ocean vs lake

msathletemsathlete Victoria, British Colubia, CanadaMember
Apologies if this has already been asked and answered. I did a quick search and could not find the answer.

I am often asked by no-swim people what the differences are between swimming in oceans and lakes and am wondering how I might go about answering. Salt and tide are the obvious, but what does that really mean and are there other differences?

Thanks in advance :)


  • loneswimmerloneswimmer IrelandCharter Member
    edited December 2014
    Lakes are boring. The sea isn't.

    Fresh water is less buoyant. You won't notice any difference for the first couple of hours, then gradually your shoulders will feel increasingly more heavy. Four hours in a lake to me is like six hours in the sea. By the time you are finished your arms & shoulders are like lead. Which makes swims such as @emkhowley's 20 hour Lake Pend Oreille all the more impressive.


  • evmoevmo SydneyAdmin
    Lakes are boring. The sea isn't.

    These folks might have something to say about that...

  • ssthomasssthomas DenverCharter Mem​ber
    edited December 2014
    Lakes aren't boring, @loneswimmer! :-) I happen to LOVE lake swimming. First and foremost, you don't chafe and get cut up nearly as much. It's glorious. Also, there is just as much "stuff" going on in a lake as in the ocean to keep you interested. You've never lived until you've swum up a lake with a 20 MPH headwind. That makes chop and waves that are totally unpredictable and tougher to swim through than in the ocean, at least in my experience. Of course, there aren't usually currents and tides in lakes, which means you don't have to worry about some funky current pushing you out to sea. Lake Tahoe is clearer than any ocean I’ve ever been in, making it one of the most magical places on earth. And when the wind isn’t blowing on a lake, I don’t think I’ve ever found something more peaceful and freeing than swimming through silky smooth water without a care in the world.

    To @loneswimmer’s point though, fresh water is less buoyant than the ocean. Also, it’s been said that fresh water feels colder than salt water. I know people have issues with cramping in fresh water that they don’t have in salt water. Also, swallowing a little lake water doesn’t have the nasty effects that swallowing salt water does- no raisin tongue or sore throats to deal with in the lake.

    I suppose all of that makes lake swimming more enjoyable, and in the messed up world of marathon swimming, more enjoyable means more boring. I won’t argue with @loneswimmer there! :-D

    Also, I only have lakes to train in, so I suppose I better enjoy every moment of it!
  • wendyv34wendyv34 Vashon, WASenior Member

    It's always a bad hair day when you work at a pool.

  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    They both have their pros and cons. The waves and salt in the ocean. Creatures. But cleaner water if you know what I mean.

    Lakes (and rivers!) are great. Usually fewer waves. No salt unless you swim in certain lakes. Some can be warm (my dream swim now is Lake Issyk Kul, which in Kyrgyz means Hot Lake because of the warm springs that feed it. It never freezes, despite the weather here in Central Asia.). Some lakes have creatures you can't see but can make you extremely sick.

    So, it really depends upon what you like. And your risk calculation. ;)

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • andissandiss Senior Member

    + dead flat calm & warmer in the summer time(!)
    - if a murky forest lake its boring as hell as there is nothing to look at.

    + more action! waves, currents & stuff to look at.
    - jellyfish
  • phodgeszohophodgeszoho UKSenior Member
    "Lakes are boring. The sea isn't." LOL :-)

    Salt Water swimming is essentially assisted Fresh Water swimming... Wink Wink ;-)
  • KNicholasKNicholas ArizonaCharter Member
    Lakes are boring. The sea isn't.

    There are a few SCAR swimmers/crew that may disagree that lakes are boring. @ssthomas, @david_barra, @foreverswim, @jbird, @gregoc, @ned, @neileugene . . . ?

  • loneswimmerloneswimmer IrelandCharter Member
    @ssthomas (& the rest of you poor deprived lake swimmers) you almost make a convincing argument. But not quite. Since waves are a function of wind, fetch and bathymetry/depth, lakes can never have a equal let alone greater range of waves than the ocean! Lakes are merely a subset of the possibilities of the ocean. I'll give you the chaffing point, though ingrained as greasing up is to me, that I still apply it even when swimming 5 or 6 hours in fresh water!

