Annual Polar Bear Swim returns with a splash for its 103rd year

A man dressed in a shark costume participates in the Polar Bear Swim at English Bay, in Vancouver, B.C., on Jan. 1, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press - image credit)
A man dressed in a shark costume participates in the Polar Bear Swim at English Bay, in Vancouver, B.C., on Jan. 1, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press - image credit)

Metro Vancouver's annual Polar Bear Swim has returned after a two-year pandemic hiatus.

The New Year's tradition that has been around for more than 100 years will see people across the region mark the occasion by taking a plunge in the ocean.

Lisa Pantages's grandfather, Peter Pantages, started the swim at English Bay over a decade ago in 1920. Since then, several generations of the family have come together on Jan. 1 to continue the tradition, she said.

"I first got my toes dipped in maybe up to my knees when I was about three months old," said the Vancouver-based Pantages, president of the Polar Bear Swim Club.

"And I have done it every year of my life."

She said her grandfather, who owned the Peter Pan Cafe on Granville Street and died in 1971, used to swim at least once a day in honour of his home island of Andros in Greece.

City of Vancouver Archives
City of Vancouver Archives

The dedicated swimmer organized the first Polar Bear Swim with about 10 people in 1920. The number of participants has since grown to more than 7,000 in 2020, with the swim being held in places including English Bay, White Rock, Deep Cove in North Vancouver, Delta, Port Moody, Fort Langley and Squamish.

"It got noticed and then more and more people got interested in participating, so it turned into a tradition," she said. "The race that we do now is in honour of that original swim."

Unlike a traditional race, Pantages said the Polar Bear Swim is about inspiring a sense of adventure.

"There have been so many times when I was a teenager where friends would come down and they'd be my towel-holder and then they'd end up running in their skivvies because they got so caught up in the moment," she said.

She added that it excites people to try something new, and in recent years the event has also highlighted the health benefits of cold bathing.

Live music, entertainment and food trucks will be part of the 103rd Vancouver Polar Bear Swim, which takes place at English Bay from noon to 4 p.m. PT.

'A fun way to start the new year'

Over the years, people have turned up at the event with flamboyant costumes and created their own family traditions, Pantages said.

"Santa and his reindeer have been doing this for decades now with all the different generations of their family," she said.

"I think people just use it as a fun way to start the new year."

Melanie Smith, organizer of the White Rock Polar Bear Swim hosted by the Rotary Clubs of White Rock and South Surrey, said the community event has been ongoing for 53 years.

"A few years ago, the weather was amazing and we had over 3,000 people come out to cheer people on and over 900 people took the plunge in the waters," she said.

Smith said they have a costume contest this year in two categories, for children age four to 11 and those 12 and above.

The waters in White Rock can be as cold as 5 C on Jan. 1. Smith said local search-and-rescue boats will be on standby and monitoring water levels to ensure participant safety.

Registration for the White Rock Polar Bear Swim begins at 10:30 a.m. PT that morning, and with the plunge expected for noon.