My Summer Crush Is the Ocean

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Videos: Getty

This summer, I made a promise to myself to go to the beach every other week. So far, I’ve made good on it. I wasn’t always an ocean fangirl though. In my late teens, beach trips were for tanning, drinking, and complaining. When I moved to New York after college, the beach became an afterthought. But things changed last year, and I’ve been brimming with an intensely nerdy love of the ocean ever since.

Fandom is about channeling parts of myself — excitement, passion, enthusiasm — that I can’t always access on my own. It’s a way of getting out of my own head and stepping into another world — in this case, it was the ocean. It all started when I read Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned and the love and poetry she poured into this book of Black feminist meditations about marine mammals made me want to turn to the ocean, too. The book blurs the line that separates the human writer from the marine mammal subjects: “The intentional ambiguity … is about undoing the definition of human, which is so tangled in separation and domination that it is consistently making our own lives incompatible with the planet.” I read this book at the peak of the great reemergence of 2021. I’d just turned 25, I was crying constantly, and I wasn’t having any fun. The life I was living was incompatible with the life I wanted to live. I needed some undoing.

As Gumbs puts it when talking about Weddell seals: “She feels like she is drowning but she’s just meeting herself again for the first time.”

After Undrowned, I wanted to go deeper. I binged ocean documentaries and watched movies that were set in seaside towns or were about life underwater. If I ate calamari, I’d spend the week on the Wikipedia page for squid. I became aware of shark eggs — also known as mermaid’s purse — and saved a shark-egg brooch to my wishlist. It only got nerdier from there: I downloaded field guides and scanned through the photos, learning the names and features of fish like whale sharks. I printed out pictures to fold into my work notebook and started drawing fish eggs in my journal.

In April, I started making fan art — yes, fan art — about the ocean. I made a webzine about chimaeras, a type of deep-sea fish often described as half-shark, half-ray. The process of making that zine and sharing it with people felt like running into the frigid Atlantic — reckless and invigorating. Having something to share gave me a reason to reach out into the world. And so a hobby was born: I make ocean fan art.

In addition to the webzine, my collection includes a jewelry tray that sits by my bathroom sink made from a polished seashell (oh, yeah, I learned how to polish seashells) and a dried-up shark egg I found on a Long Island beach that still smells like the ocean almost four months later (I want to photograph it and turn the image into a poster for my living room). By my desk, I have some cyanotype to make a seaweed album. This practice of scavenging along the beach for all kinds of little treasures is called beachcombing. Obviously, I also found beachcombing magazines and a beachcombing community on Instagram and TikTok.

On my most recent trip to the beach, I spent some time squatting over a tangle of live mussels that had attached themselves to a dead crab. There were bundles of mussels everywhere, their shells shimmering, blue in a way I never noticed when digging them out of a paella. I sat on the wet sand to take it all in — I met a new (to me) animal (the mole crab) and took some shells (and one very handsome pebble) home with me.

The ocean helped me regulate my emotions: If I couldn’t sleep, I looked up live cams from the Monterey Bay Aquarium on YouTube and zoned out to the luminous jellyfish that floated across my screen. If I was sad, I looped videos of baby manatees. It’s escapism but also a reminder that life (not just mine, not just on land) is confusing and meandering, and we adapt as we go.

Admittedly, the ocean is a weird thing to fawn over or call a hobby. But the acts of adoration, observation, and curiosity are all the same. It’s a ritual of care, learning, and undoing. As a fangirl, I revisit my original form — a slimy amniotic version of myself sometimes capable of more love and care than my struggling self. Gumbs again: “And my first marine mammal lesson was that if I breathe I can still speak even while crying. I can breathe through salt water.”

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My Summer Crush Is the Ocean