Wild winter swimming – and some whale thoughts

Ouch, ouch, ouch! Out, out, out! My feet are on fire. Or more literally, they are turning to ice cubes. What am I doing swimming in this lake in the middle of winter? I can’t keep my feet in the water. I lift them up in front of me, balancing strangely on a seated position. This is not how you should swim.

Rydal Water

When I think of wild swimming, I think of skinny dipping and forest ponds in the summer. Alternatively, I think of hasty dunks in (literally) icy water in the winter. I suppose these connotations are linked to my Finnish upbringing. But here in the UK wild swimming is a proper exercise requiring a wetsuit and maybe a bright floaty buoy that you can drag behind you when you swim across water bodies. 

Of course, this sort of proper wild swimming happens also in Finland and elsewhere in the world. I just have never been into it. 

And to be honest, I am not sure that I am into it now.

My surfing wetsuit has been sleeping most of the year and I thought that it would be a good idea to put it into use again. When I am pulling the wetsuit over my slightly sweaty legs, I am regretting the decision. You’d think that after running a few kilometres around Rydal Water in the Lake District it would be nice to go for a swim. Not in November.

My wetsuit is surprisingly warm. I feel the cool touch of the water against my body, but it is not unbearable. On the other hand, my poor little feet and hands, which are fully exposed, are screaming. They turn white, they turn blue, they hurt. But I keep swimming towards a little island sitting in the middle of the lake.  

The wetsuit is keeping me afloat even though the pain in my feet and shivers caused by the cold are affecting my swimming. It keeps my feet near the surface when water brushes by my sleek neoprene sides. I feel like an awkward porpoise. 

In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick whale is defined as “a spouting fish with a horizontal tail”. I am splashing a lot, but I am missing all the other defining features of a whale. However, if I was one of the whales Ishmael, the narrator, describes in the book, I would be the Mealy-mouthed Porpoise. 

“In shape, he differs in some degree from the Huzza Porpoise, being of a less rotund and jolly girth; indeed, he is of quite a neat and gentleman-like figure… But his mealy-mouth spoils him.”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Melville’s Cetology

Ishmael attempts to identify and categorize all the known whales according to their characteristics in the chapter called Cetology. The whales are divided into three books – that is, groups – according to their size: The Folio Whale, The Octavo Whale and The Duodecimo Whale.

Folio whales are large whales such as the Hump-backed Whale (humpback whale) and the Sulphur Bottom Whale (blue whale). There are four more listed. 

Octavo whales are medium-sized whales. Ishmael lists the Black Fish whale (pilot whale), the Narwhale (nostril whale) and three different whales –  Killer Whale, Trasher Whale and Grampus – which are all probably the orca. My information is based on Wikipedia article which states no sources, so take it with a pinch of salt.

However, even Ishmael/Melville seems to be unsure of the identity of these whales: 

“Still less is known of the Thrasher than the Killer. Both are outlaws, even in the lawless seas”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The last group, duodecimos, are porpoises and dolphins. Ishmael lists three of which Huzza Porpoise seems to be the bottlenose dolphin and Mealy-mouthed Dolphin the southern right whale dolphin. The Algerine Porpoise is likely to be some sort of a beaked whale, although it is not clear which one.

The identification of whales has gone a long way since Melville’s sea adventures, but for some reason, I found his cetology very exciting. It is simple in its own confusing way. Nowadays, all the 90 whale species of cetaceans are divided into two categories: baleen whales and toothed whales. Then they are divided into family, genus and species. A lot more to remember. 

Swimming again

How did my swimming excursion turn up to be a list of random whales?  

Who knows. Maybe you learned something. Back to water.

I have to rub my feet hard when I reach the little island and get out of the water. Soft moss is lovely underneath my blue feet. Next time, whenever that will be, I’ll take my neoprene shoes with me. Yes, I do have a pair of those, but I didn’t put them on. I am the only one to blame for having cold feet.

Way back to my warm clothes is much easier, and I feel very refreshed after the swim. At that point, it is easy to laugh with, and a little bit at, other wild swimmers hesitating in the shallow water.  


  • Cetology of Moby-Dick. (2020). Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cetology_of_Moby-Dick
  • IUCN. (2020). Status of the world’s cetaceans. Available at:Https://iucn-csg.org/status-of-the-worlds-cetaceans/
  • Melville, H. (1988). Moby-Dick. Oxford University Press: Oxford
  • Mpdyer. (2016) Whaleman’s natural history observations and the grand panorama of whaling voyage round the world. New Bedford Whaling Museum Blog. 29 March. Available at: https://whalingmuseumblog.org/tag/porpoises/

6 thoughts on “Wild winter swimming – and some whale thoughts

  1. Pingback: Do whales attack boats? – like in Moby-Dick – Near Here Way Away

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