Blog: Finding Sanctuary – Sanctuary can have therapeutic effect on human mind, body By: Lisa Wooninck

Fostered Blue Mind with Operation Surf in the sanctuary can be a life-changing experience. (Roger Smith/Contributed)

By: Lisa Wooninck

Published: Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 20, 2023

May is Mental Health Awareness month. For this occasion, I am highlighting a concept outlined in a book authored by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols titled “Blue Mind,” about the healing power of water.

We have all experienced that being near water — large or small, fresh or salt, brings joy, playfulness, peace and well-being. Think about the number of significant life events celebrated on the shores of an ocean or a lake: birthdays, graduation parties, marriage proposals, and weddings. The ocean’s calm and clarity inspire me and others, the ability to be curious, creative, and courageous. Many come to the sea to solve writer’s block, compose a hit song, or dive into a career in marine conservation and ocean protection.

Blue Mind is the vast cognitive, emotional, psychological, social, spiritual and physical wellness benefits from healthy lakes, rivers, oceans and water. According to Nichols, Blue Mind is a calm state of mind that occurs when you are looking at the sea or swimming in it. Many sleep apps include the soothing sound of water — waves crashing or babbling brooks — to counter insomnia.  We crave a Blue Mind, as evident from the number of people that flocked to our beaches during COVID-19. A Blue Mind counteracts the “Red Mind” dominated by stress and the “Gray Mind” characterized by lethargy and burnout. These ideas are backed by neuroscience research on the effects of water — sound, sight, smell, and sensation on the human brain.

Veterans who join Operation Surf ??

Veterans who join Operation Surf — Santa Cruz experience healing from emotional wounds and a renewed sense of possibility and self-confidence. (Operation Surf/Contributed)

Several organizations use “Bluescriptions,” also known as the healing powers of water, to help veterans relax, rehabilitate, and combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Operation Surf introduces veterans to surfing, while Heroes on Water take veterans out kayak fishing. Clinical research shows that Bluescriptions is one of the best tools available in our emotional health toolkit.

I invite all of you to read “Blue Mind.” preferably as part of a book club, so that you can share how “being near, in, on, or underwater can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do,” writes Nichols. The book is peppered with neuroscience research and many anecdotes on which you can expand with your own experiences of the power of water to diminish wounds, enhance resilience, and improve well-being.

Nichols is also a well-known ocean conservationist and an ambassador for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the sanctuary’s nonprofit partner and our chief advocate. The foundation connects people with our beautiful sanctuary and promotes “blue” mindfulness to conserve the sanctuary’s habitats and wildlife, which are the basis of our thriving Blue Economy. However, as the “Blue Mind” movement attests, our physical and emotional health depends on a healthy ocean.

The foundation hosts community engagement events to get your “Blue Mind On,” like movie nights, beach cleanups, donation drives, concerts overlooking the ocean, and the annual “Sea Stars Celebration” event, where persons/businesses who have made significant contributions to the sanctuary are recognized and celebrated. The next Sea Stars Gala is on Aug. 5 at Clint Eastwood’s Tehama Ballroom in Carmel. For information about the Foundation, visit

Lisa Wooninck became the superintendent of NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 2021. She has a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology, and marine biology from UC Santa Barbara. She can be reached at To learn more about the sanctuary, visit