    Their advantage though are as @Andiss says temperature and often glorious scenery such as l7v5ujH.jpg and V42JT7f.jpg. (Both of those from this year). In comparison I love cold water, but I've always wondered if that's only because it's Hobson's Choice; cold water or no water. Love it or leave it. Maybe if I only had lakes I'd feel more strongly about them.

    But the sea? I love the sea. I love that something might eat me, cut me, sting me or freak me out. I love that it's never the same, that it feels alive, that it's dangerous. I love that before every time I set foot in it, I have to check it, to respect it, because its always capable of surprising me. It feels like being held in a hand but one that could turn to a fist. I never need permission to enter it (unlike the depressing US example in the USMS thread) and when I'm in it, despite everything I know about its dangers and lethality, it's the only place I feel "right". I utterly fail to explain what it is, even to myself. It feels like more than the world, it feels like the whole universe. Wind luffing on a sail, swell over a reef, salt in the air, a herring gull's cry.

    I have the "sea-longing" and I have it bad. But I've never heard of anyone having "lake-longing"! Maybe because as Conrad said, "the sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness".


  • gregocgregoc Charter Member
    Oceans and lakes do have their differences and many of them have been listed above, but the saltiest body of water that I have swum in was a lake and some of the roughest water that I have swum in was a lake. Also, some of the smoothest marathon distance swims I have done were in oceans that looked like glass. I have cooked in oceans, frozen in lakes and vice versa, loving every minute of it.

    I don’t dwell on the differences but revel in the similarities. Oceans and lakes are both wet, swimmable bodies of water. As long as there is a spot where you can step in and hopefully a spot you can step out then I don’t care about the differences.
  • andissandiss Senior Member
    One thing about lakes - if its a clean lake - you can drink the water while you swim!!

  • The buoyancy difference, boredom difference (highly dependant on the lake), creatures, and chafing are all real differences. One other difference is that lakes have a LOT more (drunk) boaters per square mile vs. the sea, and much more idiotic motorized behaviour going on.
  • swimmer25kswimmer25k Charter Member
    I dehydrate quicker in salt water, as well as substantially chafing increase. I prefer the rougher conditions of salty venues. I've trained and raced in equal amounts of both, but I can't say that I prefer one to the other. If you've got a swim you're prepping for, find conditions as close to what you're going to be in.

    What lurks below in a salty venue can be spooky and jittery (play "Jaws" theme). My worst problem in fresh water was swimming into the wreck of an old house that was once a farm before the valley was dammed up. Just as many drunk/poor boaters in either type of water. Lakes
  • ZoeSadlerZoeSadler Charter Member
    I much prefer swimming in lakes, mainly because every time I swim in the seas off the South Coast of England I usually feel sick. However, I didn't have that problem at Ned's camp as I think the water isn't as salty. I've never felt sick in a lake, and never worried about swallowing any water inadvertently. Put simply, swimming in the sea generally makes me feel awful! However, I've had some wonderful swims in the sea, I just wish it didn't make me feel so bad.

    I'm scared of creatures, my mind plays tricks on me, sharks, jellyfish, giant squid and lampreys are all out there in the sea. I don't have that worry in lakes.

    I'm also very buoyant. My body position seems to be about right in lakes and I feel quite comfortable swimming out there. In the sea though I fear that I could be harpooned one day.....
  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    edited December 2014

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • danswimsdanswims Portland, ORMember
    IronMike wrote: »

    Except for the context: Lake Pontchartrain isn't strictly a lake -- it's an estuary, a coastal body of brackish water connected by rivers or streams to the open ocean.

  • danswimsdanswims Portland, ORMember
    Context above was directly from the article. Wikipedia says "Lake Pontchartrain is not a true lake but an estuary connected to the Gulf of Mexico via the Rigolets strait (known locally as "the Rigolets") and Chef Menteur Pass into Lake Borgne, another large lagoon, and therefore experiences small tidal changes."

