We're All Wet! The Ancient Roots of Modern Water Recreation

50th Anniversary Sanctuary Signature Articles

By Elizabeth Moore | September 2022

group of students birdwatching on the beach

The Importance of Play

Many animal species, including humans, play. Experts say it offers a variety of benefits, including learning social skills and bonding, developing physical coordination, strengthening creativity and other mental skills, practicing natural behaviors important as survival skills for adults, and managing stress. And, well, playing is also fun! Humans have been playing throughout evolutionary history, including figuring out new and interesting ways to enjoy our coasts and ocean. Read on to learn about the surprisingly ancient roots of your favorite watery pastimes.

A Fish Story

Chinese scroll shows fishing families enjoying an afternoon
A detail from a 16th- to 17th-century Chinese scroll shows fishing families enjoying an afternoon moored under trees. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Freer Gallery of Art (public domain).

Fishing is one of the oldest occupations of humankind, predating our earliest civilizations, as evidenced by prehistoric rock paintings and the remains of ancient hooks, harpoons, and nets. The first fishing activity was survival-related, obtaining food and other materials from marine animals. But for some members of a community, going after fish may simply have been enjoyable and became a way to spend moments of leisure. There is evidence of fly fishing in early civilizations, as well as stories from cultures all over the world about the exploits of anglers.

In one story in Norse mythology, Thor the Thunder God catches two whales through hook and line fishing, using gigantic bulls on the hook as bait. Scholars cite the "fishing up" of island creation in many Polynesian stories where a god's fishhook gets caught on something and when he hauls up his line, he pulls up land from the bottom of the sea that becomes an island.1 In one Samoan story recorded in 1955, a Fijian angler named Leatuafaʻalua challenges his Samoan friend Lafoitautele to a fishing contest. Leatuafaʻalua loses when he falls asleep and Lafoitautele empties the Fijian's net full of fish into his own boat.2

Clearly fishing, and fish stories, go back a long way! And they are just as important today as ever. Recreational fishing has a value of $4.5 billion, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis,3 and is our third most popular outdoor pastime with almost 55 million participants, according to the Outdoor Foundation.4 There are lots of places to enjoy sustainable recreational fishing in national marine sanctuaries!

angler at intertizal zone
This angler tries her luck in the intertidal zone of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Image: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA
a gypsum wall relief of men and horses swimming
A gypsum wall relief from the Assyrian culture shows men and horses swimming. Image courtesy of the British Museum under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

In the Swim of Things

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 50 million Americans are swimmers, the fourth most popular recreational activity in the country5; we have many streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean to jump into, and millions of pools in the country. USA Swimming, the governing body for competitive swimming in the country, has more than 3,100 professional swimming clubs with more than 400,000 members.6 The popularity of swimming for recreation and competitive sport has increased ever since swimming was added to the modern Olympics in 1896 but we've been swimming for thousands of years.

Early humans may have started swimming in imitation of other animals, in pursuit of food or to traverse a river or lake. Those who lived along a shoreline or migrated frequently by water might also have learned to swim early on as a protection against drowning. At least a few must have found it enjoyable because by the time some of our earliest civilizations rolled around, cultures all over the world were known to swim for pleasure in lakes, rivers, and seas. Many also had swimming pools that, although the pools might have also had ceremonial or religious purposes, they were opportunities for people to submerge themselves and paddle around in the water.

Like fishing, swimming appears in our oldest epics and stories. One of the lessons imparted by the ancient Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata includes the line "As men, while swimming in sport on the water, sometimes dive and sometimes emerge, O king, even so creatures sink and emerge in life's stream," to teach readers about the ephemeral nature of both grief and joy.7 Finn, the hero of many Irish stories, and Beowulf of the Old English poem that bears his name, were both taught to swim along with other hero-ly training. The shape-shifting Nanaue, the son of a shark god and a mortal woman in a Hawaiian story, would challenge someone to a swimming race, and once they'd entered the water, change into a shark to eat his competitor.8

While most sharks aren't a danger to swimmers, drowning can be. Check with a local recreational center for swimming lessons for adults and children to ensure everyone is comfortable in the water, and then check out all the places you can swim in parks around the country.

children in the water at pupukea beach
Some young children get a head start on their swimming skills in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Image: Matt McIntosh/NOAA
painting of the Ojibwa Tribe canoe racing
A painting made in 1836 and 1837 shows a canoe race among members of the Ojibwa Tribe. Painting by George Catlin, courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art (public domain).

