The Polar Bear Swim at English Bay Beach is the largest New Year’s Day swimming event in Metro Vancouver. In 2021 it takes place on Friday, January 1st.
In normal years, the event runs from 12:00 until around 3:30 pm and attracts a couple of thousand participants and tens of thousands of spectators.
Polar Bear Swim in Vancouver
The English Bay Polar Bear Swim is one of the longest-running events of its kind in the world. In 1920 it started with less than a dozen swimmers and in recent years it has had over 2500. In 2020, in fact, they set a new Vancouver record with an estimated 45,000 people attending and over 7,000 registered swimmers.
Unfortunately, the in-person event was cancelled in 2021 due to COVID-19, and a virtual event took place instead. In normal years, the swim usually takes place at English Bay Beach which is located not far from the corner of Denman Street and Davie at 1790 Beach Avenue.
Vancouver’s Polar Bear Swim is a free event. Both swimming participants and onlookers however are encouraged to bring a donation of cash or non-perishable food items benefiting the Greater Vancouver Food Bank.
What Happens at the Polar Bear Swim?
On New Year’s Day in years without a pandemic, thousands of people usually gather at English Bay Beach in Vancouver’s West End in the early afternoon. Rain or shine, crowds of Vancouverites show up to either take part in or watch a crazy Canadian tradition. Everyone is dressed warmly, many have cameras, some are in costume and about two thousand or so arrive with swimsuits underneath their clothes.
Soon after 2 o’clock Polar Bear Swim participants typically begin to get ready. Winter clothing gets peeled off, skin starts to appear and people slowly make their way to the starting line. While holding on to participants’ towels and clothing, friends and family members compete for viewing positions and get their cameras set. Costumes get their final touches.
At 2:30 pm, after a brief official welcome, a horn blasts and the English Bay Polar Bear Swim begins.
At the start of the swim there’s a 100-yard dash for those that wish. Swimmers wanting to enter the race meet at the front line on the Stanley Park-side of the racing enclosure most years. At the sound of the horn they run to the water and swim to a buoy marking the finish line. The first three people to touch the buoy usually win a prize – if you are one of them in the future, don’t forget to give the lifeguard in the boat nearby your name before you swim away.
After the 100-yard dash race a second horn is sounded and the rest of the two thousand or more Speedo and bikini-clad people remaining on the beach run like crazy folk into the icy waters of the Pacific Ocean in normal years. They splash around, scream for a bit and even swim for anywhere between a couple of seconds and several minutes before running back out and reuniting with their friends, towels and warm clothing as fast as they can. It’s a sight to be seen when it happens!
In addition to the swimming, at the event in 2020 there was live music. The band Side One performed for much of the afternoon from a large outdoor stage. In the area there were also a number of food trucks.
Participation in the Polar Bear Swim
Participation in the Polar Bear Swim is free, but registration is required. If you don’t register, you can watch but can’t swim.
People register on the day at the event, but, because of the number of folk participating, downloading and filling out the registration form in advance and taking it with you is recommended. For the 2021 virtual swimming event, registration was available from December 21st, 2020. (Note: for participants under age 19 their parents or legal guardians need to sign for them.)
Participants in the Polar Bear Swim are encouraged to dress up in costume and all registered swimmers have a chance to win prizes. The swim participants also get commemorative buttons after the event.
English Bay Polar Bear Video
Below is a video of the English Bay Polar Bear swim to give you an idea of what to expect. As you’ll see, it’s a big event, there are crowds of people and the water is cold!
This video was taken at the swim on January 1st in 2020. The band playing at the event (and in the background in parts of the video) is Side One.
Tips and Advice
Below is a list of suggestions to help you make the most out of your next in-person English Bay Polar Bear Swim experience.
TIP #1: Arrive well before 2:30 to find parking, register and get ready. If planning to swim, get to the beach by 1:30 pm at the very latest, but earlier is even better.
TIP #2: Don’t forget your camera, costume, towel and warm clothing to climb into afterwards. If swimming, also make sure to bring a friend or family member who can hold onto your stuff while you’re in the water and take your photo.
TIP #3: Plan in advance where you’ll meet whoever is looking after your towel and warm clothing. There’s nothing worse than coming out of ice-cold water and then having to search endlessly for your friends among thousands of people while freezing your buns off.
TIP #4: Don’t forget to have your camera or cell phone well-charged as it would be terrible to risk life and limb and not have a picture afterwards to show for it.
TIP #5: If you’ve been feeling under the weather, have heart issues or aren’t in the best of health, don’t swim – just watch.
TIP #6: Don’t stay in the water for more than 15 minutes. Longer than that and you’ll risk getting hypothermia.
TIP #7: Remember to bring your cash or non-perishable food item donation for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. It’s a great cause, so give generously!
TIP #8: Share your photos on Twitter and Instagram. Use the hashtag #VanPolarBearSwim for a chance to win prizes.
TIP #9: A limited number of Polar Bear Swim souvenir T-shirts and sweatshirts are available for sale for between around $20 and $30. Arrive early to get one before they sell out. Clothing merchandise is also sometimes available at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre just a few blocks away at 1050 Beach Avenue.
TIP #10: Combine your trip to the English Bay Polar Bear Swim with other activities in the area. There are a number of great restaurants close by, although for some you’ll need advance reservations. The seawall is also beautiful to walk along, although you’ll likely want to do that before your swim – not after – while you’re still warm and dry.
For more information about the English Bay Polar Bear Swim for 2021, see the City of Vancouver website.
For ideas on other things to do in Metro Vancouver check out any of the following:
- Lower Mainland Polar Bear Swims (including similar events in Delta, Fort Langley, North Vancouver, Port Moody and White Rock)
- Vancouver’s January Calendar of Events
- Free Events in January
- Festivals & Events Calendar
- Vancouver’s Top Beaches