Australia isn’t likely to be the first place that comes to mind when you think of cold water swimming – we’re not exactly Iceland, Russia or Norway in the depths of winter (try 2-3 degree water temps and very popular with Ice Milers), but everything’s relative, right?
So, what’s classed as cold water? To find out, we looked to Mike Tipton, professor at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth in England.
“Swimming in the water below 25 degrees you start to get the cold shock response but it is controllable, this response peaks at about 15 to 10 degrees,” said Tipton.
“I like to classify water above 16 degrees as cool and water below 15 degrees as cold.”
“When you immerse yourself in water, the body responds. The skin is absolutely packed with cold receptors and because we are a tropical animals and want an average skin temperature of around 33 degrees, going into cold water represents a significant stimulus.
“This stimulus manifests in a natural flight or fight response, releasing adrenaline, noradrenaline and stress hormones. You become more alert and get that post-swim high feeling more alive.”
As cold water swimming continues to grow in popularity throughout Australia, we caught up with five open water swimmers from the places you might expect the water to be cold, to find out how cold it really is and what they love about their lip-numbing swims.
Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne
Peter Hendriks is no stranger to cold water swimming, as the ‘go-to’ guy across the Bay for open water swimming, he introduces dozens of new swimmers to the challenge every winter.
“During July and August, Port Phillip Bay offers plenty of cold water swimming opportunities with most winter temps below 10 degrees,” said Mr Hendriks.
“Last year was actually one of the coldest winters in the Bay in recent memory, with the morning water temperatures fluctuating between 9 degrees and 10 degrees, but we did have a couple of days where it got as low as 8 degrees.
“The coldest Bay water temperature I have seen was at the Brighton Baths back in the 60’s or 70’s where it was 6.5 degrees and then at Half Moon Bay in 2016 where I measured it to be 7.8 degrees in early August.
“While it does get cold down here in Victoria the ocean is generally warmer, with water temperature rarely getting below 10 degrees.
“So, if you want to get colder water temperatures to swim in, you will need to find freshwater lakes and reservoirs to swim in.”
John Sheely swims out of Warrnambool, Victoria, one of the most southern spots on the mainland popular with ocean swimmers.
You might’ve heard about Sheely’s swimming heroics during the pandemic where he swam for 509 days consecutively (listen to this OceanFit podcast episode conducted when John was on swim number 93).
Sheely backs up Hendricks’s observation that the ocean temps down south tend to be slightly warmer than in Port Phillip Bay.
“During July and August we tend to have our coldest water in Warrnambool, which, in a ‘bad’ year, can be 9 degrees, but on average we tend to see it sit at 10 to 11 degrees,” said Mr Sheely.
“The water temperature usually sits that low for around two months during winter.
“A common misconception is people think the water is colder down here in Warrnambool than in Port Phillip Bay because we’re further down south but the Bay does get colder by a couple of degrees.”
As many a cold water swimmer can attest to, it’s often not the low water temp that gets to Mr Sheely but instead the awkward period that begins once the swim is over.
“The period between exiting the water and getting your gear on is what I like to call the ‘killer period’ because that’s where you suffer the most,” said Mr Sheely.
“On a cold windy day the water on your skin almost freezes so it’s quite difficult to dry off with a towel, so I’m soft and opt for a shower and that’s a process within itself.
“I remember the coldest swim I’ve ever done at Warrnambool my teeth hurt, it was that cold and after 40 minutes in the water, I had trouble walking to the shower because I couldn’t feel my feet.
“This was in the dead of winter and the water was probably around 10 degrees but it definitely felt colder with the wind and everything.”
Justine Rofe is a regular swimmer in the freshwater of the Murray River and loves the challenge it brings during the winter months.
“The Murray River is an amazing challenge during winter,” said Ms Rofe.
“Not only is the water cold – it usually averages between 6 to 8 degrees in July and August – but the outside temperature can often be a lot colder than the water.
“Add the temperature to the varying depth of water, which can change drastically overnight and the swim is always guaranteed to be interesting.
“During winter I tend to swim upstream as it’s a harder workout but also easier to find the ‘deep spots’ to swim in.”
Ms Rofe’s coldest day in memory was in 2020 when she swam with a group of friends and had to call it quits much earlier than usual due to the ice-cold water.
“In July 2020, I swam with a group of friends and the water was around 8 degrees and the outside temperature was the same but there was a frigid wind,” said Ms Rofe.
“We swam upstream for 20 minutes and then had to get out and run to the showers to defrost.
“We were all so cold that we couldn’t speak properly.”
Down in the land of the Tasmanian Tuxedo, local ocean lover, Don Marsh, knows a thing or two about swimming in cold water.
“Swimming in Tasmania during winter is invigorating with temperatures dropping well below 13 degrees,” said Mr Marsh.