All in a Row

Today canoeing and kayaking are great ways to get some exercise, see gorgeous scenery and wildlife, and enjoy a day on the water. About 9.6 million Americans canoe and 13 million kayak.9 Before they were a recreational pursuit, canoes, kayaks, and other watercraft helped our ancestors hunt, fish, and travel. The islands of the Pacific were first settled by the ancestors of today's Polynesian cultures who traversed great ocean distances in their voyaging canoes. At least some of North America's first inhabitants arrived traversing the kelp forests down along the Pacific coast. The Indigenous people of the Caribbean also arrived by using newly developed and sophisticated watercraft to sail from continental mainlands to the islands.

Canoes and kayaks consequently appear in some of the oldest stories handed down across the generations. In an Algonquin story recorded in 1884, the partridge makes canoes for all the birds of the world, building the largest for the eagle and the smallest for the hummingbird, and a round one for himself, which when he rowed only made him go in circles!10 During a great flood, one Coos tale written down in 1913 tells us, the people were saved by climbing into great and small canoes until the waters subsided and they could step onto dry land again.11 An Ainu story from Japan, recorded in 1888, tells of a man who is rescued from being stranded at sea by the chief of a strange village. He is returned to his own village after sailing all night with what he thinks are many different boats from the strange village. But when he arrives home, he discovers that he was rescued by the salmon, who ever after become sacred to his people.12

Today there are many different forms of rowing sports, from white-water rafting to recreational canoeing to stand up (or try to stand up!) paddleboarding, one of the most popular new water pastimes. You'll also find plenty of places to enjoy all of them in national marine sanctuaries or other parks all over the country.

kayaker exploring the shipwrecks at Mallows Bay-Potomac River
A kayaker explores the remains of shipwrecks in Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary. Image: Matt McIntosh/NOAA.
stereograph postcard of man surfing
A stereograph postcard shows a man surfing in Honolulu Harbor in 1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Catching the Wave

Surfing's roots lay in Polynesian and other cultures. Some experts cite the "caballito del tortora," (little horse of reeds) a vessel woven of reeds used by Moche fishers in what we now call Peru as far back as 4,000 years ago, which could be used by either standing up or kneeling on or straddling the vessel and using an oar to propel and steer it. One common element in Moche art involves a pair of tule boats or rafts with human figures sitting, kneeling, or standing in them.

Heʻe nalu, as surfing is known in Hawaiian, or faʻaseʻe in Samoan, was thousands of years old when it was first recorded by Europeans during Captain James Cook's expeditions into the Pacific in the late 1760s and 70s. Surfing in Hawaiʻi was practiced by men and women alike. In one legend, Hiʻiaka, the youngest and favorite sister of goddess Pele, is surfing when she is summoned to a quest by Pele. Mamala, an ancient Hawaiian chiefess, was known for her surfing ability and delighted in riding the roughest waves she could find.13

After being suppressed for over a century, several young Hawaiian princes, David Kawananakoa, Edward Keliʻiahonui and Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole, attending school in California, reignited interest in surfing in the U.S. With surfing appearing in the Olympics in 2020 for the first time, the pastime has never been more popular. The Outdoor Foundation reports that 3.8 million Americans surf. Research published in 2016 found that surfing globally had a $50 billion annual impact.14 Famous surf spots in national marine sanctuaries include the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaiʻi and California's Mavericks.

surfer entering the waves
A surfer enters the waves in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Image: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Going Under

Finding a way to spend an extensive time underwater was probably an early preoccupation of those in search of food or a strategic advantage in battle. Early attempts might have involved using hollow reeds extending above water. Ancient Greek historian Thucydides describes diving saboteurs in his "The History of the Peloponnesian Wars", and both sponge and pearl divers are mentioned in various ancient texts. Some old stories feature diving too.

