Snowbird? Or, Aquatic Ape?!

Originally published July 25, 2013

Santa Barbara, CA
Santa Barbara, California
How do you feel when you look at this photo?Originally published July 25, 2013

My husband and I are approaching a certain age (as in retirement). No longer “spring chickens,” we are transforming into “snowbirds.” This is the term for mature types such as us who fly south and/or west January through March in search of golden temperatures. For many years, I’ve been lobbying for a winter refuge somewhere near the ocean. Not just any popular snowbird destination, like Arizona, although I can appreciate its dry heat and expansive, peaceful mountain scenes. I just can’t ignore that it’s sorely missing an ocean. In fact, it doesn’t even fall within the “close enough” category.

After a recent trip to Santa Barbara, California, I began pondering what it is about water in its myriad forms that hold sway over me and others. I now ask myself, “Am I simply a Minnesota snowbird seeking respite from the harsh realities of winter? Or, is my deep need for sea air more complex, hardwired in my DNA’s collective unconscious? Could I — COULD ALL OF US — be descendants of aquatic apes?!” (To which you may be answering, “Neither! You are a cuckoo bird and a drama queen!”)

A theory that’s been around for over 50 years (but supported by only a handful of scientists) proposes that humans are amphibious apes who descended from the trees to live, not on the savannah as is usually supposed, but in flooded creeks, river banks and sea shores, some of Earth’s richest sources of food. To keep their heads above water, they evolved an upright stance, freeing their hands to make tools to crack open shellfish. Then they lost their body hair and, instead, developed a thick layer of subcutaneous fat to keep warm in the water. Additionally, the “aquatic ape” theorists highlight humans’ big sinuses, which would be needed for buoyancy, and our brains’ biochemistry, which relies on a high omega-3 fatty acid diet for mental health/intelligence. (Click here for full article.)

Lest you think that I am teetering down the road toward dementia, or searching for goofy stuff that will explain my obsession and grab your attention, I came upon the aquatic ape theory when I was Googling the net for reasons why I — and many others — seem to have a deep connection with water. I’m talking larger bodies of water, not just sprinklers for our lawns, bottles to drink or enough to shower off a day’s sweat. Although, those examples are very satisfying. More and more people enjoy hiking in areas with rivers, creeks and waterfalls. Lakes are popular “playgrounds” year-round. Many urban communities carefully plan for the placement of ponds and water fountains because these amenities — “blue spaces” — can attract more would-be residents.

Research about humans’ affinity with blue space is now catching up with the data long gathered about our intimate connection with “green space,” as in individual lawns and community parks and trails. New studies in England report that people who live nearer the coast are healthier. It’s been documented that lower blood pressure and better moods result from watching videos of aquatic environments and/or aquariums (even those without fish). Aquariums, in fact, are being used as therapy for Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes; data shows more food is consumed (contributing to nutritional health), and there is significantly less aggressive behaviors.

Where we stayed in Santa Barbara, we were met with water nearly everywhere we turned: a massive water fountain near the entry; several pristine blue pools of varying sizes, strategically placed throughout the grounds; and last but not least, the majestic Pacific Ocean — a magnificent, endless stage that we gazed upon from our “balcony seats” atop the cliffs. All of these blue spaces contributed to feeling calm, refreshed and eager to return.

I do think the aquatic ape theory is intriguing. Maybe there’s something to it. However, when I think about the immediate effect that the ocean has had on me, I know it doesn’t have anything to do with my Ohio roots. The closest I came to an ocean when I lived there was when — like a lot of other Ohioans — I traveled to Florida for a beach “fix.” As I’ve thought more about it, I’m remembering how I felt as a child, when I visited my English grandparents who lived near London. It was a different scene entirely from my hometown; I often walked to their town’s narrow section of the River Thames and simply enjoyed watching the water flow.

But, my greatest pleasure every visit was the week spent on the southwest coast of Cornwall — in particular, nestled on the beach by the high cliffs of Treyarnon Bay and “sitting on top of the world” at the outdoor Minak Theatre. (To really appreciate the Minak and its ocean views, click on the photos for the virtual panoramic show.) I was certain that I belonged there. When I recently revisited these two favorite “places of the heart” via the Internet, I instantly understood why I felt grounded in Santa Barbara, which is very much like the Cornish coast with its rocky cliffs, the ocean, sandy beach and refreshing sea air.

You can bet Mrs. Snowbird is lobbying hard for a landing there someday. And, my “inner ape” is looking forward to eating a lot of good-for-you seafood.

* Photo credited to author.

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