Sunday, July 23, 2017

Writing about the Ocean

While writing on my latest novel, I came across a scene where my characters crash-land their starship into the ocean. That’s when I got all excited about writing about the open water and started brainstorming all the different ways somebody could die in the ocean. Not a pleasant topic, I know.

Having lived in Hawaii for three years, I know a bit about the ocean. I’m no expert, but my dad used to be a SCUBA diving instructor and would take me and my family to the beach at least once a week, if not to go diving, at least to go swimming and snorkeling. So, if you’re thinking about including large bodies of water in your story (not including rivers), this post if for you!

The only thing to fear is fear itself everything.

Okay, so maybe not everything, but it’s pretty close. In fact, there’s more to fear in the ocean than drowning, shark attacks, and massive waves.

First, you have riptides. Did you know people swimming on the beach can actually get sucked out to the open ocean by currents? Even the strongest and the best of swimmers can’t fight it. The main mistake they make is swimming against the current. Swimming parallel to the shore is the only way to escape it.

Second, you have the bends (decompression sickness). This point is one that a lot of writers, particularly those of screenplays, get wrong (e.g. Star Wars, Star Trek). The only movie I’ve seen get it right, where applicable is The Abyss. If you swim further than ten feet underwater, you might notice a pressure in your ears. That’s because the pressure of the water is stronger than the pressure of the air.

The difference in pressures is why SCUBA divers equalize, by plugging their nose and blowing out. It may cause an awkward popping sensation whether you do it underwater or above water. If one were to surface too quickly (specifically faster than your smallest bubbles), one could end up with the bends. Yes, it can kill you and your characters.

Finally, you have open water, dehydration, jellyfish, the Bermuda Triangle, you get the picture.  

Blood and the ocean.

While blood can attract sharks, these creatures are not quite like the monsters you see in Jaws. But that doesn’t stop me from being paranoid. One time I went out with some friends in a kayak while I was wearing a bandage on my leg from a minor cut. I was so scared of getting attacked by sharks that I didn’t get out of the boat. As it turned out, the twelve-foot swells mounting close to the shore turned out to be our greatest challenge that day.

Yes, blood attracts sharks. My dad and my brother used to go spear hunting for fish, and they would stay in the water until the “tax collectors” showed up. They have a couple interesting stories to tell. Fortunately, none of them resulted in death or scars.

Aside from cuts and bloody fish, you have something else that nobody seems to talk about let alone include in YA fiction—periods. Girls, we all experience it. Guys, if you’re writing includes female characters and they go to the beach, they might have to wear a tampon at certain times of the month. That’s not to say that you must include such a detail, let alone describe it (please don’t), but at least be aware that it happens.

Rocks make great handholds, until they bite back.

Seriously though, I can’t count the times when I was swimming near shore and nearly stuck my hand on a sea urchin or in an eel’s mouth. Eels like to hide in clefts in the rocks, and they’re pretty territorial. Sea urchins are all over the rocks.

My dad once got bit by a sea urchin, and it left a little circular shape on his fingers. Apparently, it hurt. A lot. Then my brother got stuck by a sea urchin’s quills on two different occasions, and his hand swelled up so that he looked like Kirk when he had a reaction to a vaccine Bones gave him. Sea urchins look pretty, and while you can touch them without injuring yourself, you don’t want to get stabbed.

And let’s not forget rocks. According to my dad, ““Flesh versus rock, rock wins every time.” While you might encounter some friendly, slimy boulder in a lake, you’re more likely to encounter some not-so-friendly ones in the ocean. If you’re by a volcanic island, you’re also going to encounter lava rock with tends to be very sharp. I’d rather walk barefoot on wood chips or hot cement than lava rock.

Some people are terrified of the water.

One time in college, I was chatting with some of my friends about the ocean and how, like in Finding Nemo, the ocean bottom drops out into a black abyss. Then, one of my friends started shaking his head saying, “NO.” Suddenly, he was terrified of the ocean, even though he had never been.

Similarly, it’s possible to simultaneously be terrified of the water and fascinated by it. For example, I’m afraid of heights, so unlike a lot of people, seeing the bottom of a lake or the ocean scares me. But, I lived in Hawaii for three years. During that time, my family and I visited the beach on a weekly basis. I should be fine, right?

Wrong. Because I haven’t had consistent trips to the water, it has become like a distant friend. Like Moana, I am drawn to the sea. I enjoy staring out over endless water. I dream of sailing and swimming and plunging beneath the waves.

But unlike her, I may or may not have a panic attack before setting foot in three feet of water. Last time I went swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, I started hyperventilating. Once I got past the entrance (with a drop off; it wasn’t quite a beach), I was better. I was still a bit nervous, but at least I could breathe. One of the ways to deal with such panic attacks is continual exposure. Like anything else, the danger doesn’t evaporate, but my confidence grows.

Let’s not forget about sand!

It’s coarse and rough and gets everywhere. And it feels really weird when you end up with a mouthful. Don’t ask.

After reading this post, you may be dissuaded from approaching the ocean. But it’s a truly magnificent place, I assure you. There’s something about the way the water stretches to the horizon, the smell of the salt in the air, the feel of the water on your skin as you submerge beneath the waves, or the first time you spot a sea turtle or a sea lion that’s simply wonderful.


Film references: Star Wars, Star Trek, The Abyss, Finding Nemo, and Moana.

Let’s chat! What are some of the most interesting aspects about the ocean you have found? Do you have anything to add to the list of above tips? 


  1. First off; Star Wars,yay!
    this is an interesting thought.

    1. While I'm more of a Star Trek fan, my little sis' is a HUGE Star Wars fan, so I'm pretty familiar with the films.

      I'm glad you liked the post! Thanks for the comment.