Cold water swimming with the South West Seal Pups


By Josh Mcminn, Fourth Year Maths

Despite the huge number of university sports clubs available, some students choose to join other clubs that run outside of university, such as the Seal Pups.

The alarm sounded at 6:40, to tell me it was time to get ready for the cold swim. It was still dark outside, but then that is the price to pay if you decide to swim at sunrise. Robotically, I switched the kettle on, stuffed my bag with towels, choked down some porridge, filled my thermos, and set off to the SU to catch my lift.

There were five of us, all in in big winter coats squished into a modestly sized hatchback and all slowly recovering from the early morning wake up. There wasn’t much conversation in the car as we made our way through the countryside up to Clevedon marine lake in the predawn twilight.

Seal Pups | Southwest Seal Pups Facebook Page

I’d originally heard about the South West Seal Pups from a friend over summer, in fact it was some of the first news I’d heard about Bristol since coming back from my year abroad.

We were on Hamstead Heath heading to the swimming ponds at the time. “You’d love it” she said. “They drive down to the seaside every week, go for a cold swim and refuel on warm tea”. It didn’t take long for me to find them once I was back at uni.

The Pups was started a little less than two years ago by two students called Leo and Amelia, who, after discovering the wealth of cold swimming spots only a short drive from Bristol, found that more and more of their friends were eager to join them on trips.

No matter how much I pysche myself up, I still never find the desire to climb into cold water comes naturally to me

It was originally just a Facebook page for them to coordinate lifts, but it quickly flourished into something much bigger, and today it boasts 630 members. This is especially impressive as the club is not affiliated with the uni, with most people, discovering it through word of mouth.

Our car was the first to arrive at Clevedon Marine Lake. The lake is a smallish manmade but irregularly shaped structure on the beachfront, overlooking the pier. The sides of the lake are made of concrete with steps and a handrail leading into its deepest part. The water was placid and empty beside a blue pontoon out in the middle of the lake, and some occasional ripples from the sea breeze.

One by one the other cars started to pull up, and their eager occupants piled out. The energy was starting to pick up now as a group began to form by the concrete benches on the lakeside, placing down their swim bags and shaking their limbs to get the blood flowing.

Plunging into the water | Courtesy of Josh Mcminn

It always surprises me just how many people come on these swims. About 2-3 are posted a week on the Facebook page, and without fail, they are always met with a flock of attention. Even though it was Tuesday morning, this was no exception. Of the 15 or so of us there, about 2 thirds were girls. This surprising trend is something I’m told extends beyond just the seal pups, with the majority of outdoor swimmers in the UK being female.

With the final carload of people, Leo arrived. Leo is something akin to the mascot of the Seal Pups, possessing a dynamic social energy and an unnatural enthusiasm for icy swims. The excitement he brings to the group is contagious, and he quickly has everyone involved in a warm-up where we introduce ourselves and give an exercise for the group to do 80’s-gym-video-sytley.

After this everyone starts to get their kit off, and soon the moment of truth arrives. No matter how much I pysche myself up, I still never find the desire to climb into cold water comes naturally to me. The energy of the other Pups however, helps put this fear to the back of my mind.

Explaining the appeal of cold swimming to someone who’s never done it before can be a little difficult. In my experience, once you’re in the water, you spend about 10 seconds panting and feeling like you’re about to die, and then a further 30 seconds in a state of intense but gradually decreasing pain.

Then after that something rather odd happens. You no longer feel in pain, or like you’re going to die, in fact you no longer really feel cold at all, rather you feel a pleasant burning sensation on your skin and are suddenly acutely aware of your muscles and your heart and your lungs all working exactly as they should. It’s simultaneously a hugely energising and strangely relaxing feeling all at the same time.

The Southwest Seal Pups | Courtesy of Josh Mcminn

Whilst the experience of cold swimming itself is certainly unique and thrilling, the experience of swimming with the Pups offers something more. When I asked Leo and Amelia what they thought attracts people to cold swimming they cited community and camaraderie as its main allure.

Leo said ‘it’s a crazy, ridiculous, endorphin inducing, energetic, wonderful activity, and to share that with other people, and to be in a community who finds such an activity so exhilarating I really think draws people again and again back to the madness of it’.

The community is something you really couldn’t fail to miss swimming the Pups. It was one of the group’s birthday, and to celebrate we bumped him off the pontoon and all sang happy birthday as we swam.

Amelia stated ‘everyone just seems overwhelmingly joyous, and kind and caring. And I think that we really feel to be a family even if you’ve just met that person’.

As we were all warming down we each shared what we were doing with the rest of our day: some working, some taking the day off, myself probably napping. And still some others (including the birthday boy) going on yet another cold swim that afternoon.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Josh Mcminn

If you're interested in joining the Southwest Seal Pups, then visit their Facebook page!