The Emperor emerges

It’s 7.15 on a chilly autumn morning and many Western Australians are enjoying a Sunday sleep in.

But, on the largely-deserted sands of chilly Prevelly Beach, a small group is gathering.

The group is well known to Margaret River locals as the Prevelly Penguins, after nearly 20 years of their early morning swims.

Despite their name, The Penguins are made up of human men and women aged between 15 and 86 years who swim every morning regardless of the weather conditions.

The Prevelly Penguins

The Prevelly Penguins

Over the years, the club has drawn visitors and members from all over Australia including multiple Olympic swimming gold medalist Shane Gould who swam with The Penguins regularly from 2000 to 2008.

Their president, or as they prefer to call him, the Emperor Penguin, Jim McLachlan, said it all began when he complained to a fellow squash player that there was nowhere decent to swim in Margaret River due to the lack of a public pool.

“I was asked how I was settling in after moving from Sydney in 1996 by a fellow by the name of Les Patterson,” Mr McLachlan said.

“He said: ‘meet us down at Prevelly tomorrow at 6.30am and we’ll swim together’.

“It began with just the four of us; myself, Bob O’Connor, Les Patterson and Patrick Thompson.”

Although the number of original Penguins is dwindling, the spirit of the group remains strong.

The Penguins remained a small and restricted group for years due to strict rules: new members could only join if they swam every day of an entire winter – off the southwest corner of the continent, without a wetsuit.

Checking the conditions

Checking the conditions

From the early 2000s, however, the group became well known around Margaret River, leading to their popularity today.

Local builder, Andrew Gibson, said he accidentally stumbled across the group one morning.

“I was swimming further down the beach a while back and just came over when I saw the group,” Mr Gibson said.

Other members joked they had joined the Penguins to give the sharks more choice.

The Penguins have 30 full members and 10 associated swimmers.

On the morning I dropped in on Prevelly, members of the group gingerly disrobed, placed their warm clothes along the top of the fence that led down to the beach, and stretched their swimming caps onto their heads, ready to face the cold.

Retired teacher, Peter St Clair-Baker, said he got into the routine because he liked the challenge.

“Some days it’s freezing cold and blowing wind, rain, and sand and it’s just exciting,” Mr St Clair-Baker said.

“It’s better than swimming in a pool because it just feels cleaner.”

Braving the cold

Braving the cold

Mr McLachlan said many, but not all, of The Penguins suffer medical conditions such as diabetes and problems with the heart, muscles or joints.

“It is our collective belief that most of these conditions can be overcome with a regular healing swim,” he explained.

“It is very exceptional for any of us to have a common cold or a dose of the flu.”

Even with winter fast approaching, Kylie Hill, from Curtin University’s School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science, says there is method in the Penguins’ madness.

“One advantage of water-based exercise is that it is low impact,” Associate Professor Hill says.

“It’s often a good choice for people with conditions like arthritis that make weight bearing exercise difficult.”

The Penguins make their way down the sand to the ocean, and pull goggles on as they walk into the cold water.

 Who's going to go first?

Who’s going to go first?

There’s not much hesitation considering the cold water, and colder wind, as they wade deep enough to start swimming.

Before popping in himself, Mr McLachlan says the Penguins swim together, but as two separate groups of differing intensities, due to the gaps in age and ability.

“There’s a group that can swim as fast and as far as they like and everybody else does it as casually as they wish,” Mr McLachlan says.

Quizzed about the famous Bondi Icebergs swimming club on the other side of Australia, Mr McLachlan says he admires their continuity, and envies their access to tidal pools.

“There are many of those wonderful health pools the length of the NSW coast and none in WA,” he says before taking the plunge.

The Penguins swim skilfully from Prevelly to Gnarabup Beach.

The King Penguin

The King Penguin emerges.

During the ritual swim, the fastest swimmers keep in a formation not so different from that of the groups namesake bird: a swift leader at the head, with the team following closely behind in an evenly spread diamond shape.

A dog, belonging to one of the Penguins, follows their progress.

The Kelpie races along the shoreline keeping a keen eye on the swimmers, and barking at the occasional seagull.

The swimmers turn around near the limestone point of Gnarabup Beach and start their return just as the sun begins to shine through the violet clouds along the horizon.

As each Penguin returns to the shallows, a few yell with excitement that they spotted a stingray swimming nearby.

The second group have already returned to the beach and watch on as the others wade close to the small ray.

The Penguins agree their interplay with the natural environment is a big part of why they swim.

Ken Wiley warming up with morning tea.

Ken Wiley warms up at morning tea.

“People come out and talk about the fish and the rays they’ve seen,” says Mr St Clair-Baker.

“That’s a really special part of the day.”

The Penguins’ oldest member, Ken Wiley, 86, returns to the water briefly with an old, wooden thermometer.

“It’s 19.3 degrees in the water this morning, not bad,” he tells his fellow Penguins.

The swimmers dry and dress themselves on the beach and make their back to the carpark where morning tea is waiting.

The Penguins use this time to chat with one another over a cuppa and sometimes a sweet treat.

Swimming teacher, Vanessa Woodland, says being a part of The Penguins has introduced her to people she would not have otherwise known.

“We’re all from pretty different backgrounds, and jobs, so it’s pretty useful having connections to people and we all help each other out,” Mrs Woodland says.

“It’s not about how fast you go, it’s about just rocking up.”

Categories: Health, Sport

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