    That's all I know.
  • @Kent ... never a dull moment at SCAR!! All good arguments, but "boring" lake swims is not the right word to choose ... if so, choose your company better. In my opinion, swimming is better with company regardless of which body of water you happen to find yourself in.
  • msathletemsathlete Victoria, British Colubia, CanadaMember
    Thanks everyone. This is a great list of differences/similarities, pros & cons and personal preferences. I personally swim both ways and love both. I am blessed to live in a land surrounded by the sea as well as offering a choice of over 3 million lakes - 561 lakes with a surface area larger than 100 km2.

    Thus far, with the exception of float factor from salt and the impact of tide and how it can help or hinder I have found little difference. Temperatures can be comparable as can waves (depending on fetch).

    But then again there is marine life and local dwellers who venture into the water with us. English Bay and the Strait of Georgia offer Gray Whales while Cowichan and Sasamat Lakes offer Cougars, bears and elk :)

  • wendyv34wendyv34 Vashon, WASenior Member
    I love Sasamat Lake. I went up there for several years in the 90s for the Canada Day Challenge. :D

    It's always a bad hair day when you work at a pool.

  • caburkecaburke Charter Member
    The difference? In Florida, the oceans have sharks but the lakes have alligators. I’ll take my chances with the sharks.
  • Like caburke, I was thinking about all the "stuff" in lakes in Florida. Between alligators, snakes and the amoeba, the lake was many "exciting options" In some lakes ponds in Florida, you can even find small Bull Sharks (though that's not expected it has occurred).
    I prefer lake swimming because like Zoe, I've gotten pretty seasick in the ocean. But I don't think I want to give up either.
  • JenAJenA Charter Member
    edited December 2014
    I don't know that lakes are exactly boring, @loneswimmer. Lakes can experience some pretty radical temperature shifts. Soloswims.com (the website of Solo Swims Ontario) notes:

    "While the temperature of Lake Erie is relatively constant, the temperature of Lake Ontario may vary widely depending upon location in the lake and the wind directions in the preceding days. Environment Canada notes:

    Northwest winds after the passage of a cold front can quickly push the surface water on Lake Ontario towards the southeast shore and bring much colder water from deeper layers to the surface along the northwest (Toronto) shore.

    This effect can result in a surface temperature of 22°C dropping to 10°C in a matter of hours, with the resulting effect that Lake Ontario water at Niagara-on-the-Lake is 22°C and water up to 5 km from Toronto is 10°C."

    Last year, a swimmer attempting Lake Ontario along the traditional route made it 47.5km across the lake (holding 3.2km/hr) before abandoning due to 48°F water. She had just 3.5 km to go. :-( Sounds like a source of non-boring swim drama to me! :-)

    I don't think many bodies of water in the world can drop their water temperature 12°C (22°F) in mere hours. Lake Ontario can be a brutal swim. Why aren't more of you masochists going after it? ;-)
  • SwimalisonSwimalison Delaware Member
    Ha trust me as a crew member for Bill Shipp during his 25 Mile Memphre swim, lakes aren't always flat! When.a storm blows in on a.narrow.lake, things can get challenging!!! ( Plus if a lake.monster is.involved she's known.to bring on.some drama!)
  • wendyv34wendyv34 Vashon, WASenior Member
    That reminds me of the Rattlesnake Island Swim (Kelowna BC) in 2013. A thunderstorm blew in (complete with nearby lightning strikes) a few minutes before the start. It was only 7K, but I felt like a frog in a washing machine for over 2 hours. As I rounded the island where Ogopogo allegedly lives, I thought "stop flailing around like a drowning rat, you must look/sound like something in distress, ready to be eaten". It was much harder than the 10K I swam this year on glassy Applegate Lake. 25 miles in a washing machine sounds delightful! ;)

    It's always a bad hair day when you work at a pool.

  • wendyv34wendyv34 Vashon, WASenior Member
    It came to me while swimming today. The bass is louder in the ocean. The purple sea stars had their fists in the air (ok, water, really) going "YEAH! WOOO!" boom-boom-boom-boom! :-c

    It's always a bad hair day when you work at a pool.

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