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When swimming in an ocean sufficiently far from land, a fatigue bar will appear displaying a player's weariness. It behaves similar to the breath bar; the bar will deplete over time, and will deal damage to the player when it reaches zero. Players may swim back toward land to refill the fatigue bar and avoid death. Fatigue also affects players while in ghost form: when the fatigue bar is depleted, the ghost will re-die and return to the graveyard. Players in Northrend can also experience fatigue while on flying mounts. Pets seem to be affected by fatigue as well, however, no fatigue bar will show their weariness. This could be seen by opening your combat log.
This feature exists to prevent players from straying too far from land and venturing into unfinished areas or areas that may cause a glitch. Fatigue occurs in locations where the ocean floor is below a certain threshold on the Z (vertical) axis. It is not associated with time spent swimming. Because of fatigue mechanics, there are a few "normal" areas in the World of Warcraft where fatigue erroneously occurs, such as one small strip of the Vile Reef. Fatigue never occurs in inland lakes, or rivers, no matter how long you swim. Usually the mini-map shows a sharp contrast in water color at the boundary where fatigue begins. If swimming an unusual route (for example, from Zoram Strand to Shadowprey Village) you must tightly hug the shoreline in places to prevent fatigue.
Although the fatigue timer cannot be slowed, players may extend the distance they swim through various means. Swim Speed Potion, a druid's aquatic form, and Water Walking can increase the speed at which players travel through (or over) water. Dying resets the fatigue bar, so players may use a Soulstone, Reincarnation or other resurrection means to continue traveling further out to sea. Damage done by fatigue can be healed. It is possible for a low level healer to swim through the fatigue whilst healing itself and regenerating sufficient mana to continue infinitely, and reach often unrendered places that are otherwise impossible to reach.
Note that swimming between continents is impossible (even without fatigue) due to the fact that the Eastern Kingdoms, Kalimdor, Azuremyst Isles, and Northrend exist in different "instances;" without fatigue, a player swimming from Kalimdor due east would reach the end of the Kalimdor map and weird emptiness beyond, not the Eastern Kingdoms or into other areas where they aren't wanted.