Along Portballintrae Harbour, early each morning, you’ll find a large group of women of a certain age in swimsuits, booties, gloves and swimming caps, laughing together as they take bracing dips in the North Atlantic Ocean. The Menopausal Mermaids, as they are wonderfully known, have taken up cold water swimming as a way of improving their mental and physical health, a practice that a large body of evidence affirms has immensely curative properties.
Founder of the group Nicole Morelli, 51, a single mum-of-two involved in her family’s famous ice cream business in Portstewart, decided it was time to start sea swimming after a hip replacement in 2018, which had left her feeling down.
“Then a friend and I had been talking about swimming for a long time and were thinking about joining a group. We did try to take a dip in the sea one day on our own - up here on the North Coast - and that lasted about two seconds. But we kept it up and soon we were able to stay in the sea for five minutes, then ten minutes, then longer. And so the Menopausal Mermaids grew from there and now there are about 25 of us who meet at different locations, Portrush, Portstewart and Portballintrae, where we are today, with swims sometimes starting at 7.45am and 9.30am and we meet every day.
“There’s great camaraderie and a lot of craic to be had. There are women here from all over the place and we would never have met under any other circumstances.
“I find sea-swimming amazing for both my physical and mental health.
“I have arthritis and the cold water is actually really helpful for pain relief. Cold water is the best anti-inflammatory. you can have, I think. If I have time away from the sea I have to jump in a cold bath just to get the same kind of fix.
“Lots of the women here have different things going on, depression, bereavement and so on, and this communal dip in the sea is just great for body and soul together.
“I encourage the women who come down to start off slowly and just have a paddle in the cold water at first, along the shore. Then move into the water up to your knees, then up to your thighs, and eventually you’re in up to your neck. It is easier getting into the sea like that when you’re doing it in a group because you’re all chatting, it’s a group thing, and you can very much lean on each other for moral support. Amid all the chit-chat and banter you do actually forget how cold it is.”
Part of the reason Nicole titled the group ‘Menopausal Mermaids’ was not only to make it clear that the collective of swimmers prioritises an older demographic of women, but also that the cold sea is actually very good for the dreaded hot flushes most commonly associated with this particularly difficult transition in a woman’s life.
Also, the mental health problems associated with going through the menopause can be significant, and going for a swim in the sea, just like most forms of exercise, can really help lift your mood and release endorphins that make you feel good. Plus, the sense of community you get from doing things with others, making new connections, sharing problems together, going for a coffee and cake afterwards and so on, all of it is a real psychological and emotional boost. And so, the group is immensely popular and ever expanding.
Nicole added: “I had early menopause at 48 because I had a total abdominal hysterectomy and started swimming the year after that and honestly, I can’t explain it exactly, but sea swimming just makes the other members and I feel so much better.
“I have some experience of depression and I think that the benefits of cold water swimming are just immense. The chemicals are flowing, your blood is pumping, you are cold but invigorated and we just have such a laugh together, we really do.
“But actually any form of physical activity, even just getting outside in the fresh air, we all know that it has hugely positive results in terms of maintaining mental and physical health, without a doubt.
“Looking out to sea this morning at Portballintrae, it’s just absolutely gorgeous, the waves lapping the shoreline, the horizon where the sea meets the sky. I do think the scenery of it all does your heart good too.”
Denise Drummond Scott, 64, who used to work in the travel industry, is another proud Menopausal Mermaid.
She said while bracing herself to take the plunge: “I’m standing here in my big, warm, dry robe ready to cast off and dash into the sea with the rest of them here.
“I always dread getting into the water, but I never regret it. It takes courage to get in there but once your body acclimatises to the temperature you’re grand.
“I joined the Menopausal Mermaids because I live kind of out of town, so it was a great way of meeting like-minded people in a safe environment.
“I’m through the other side of the menopause and I didn’t have such a bad time with it at all. I started doing a bit of swimming on my own at first, but this is much better fun, all getting together and plunging in together. I think swimming and being outside, even just walking along a beach, has a powerful effect on your mood. There’s just something about being near water.
“Cold water swimming really does become addictive and it’s so interesting getting to know about the tides and all of that.
“All 25 plus of us are friends, yesterday we were at West Strand and today we’re at Portballintrae Harbour and then we’ll move to Portrush on another day. After our swim we usually go for a great big piece of cream cake.
“This absolutely helps my mental and physical health. The curative properties of the salt water, being outside, the exercise, the friendships, we all have a real empathy for each other. And as all women together we have this massively strong sense of having each other’s backs. We’ve doctors, cleaners, police women, all kinds among us, and all of us mermaids are in the surf together. The sea is what makes us rich here on the North Coast. It’s so beautiful.”
Linden Chambers, 72, who is originally from Sydney, and moved to Coleraine in 2018 on realising her ancestry traced back to Ulster, used to work in TV production and is another avowed mermaid. She said: “I started at Portstewart and I’ve just made the best friends. There are mermaids all over the place up here!
“Nobody is competitive at all. The first ten minutes are key. Once you get in it is the best feeling in the entire world, better than sex in my opinion.
“I throw myself into the waves like a kangaroo and it’s just completely exhilarating. But you do think before you disrobe and dip your toe in, what on earth am I doing? And the laughter between us all, that’s one of the best things.
“I would say this has improved my mental and physical health 100%. I used to suffer badly with anxiety attacks, even though I’m in a paradise here and not Afghanistan, but they’ve gone completely now.
“When you get in that water you just feel like a million dollars. The NHS should really start advising people to take up cold water swimming as a real tonic for their mental health, and I mean that.
“I feel about 30 years of age max when splashing about in the waves.”
Nicole Morelli would encourage anybody who thinks sea swimming would be beneficial to them to join a group somewhere near to where they live or, of course, to congregate with the Menopausal Mermaids for a splash along the North Coast. She added: “Come and have a cold swim with us all and then a hot coffee. My advice would be, don’t swim alone, it’s much easier if you’ve got company and all kinds of friendships can develop which only further boosts your mood.”
You can find the Menopausal Mermaids on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter if you would like to join up.