A member of the Esquimalt Dippers ocean swimming group dives in for a dinner-hour dip in February. (Photo courtesy Sophie Malczewska)

A member of the Esquimalt Dippers ocean swimming group dives in for a dinner-hour dip in February. (Photo courtesy Sophie Malczewska)

Cold water swims boost physical, mental wellness for Vancouver Island dippers

Greater Victoria area Esquimalt Dippers group up to 70-plus members

A group of hardy Esquimalt and Vic West residents are getting back to nature via the ocean.

Since January, members of the Esquimalt Dippers have been taking part in what for some has been a daily ritual of taking a dip. The reasons range from the physical invigoration it provides and camaraderie with like-minded people to making a spiritual connection with the natural environment.

“Everybody is there for a different reason,” said Sonya Gracey, an organizer of the group of more than 70.

Swim locations vary and some sessions attract up to 15 people, between people arriving, leaving or in the water, she said. “We’re socially distanced and doing it in a responsible way.”

While many participants experience physical and mental benefits, Gracey began dipping more to make a connection to the land, out of respect for Indigenous traditions and as a show of reconciliation.

Sophie Malczewska, a member of the Esquimalt Dippers ocean swimming group, celebrates her 100th ocean swim on the beach. (Photo courtesy Sophie Malczewska)

“I think people have been in relationship with the water for hundreds of years in this location. It’s not something that settler people invented, it’s been around for a long time,” she said.

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Sophie Malczewsca celebrated her 100th dip on April 25 with a glass of bubbly on the beach. The civil servant has been working from home during the pandemic and suffers from both multiple sclerosis and Graves’ disease, a thyroid-related auto-immune disorder.

“The health benefits for me have been really good,” she said, adding that inflammation in her body has lessened. “I’ve also found it’s good at reducing stress and has reduced my threshold – I’m less likely to lose it at home with my kids, or with the workload.”

Malczewsca runs regularly – often following up a run with a dip – and eats healthily, but the cold water sessions have been like the secret sauce. “I do firmly believe it’s a vital ingredient.”

The combination of working from home and restrictions on gatherings have made life challenging for some. But Malczewsca says the situation has “created a space for something new,” in her case a practice that fits within the guidelines and her comfort level.

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Her nine-year-old daughter frequently joins her for a swim. That bonding time and exercise together enhances their relationship, their mental health and the quality of their sleep, she added.

Gracey said there are few rules in the group – other than geographic residency – but being accompanied by a spotter is strongly recommended given the unpredictable nature of the ocean.

“We encourage people to really listen to their body about what is working for them when they engage with the ocean,” she said. “It’s about community building in a way that’s supportive.”

To inquire about joining the group, find them at Esquimalt Dippers on Facebook.

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