many factors that cold water swimmers keep in mind to ensure their own protection, such as the risk of hypothermia, water temperature, and equipment.

However, what factors do you need to consider to ensure you are protecting the environment as you swim?

It is crucial to consider the impact you may be having on the environment and wildlife when cold water swimming. So, it is important to find a sustainable method of transport, recycle your equipment, and never leave litter!

Protecting the environment as you swim should be at the forefront of your mind.

Why is it important to protect the environment as we swim?

It is important to protect the environment to sustain the local swimming spots and avoid disrupting any ecosystems when wild swimming. Many outdoor swimming areas also host wildlife, such as fish, flora, and mammals – if you are in the UK, seals are popular!

As swimmers, we must act in a sustainable and environmentally ethical manner to ensure we do not contribute to the acceleration of climate change or the destruction of habitats.

It is possible to swim in outdoor bodies of water, such as lakes and rivers, without upsetting the wildlife; we need to take steps to prevent leaving our mark.

Things to consider as you open-water swim

There are many factors to consider when wild swimming in natural locations. These include:

1. Water margins

Water margins are an important aspect of any natural swimming spot, as frequent activity can cause river banks and beds to erode.

Entering the water in areas with excessive mud can also cause sediment to fall into the water, impacting local species.

You should assess the entry points to the water before making your way in. Avoid areas covered by vegetation, flora, or areas that appear damaged or vulnerable.

Other features to avoid include stone walls and hedges, which are key sites where aquatic ecosystems thrive. If you need help getting into the water, try leaning on a friend rather than clinging to walls for support.

lake weeds

2. Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Nature Reserves

Site of Special Scientific Interest is the title given to areas of conservation as appointed by Natural England. SSSIs tend to be areas with significant value to the wildlife, landform, or geology.

Due to the scientific significance of SSSIs, you may not always be permitted to swim at these locations in an attempt to protect the environment.

You can check whether you can swim at your local SSSI by referring to the Natural England website or contacting your local council.

Nature reserves are similar to SSSIs in that it may not always be clear whether you can swim there.

Again, we recommend researching before swimming in any new spot to ensure you are aware of any vulnerable or protected ecosystems.

3. The Seasons

As the seasons change from the cold winter swimming months to the warm water months of summer, the aquatic habitats change accordingly. You may need to be cautious of harmful algae in warmer months.

The winter months tend to be a quieter period for wildlife due to the colder temperatures. When the water starts warming up, environments flourish with foliage and animals. During these times, you need to take extra care to ensure you swim without a trace.

Many animals will breed in warmer months, such as June and July. Be cautious when wild swimming in summer to prevent any disruption to breeding areas or spawns.

4. Fish

Typically, fish tend to be timid around swimmers, so you may not be able to get too close to them, even if you want to. However, it is always best to keep your distance and peacefully observe wildlife with limited interaction.

Open-water fish may deposit their eggs in underwater shrubs or soil, so swimmers should be careful where they tread as they enter and exit the water. For example, the river lamprey, a rare and protected species in the UK, lays its eggs in sandy gravel.

It would help if you tried to enter the water via areas with a clear path and avoid areas where fish could hide.

Taking light steps and staying off your feet as much as possible will also help protect the ecosystem.

fish in lake

5. Invertebrates and Amphibians

Invertebrates are important for the food chain, and their presence often signals the health of the water. There is no specific season where invertebrates may be in greater density but, again, remain light-footed and avoid foliage to avoid disrupting their environment.

Amphibians spend much of their life in the waters, from tadpoles to full-grown. Moving toad spawns can promote the spread of amphibian diseases and the growth of non-native plants, which can seriously impact the local ecosystem.

If swimming from March to June, keep an eye out for frog spawn and avoid interfering with the growing eggs.

6. Birds and Mammals

Natural water spots are popular sites for birds and mammals, so you may see various wildlife as you swim in open waters. You must respect every animal you encounter and limit your interactions.

Certain birds can get defensive when they sense a threat; for example, geese and swans are notorious for chasing and honking at overly close humans.

There are many different species of birds in the United Kingdom. Birds may build their nests in the following places:

  • Water margins
  • Sandbanks
  • Trees
  • Dunes
  • Fallen trees or hollowed logs
  • Islands

If birds sense high levels of threat, they may abandon their nest and eggs, which can cause offspring to die. Keep your distance from any bird and avoid splashing around in the water.

Mammals, like otters, water voles and rabbits, can be found in many water sources. Key contributors to the decline of many animals in the UK include sandbank erosion and disturbance from potential threats, such as humans.

To protect local wildlife, take care as you enter the water and avoid making loud noises or commotion as you swim. If you see any burrowing holes or nests, try to find an alternative entrance to the water that is further away from birthing sites.


7. Plants

Plants are extremely important for any ecosystem, as they provide oxygen, reduce carbon dioxide, and act as a food source for many animals. Plants help keep the environment of the water clean and shelter fish and aquatic mammals.

Sediments stirred up from too much movement can prevent plant growth, hurting the whole ecosystem. To prevent damaging plants, avoid areas with a high density of foliage and try to stay off your feet as you swim.

8. Sunscreen

There are other changes cold water swimmers can make to their daily routines to help protect the beautiful environment they immerse themselves in, such as wearing eco-friendly sunscreen.

Common ingredients in many sunscreens include octinoxate and oxybenzone, which can harm marine animals.

Switching to a sun cream without chemicals can be a great alternative. You still have UVB protection and protect potentially fragile ecosystems.

9. Litter

It should go without saying, but you should always clear and dispose of any litter when leaving a cold water swimming site. Cleaning up rubbish is key if you want to protect the environment as you swim.

Litter can be seriously detrimental to animals and plants for many reasons. For example, animals can choke or get trapped by plastic bags, disposable barbecues or cans.

If you see any litter at the swimming spot, please pick it up and recycle it where possible. Experts have predicted that by 2050, there will be more garbage in our oceans than fish.

We can make that statistic redundant if everyone does their bit to protect our beautiful world.

litter in lake

Top tips for protecting the environment as you swim

Here are Cold Water Swim’s top tips to help swimmers protect the environment:

  • Enter via established entrances to the water.
  • Talk to the community to learn about local wildlife.
  • Avoid breeding sites.
  • Never enter via damaged or delicate sandbanks.
  • Encourage other swimmers to be environmentally conscious.
  • Leave no trace, leave no litter.
  • Educate yourself on SSSIs.
  • Be bio-security and chemical aware.


As open water swimmers, protecting the environment as you swim is of utmost importance, as without considering the ecosystems we engage with, our sport could be at risk.

Small changes to our routine, such as picking eco-friendly sunscreen and picking up litter, can dramatically impact the sustainability of ecosystems.

So, educate yourself and your community, and start thinking about how our swimming affects animals, plants, and nature.