Vancouver park board hosts 104th annual Polar Bear Swim

The New Year’s Day tradition saw its highest registration with thousands plunging into English Bay’s waters

The Vancouver Park Board's 104th annual Polar Bear Swim took place on Jan. 1 at English Bay Beach in Vancouver to ring in the new year. (Suneet Gill)

The Vancouver park board’s 104th annual Polar Bear Swim took place on Jan. 1 at English Bay Beach in Vancouver to ring in the new year. (Suneet Gill)

About 12,000 people attended the Vancouver park board’s Polar Bear Swim on Jan. 1 at English Bay Beach, where participants plunged into the cold water to kick off the new year.

The event, which turned 104 years old, motivates attendees to dip or compete in a 100-yard race in 6°C water.

“I have been participating all my life, and I think the thing that really resonates with me is how each individual, family, or person makes it their own personal tradition, as well as in participating with the yearly tradition,” says Lisa Pantages, president of the Vancouver Polar Bear Club and granddaughter of the swim’s founder, Peter Pantages.

“So it means something different to every single person there, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”

Over 8,600 people registered online to take part in the plunge, which is the highest the event has seen, wrote Tanya Donaldson, assistant supervisor of aquatics services for the Vancouver park board, in an email statement to The Runner.

Lisa was one of the participants, marking 2024 as her 62nd year following the tradition. 

She says she is usually in the water for about 30 minutes at the events and goes in eight or nine times. She dedicates the plunges to her grandfather, her father, who used to be a lifeguard for many years at the swims, and other loved ones who are not with her anymore.

“I just think it’s a fresh way to think of them,” Lisa says.

Sidney Coles was also among those who took the dip and was in the water for about a minute. This was the first time she has done a polar bear swim with thousands of other people and not just her family.

“The first couple seconds are cold, and then you just kind of get used to it,” Coles says. “When you come out, it’s surprisingly warm, and you just feel so invigorated and vibrant. It’s such a good feeling.”

For Hayden Ledingham, going into the water about four times for 20 seconds each was a therapeutic experience.

“I’ve never done one in Vancouver, and last year was kind of a rough year for me,” Ledingham says. “So I just wanted to have a nice, refreshing start to this year with some friends.”

A small number of people chose to do the 100-yard race, where a male and female winner — Gareth Jones and Ridley Judkins — received trophies dedicated in Peter Pantages’s honour. Two men, who qualified for second and third place, also took home awards.

Everyone who participated in the plunge was eligible for a commemorative button, while those who registered online are set to receive an email certificate in the coming weeks.

Besides the swim, there was live music from the cover band Side One, food trucks, merchandise for sale, a family zone, and warming tents. Drag queen Conni Smudge was the host of the event.

Lisa’s grandfather was a Greek immigrant and cafe owner. After starting the swim in 1920, only a handful of swimmers would participate during its early years, according to information signs at the event.

Those who participate in the swim are considered a part of the Vancouver Polar Bear Club, Lisa says. She encourages people wanting to participate in the annual event to register online so the club can maintain its status as the largest in North America.

She hopes people appreciate the privilege of living in Vancouver after attending the event.

“I think it’s about seeing the city at its best when everybody is down at the beach with a big smile on their face, doing something a little bit crazy. I think it’s about supporting the other people who are doing it,” Lisa says.