British Columbia

Vancouver celebrates 100 years of the Polar Bear Swim

For some families, the Polar Bear Swim is an annual tradition to usher in the new year, but for the Pantages family, it's part of their legacy. Lisa Pantages' grandfather, Peter Pantages, started the swim 100 years ago. Since then, thousands of people have come out each year to take a chilly dip.

'The swim is definitely going to be special this year,' says granddaughter of event founder

Lisa Pantages and George Pajari swim in English Bay as a preview to the 100th anniversary of the annual Vancouver New Year's Day Polar Bear Swim. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Since 1920, thousands of Vancouverites have gathered to take a chilly plunge into English Bay on New Year's Day.

For some families, it's become an annual tradition to usher in the new year, but for the Pantages family, it's part of their legacy.

Lisa Pantages' grandfather, Peter Pantages, started the swim 100 years ago. Since then, several generations of the family have continued to meet each year on January 1 to do it together.

"It's an amazing thing to see in Vancouver, especially as we're changing and growing so quickly, to see that commitment from people every year with their families to just do something fun and create their own tradition," said Pantages, who did her first polar dip at three-months-old. 

Watch archives of the Vancouver Polar Bear Swim through the years 

'My first polar bear dip was when I was 3 months old'

2 years ago
Duration 1:53
Lisa Pantages shares the story of her family's connection to the New Year's Day polar bear swim in Vancouver.

This year, the centennial celebration of the Polar Bear Swim, which the Vancouver Park Board says is one of the largest and longest running events of its kind in the world, will have live music, food trucks and special celebratory merchandise. 

There will also be lifeguards on hand, a family zone where parents with young kids can go in together, as well as a warming tent.

"We're expecting to make this the largest and the best event in history," said Dave Demers, Vice-Chair of the Vancouver Park Board.

Vancouver's Polar Bear Swim founder, Peter Pantages, pictured standing in the snow in 1927. (Vancouver Park Board)

Swimmers can register online and are encouraged to wear costumes to the event, which will also have commemorative certificates for everyone participating. 

"The swim is definitely going to be special this year," added Pantages.

First splash

Founder Peter Pantages, who died in 1971, used to swim at least once a day in honour of his home island of Andros in Greece.

The dedicated swimmer, who owned the Peter Pan Cafe on Granville Street, organized the first Polar Bear Swim in 1920 with about 10 people. Now, up to 8,000 people come each year — some to watch the event, and others to swim in it.

Swimmers stand in the water at a polar dip in 1930. (City of Vancouver Archives)

"The swim to him was a very important event to help him create community for himself and his family, as well as help Vancouver kind of identify what their community was going to be as they went forward in the 30s, 40s and 50s," said Lisa Pantages.

The swim really took off in the 1940s and '50s when Peter started getting a lot of attention for his swimming antics. 

When he was travelling on steamships, he would get the captain of the ship to agree to let him dive overboard to go for a swim each day. Passengers had to be asked not to run all to one side of the ship to watch him, since it would start to tip, said Pantages.

If he couldn't go for a swim while on the ship, he would get a bath filled at the same temperature as the ocean with salt in it and then lay in it for about half an hour.

"From that time on it created a lot of news," said Pantages. "The swim became a lot more exciting for people to come down and either watch or participate."

People wait to participate in the Polar Bear Swim in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

After Peter died, his son Basil started running the swim with the parks board, which is around the time people started wearing costumes into the water.

"People [were] really taking it upon themselves to make the swim their own, and it's just grown ever since then," she said. 

Avid polar dipper

Polar dip enthusiast George Pajari says there's three "great reasons" for people to do the swim every year: it's fun, it's good to "cultivate our inner silliness," and it makes challenges in the new year seem less daunting.

George Pajari swims in English Bay. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"After you've gone swimming, every other challenge you face that year is just that little bit easier to view," he said.

"I like to think of a Vancouver Polar Bear Swim as mother nature's life coaching lesson."

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