Water Women

August 27, 2022

7/13 2:28:32 UTC

About 30 miles north of Boston, MA, where the Merrimack River meets the Atlantic Ocean, on any given morning, Libby DeLana is likely preparing to enter the water. She belongs to a group of women, the Ebb & Flow Collective, who convene twice a week, often before sunrise, in all kinds of weather, to float, swim, or just walk into the water. 

Libby DeLana

A hemisphere away, in Lima, Peru, another group of women meet up to swim in the Pacific. Known as Las Truchas (which translates to “Trout”), and often photographed by Ana Elisa Sotelo Van Oordt (who also swims with them), the group began swimming together during Peru’s intense Covid lockdowns, when gathering indoors was forbidden.

Photo: Courtesy of Ana Elisa Sotelo

These groups, and others like them, are diving deep into a practice of daily open-water swimming that benefits mental and physical health, fosters a strong sense of community, and forges a deep connection with the environment.

“There’s something kind of witchy about it, right?” Sotelo says, laughing. “Women entering the water. In the old times, if someone was suspected of witchcraft, they would put her in the water. If she swims or floats, she’s a witch, and of course if not, she drowns.” The train of thought frames swimming as a means of power, survival, and escape.

DeLana speaks of cold plunges as a series of obstacles or mental challenges. The practice, she says, starts with showing up, even when the weather isn’t enticing. She describes one winter day: “Literally it was ten degrees, with a wind chill of minus 7, and we still got in the water…Your hair freezes.” She says you develop techniques to get past primal fear of the cold: “The way I visualize it is that the water is hugging me. It’s something that I need to allow to embrace me. So that mind shift is spiritual practice, right? It's not something to fight or to be feared.”

Modern life makes it easy to limit our everyday exposure to both extreme cold and extreme heat. Most humans living in urban environments move through an ambient temperature that’s controlled for our comfort to within a few degrees. Exceptions to the rule tend to be brief: waiting for a taxi, waiting for the water in the shower to heat up. After decades of living that way, standing under a cold shower can feel shocking – or invigorating. 

Immersion in cold water goes a step further, and your nervous system’s reaction may cause distress as, in order to preserve core temperature, blood vessels in the extremities constrict, causing a sensation that you may experience as pain. But it’s a natural reaction, and one that humans arguably evolved to undergo multiple times a day.

Repeated exposure, devotees will tell you, leads to physiological changes, including a dramatic increase in cold tolerance. The initial sensation of pain diminishes, even vanishes. 

And, perhaps most importantly, every cold plunger or open water swimmer talks about the intense mood boost that follows a cold dip or swim: “It's like all the light switches have been turned on,” DeLana says.

Open water swimmers and cold plunge devotees are part of a broader movement that says humans need exposure to temperature extremes to stay healthy. While peer-reviewed science is still scant and inconclusive, some studies suggest that habitually putting your system through these transitions boosts vascular health and immune resilience.

And as DeLana, Sotelo, and many others attest, the sense of well-being is both immediate and lasting. Both women spoke of preferring to swim in the mornings because of the lasting positive effect it has on their mood all day. DeLana recalled seeing a study showing that the dopamine release from a cold plunge is stronger, and lasts longer, than well-known mood-boosters like sex and cocaine.

Another bonus is that gear is no barrier to entry. What you’ll need is minimal. DeLana lists her kit: “An old bathing suit, neoprene surf shoes, and a hat and gloves in the winter.” Ice on a winter beach can cut your feet; hands and head lose heat faster. For sunny weather and daytime swims, keep in mind that sun exposure is magnified on the water, and that the water temperature is colder than the air. Wear something quick-drying with built-in SPF.

Sotelo, a photographer who has also crewed on documentary films, wears a wetsuit. She began cold water swimming after a bad spinal injury. “It was the only exercise I could do,” she explains. “The cold is therapeutic, and also, it feels great.” The injury left her unable to hoist heavy gear, but she was elated to realize that the weightlessness of water could assist her in resuming her creative work: “I purchased a water case, because in water, the camera has no weight.”

That weightlessness is a metaphor that carries through the resulting body of work: “I like to work, from a visual point of view, from resilience and not so much from struggle.” During the initial Covid lockdowns in Peru, Sotelo describes the dire warnings from the Ministry of Health: “’Don’t visit your grandma, or she could die!’ It left a lot of people really isolated.” Las Truchas began as a way to meet that was socially distanced, provided exercise, and was safe.

Photo: Courtesy of Ana Elisa Sotelo

The community persists today, and Sotelo has begun photographing wild swimmers around the world. She recently won a grant from Women Photograph to travel to Chile and take pictures of a group there. 

“What makes this Chile trip kind of exciting,” Sotelo says, “is that [in Chile], on Sunday, September 4, they are voting to reject or accept the new constitution. And I don’t necessarily get political, but I can tell that these groups of women that I’m shooting have very different political opinions. A lot of them are going to vote yes, a lot of them are going to vote no. And even though they have such different political opinions, they share this love for the ocean and love for nature.”

Photo: Courtesy of Ana Elisa Sotelo

DeLana has observed the same effect. Bonds forged in the water are powerful: “We talk about this community being incredibly empowered and honestly in love with each other. I mean, that’s sort of funny language, but we're all just so proud of each other.”

“There are times in the water we burst into tears, who knows why, right? Or often somebody will come up next to you and just, you know, put their hand on your shoulder. Not say a word.”

The spiritual benefits are impossible to measure, but unquestionably present. Part of that is the connection to natural surroundings that can so easily be lost in modern life. DeLana says: “There have been some mornings where it was absolutely calm, the water was like glass, and the fog was right on top of the water, and it felt like we were in the clouds.”

“I happen to believe that many of the issues that we’re challenged with right now are a result of our disconnection from the natural world,” she continues. “What we talk about sometimes, when we get in the water, is that the water in our bodies is visiting. Meaning, last week, it was a thunderstorm. Then it becomes the ocean. Then it becomes the dew on the spiderweb. Then it becomes mist. We are made of water.”

Returning to nature, and to an immersed state, then, is returning home:

“The wild part, for me, is critical,” DeLana says. “I don't take that for granted.”