“The air temperature is usually quite cold as well, so it can make the water feel even colder.”
“Many of us swimmers wear wetsuits and other apparel during the winter months, but not all, with some opting to go without.
“There is a huge range of places to choose from to swim during winter in Tasmania and we have some great river and ocean swimming options.
With the Derwent River getting as cold as 5 degrees and the beaches down as far as 8 degrees, Mr Marsh, also an experienced lifesaver, wants to make sure you are prepared if you venture south for a swim.
“Before you swim during winter in Tasmania, I would recommend checking the risks. Don’t swim in areas that you aren’t familiar with and make sure that you swim with friends in a group.
“And don’t forget to be prepared to get warm afterwards and pack lots of warm layers.”
Thredbo River, NSW
Joy Symons has shared her story of how she conquered the prestigious ‘Ice Mile’ in the Thredbo River with us before, so we’ve gone back to her to find out more about what it’s like swimming high up in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales.
“Swimming in the Thredbo River my hands and feet turned into blocks of ice pretty quickly,” said Ms Symons.
“My legs also felt really heavy like they were made of lead and it took me about 200m to get my breathing under control.”
“Swimming in such cold water of under 4 degrees, I almost had an out of body experience where my belly felt really warm and then drifted off into space. It was like a sci-fi movie with a wormhole, where a character puts their arm in, except it was my entire trunk and legs missing in space and time.”
“It also feels like swimming through jellyfish because my body was stinging so much from how cold the water was.”
Where to find accessible cold water in Australia
Victoria offers a range of cold water swimming opportunities throughout winter with a range of both freshwater and saltwater bodies of water.
The freshwater lakes listed below vary dramatically in temperature during winter depending on many environmental factors. Temperatures range from 5 degrees to 10 degrees, with Falls Creek and Lake Catani regularly dropping below 5 degrees.
- Falls Creek
- Lysterfield Lake
- Lake Catani, Mount Buffalo National Park
- Pound Bend Reserve, Warrandyte
- Blue Pool, Briagolong State Forest
- Lake Bellfield, Grampians
- Blue Rock Lake, West Gippsland
- St Georges Lake, Creswick
The ocean and bays in Victoria usually average between 8 degrees and 10 degrees during winter but at times can get lower depending on the location and season.
- Half Moon Bay
- Port Phillip Bay
- Brighton Baths
- Port Campbell
New South Wales
During winter, most beaches along the New South Wales coastline range between 15 degrees to 18 degrees. If you are wanting to get colder water you’ll have to head to the mountains. Snowy River, Lake Crackenback, Thredbo River and Mount Kosciuszko all have water ranging from 3 degrees to 9 degrees, with the Murray River sitting between 6 to 8 degrees during winter.
- Snowy River
- Mount Kosciuszko
- Thredbo River
- Lake Crackenback
- Murray River
Most beaches along the coastline of Tasmania sit around 12 degrees during winter, however, there are a few that regularly dip below 10 degrees each season including the beaches below, with Blackmans Bay Beach and Kingston Beach reaching 8 degrees at times. The Derwent River can also get down to 5 degrees during winter but usually sits around 8 degrees to 10 degrees.
- Blackmans Bay Beach
- Kingston Beach
- Lake Peddler
- Boat Harbour
- Dodges Ferry Blue Lagoon
- Derwent River
Western Australia is not a place you would think to visit for cold water swimming but they do have a couple of locations you can technically classify as cold. The ocean along the Western Australia coastline usually ranges between 18 degrees and 20 degrees throughout winter but places such as Middleton Beach in Albany can dip to 13 degrees and Esperance can dip to 15 degrees throughout winter.
- Middleton Beach (Albany)
Beaches in South Australia in the depths of winter usually range between 13 degrees and 17 degrees. The water temperature in Robe, which lies on the southern shore of Guichen Bay, just off the Princes Highway, gets as low as 9 degrees and the part of the Murray River that winds through the state hits between 6 degrees and 8 degrees depending on the winter season and environmental changes.
- Murray River
Tips for cold water swimming
Even if you’re an experienced cold-water swimmer, it’s important to approach cold swimming swimming with caution and with a safety-first mindset.
- Enter and submerge yourself in the water slowly
- Stay close to shore and never venture too far from your entry/exit point
- Never swim alone in cold water, always buddy up or swim with a group
- Know your limits and listen to your body, when it says it is time to get out, get out
- Always come prepared with warm dry clothing and extra towels. Make sure you take beanies, gloves, socks, boots, jackets, thermals and warm drinks.
OceanFit has some great resources to learn more about cold water swimming:
- Everything you need to know about swimming in cold water
- Benefits of cold water swimming
- How to acclimatise to cold water