In one Inuit tale recorded in 1921, a hunter named târrsuaq, fearing his enemies may try to hurt his son, teaches the boy how to dive deep underwater and remain there for long periods of time for his protection.15 Takadai, a samurai in a Japanese tale recorded in 1918, is saved from drowning by an ama, a diving-woman, named Kinu; he owes his life to her skill and strength underwater.16 One ancient Egyptian text, describing the daily journey made by the Sun God in his great boat, tells us how the boat passes through a sacred lake that held four groups of beings in human form who were called the Bathers, Floaters, Swimmers, and Divers.17

painting of Alexander the Great being lowered into the dephs in a diving bell
A 16th-century Indian painting shows Alexander the Great being lowered into the depths in a diving bell. Courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library.
a snorkler underwater
A snorkeler enjoys the waters of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Image: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Unlike swimming or fishing, scuba diving remained in the realm of fiction until the early twentieth century when technological advances caught up with human ambitions for going deeper and staying longer underwater. From the safe and efficient scuba gear perfected by Jacques Cousteau and Émile Gagnan in 1942 to today's sophisticated rebreathing apparatus for technical divers, the sport has never been more popular. Today 7.7 million Americans call themselves snorkelers and 2.6 million are scuba divers. Go for a snorkel or plan a dive in a national marine sanctuary!


We've found many ways in the last several thousand years to play beside, above, on, in, and under the water. While we still enjoy the ancient water sports of fishing, swimming, and canoeing, we've said hello to many new ways to have fun: waterskiing in the 1920s, scuba diving in the 1940s, wake-surfing in the 1960s, kiteboarding in the 1990s, and today's paddleboarding. Our future might hold adventures in motor-driven surfboards, fishing with drones, or aqua-caching—the underwater equivalent to geo-caching. How we enjoy the water may change but its vital importance to our physical and emotional well-being is constant. Take some time today to have an adventure in your nearest sanctuary or other park!

paddle boarders in the water during sunset
Paddle boarders close out a great day in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Image: Stephanie Gandulla/NOAA


1 Fished Up or Thrown Down: The Geography of Pacific Island Origin Myths" by Patrick D. Nunn in Annals of the Association of American Geographers 93 (2) (June 2003): 350-364.

2 Tales of Ancient Samoa collected and translated by Brother Herman, Pagoprint, Pago Pago, American Samoa, 1955.

3 https://www.bea.gov/sites/default/files/2021-11/orsa1121.pdf

4 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report, Outdoor Foundation

5 Table 1249, 2012 Statistical Abstract of the United States, U.S. Census Bureau

6 Fast Facts, USA Swimming

7 The Mahabharata Book 11: Stri Parva, translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, 1883-1896.

8 Legends of Gods and Ghosts collected and translated from the Hawaiian by W.D. Westervelt, George H. Ellis Co., Boston, 1915.

9 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report, Outdoor Foundation

10 The Algonquin Legends of New England collected by Charles G. Leland, Houghton, Mifflin And Company, New York, 1884.

11 Coos Texts collected by Leo J. Frachtenberg, Columbia University Press, New York, 1913.

12 Aino Folk-Tales recorded by Basil Hall Chamberlain, London, 1888.

13 Hawaiian Legends, or Old Honolulu collected by W.D. Westervelt, GH Ellis Press, Boston, 1915.

14 Natural Assets: Surfing a Wave of Economic Growth by Thomas McGregor and Samuel Wills, OxCarre Research Paper 170 (2016), Oxford Centre for the Analysis of Resource Rich Economies, Oxford, UK.

15 Eskimo Folk-Tales collected by Knud Rasmussen, London, 1921.

16 Ancient Tales and Folk-Lore of Japan collected by Richard Gorden Smith, A. & C. Black, London, 1918.

17 The Egyptian Heaven and Hell by E.A. Wallis Budge, Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London, 1905.