Taking a deeper dive on why I swim in the cold, cold ocean

by Naomi Devine, Senior Designer + Digital Engagement Specialist

On a windy and overcast February Friday morning I walked right into the Pacific Ocean. It was exhilarating. It was (surprisingly) easy. It was barely light out. I got a shoutout of approval from another early-morning person….jogger running by, I think.

I’ve done the same thing twenty times since that Friday morning. Stay with me. I’ll explain how this all came about.

In January I hit the proverbial “pandemic wall” and I hit it hard. I live alone and while I am privileged to be able to work from home coupled with an introverted nature, I’ve learned the significant difference between self-imposed isolation and government mandated aloneness.

I was confused about this limitation. Work had been going well. A film, on mental health, which I had made with two good friends, was accepted into my hometown film festival. So, why was this happening to me now? Hadn’t I been “managing” this pandemic well? I enjoy challenges – so wasn’t this just another type of challenge to meet? The truth can be rude (yet effective) in delivering its messages, and this was my big moment to listen.

The ability to have a sense of control (however tenuous that illusion may be) over our actions is directly linked to our overall sense of wellbeing. Cut off from this for several months courtesy of the pandemic, I found myself unsure of how to keep moving forward; of how to endure. This was frightening territory for me.

Confronting how small I felt in the face of this challenge, I had a new imperative: how will you actively care for yourself throughout this pandemic? I need to learn to fight more for myself if I am to get through this difficult time. Self-care, as it is popularly known, has (foolishly) not been a strength of mine. This needed to change, and almost overnight. I began in the only place that made sense: I would start by leaning on my strengths.

The better part of my nature enjoys new experiences, and my deepest love is reserved for the wild, natural world. I’ve been flirting with the idea of wild cold-water swimming for a few years now — I have a metabolic disorder that benefits from this type of immersion and I had heard that these benefits extended to reducing stress as well. In case you hadn’t already heard, cold-water swimming is also, embarrassingly, de rigueur.

I’ve made it sound so lovely, so logical. The cold hard truth, however, is that I needed to try anything new and see if it would help. My motivation was driven by feeling, not thinking.

On a Zoom meet-up with friends I expressed my interest and was immediately met with an offer:

Me: “I’m thinking of going into the ocean. Anyone else?”

My friend: “I’ll go with you. Why not?”

Me, urgent as ever, “How about tomorrow morning?”

My friend: “Um…ok!”

In these moments, I believe deep bonds are forged.

I met my friend at 7 a.m. next to the breakwater on Victoria’s Dallas Road. The waves were distinct. My friend noted the rogue logs in the water. The morning light emerged through a crack in the clouds. We went down to the beach and walked right into those waves letting them crash over us. I remember a lot of laughter and (joyous) screaming.

In less than a minute we were out, and my body felt on fire. I was hooked. A new love affair with the natural world took hold. It feels like the kind of attachment so strong it almost defies analysis. I do get glimpses of insight when I slow down enough to listen.

It has been a year since I have been touched by another person, and I have no idea when that will end. Immersing myself feels like I am being held. Slow, methodical deep breathing is what helps make the transition into the intense cold possible, making it impossible to be anywhere else but in the moment, with myself. I’m an intense person by nature, but I’m no match for the ocean. It can contain my feelings and help me find a sense of calm in these disorienting times. 

The light looks more beautiful when in the ocean. Sunrises and sunsets are reflected back at lower angles and my perspective on familiar favourite places has shifted. Any change in perspective is a welcome one and I delight in the fresh and unknown ways I now experience some of my favourite places, now from the perspective of the ocean. 

My newfound relationship with the ocean is tethering me to the world in a way that had previously felt severed. I am endlessly grateful that this experiment worked out better than I could have imagined. Now that I’ve started, I’m never going to stop.

One minute has turned into 27 min in 7-8-degree water. Cold-water swimming has allowed me to know myself in a new way; it is here to stay in my life which I know will outlast this pandemic. And that was worth fighting for.