Taking the plunge into the sea at this time of year may not be everyone's idea of fun, but for one Portstewart mum trying to get back to fitness, this was just the tonic.
Fifty-year-old Nicole Morelli, who works at the well-known Morelli's-To-Go ice-cream parlour in the seaside town, started to factor in daily swimming after experiencing health issues with a hip replacement and osteoarthritis in 2018.
Since then, a hardy bunch of swimmers, which began with just Nicole and her friend, became the Menopausal Mermaids Sea Swimming group with over 80 WhatsApp members and 200 Facebook members.
Nicole, who previously enjoyed a very active life, regularly doing high altitude trekking, walking and was an avid gym-goer, found herself in pain due to osteoarthritis, with her mobility further affected following a hip replacement operation.
"When I couldn't do the activities I was used to anymore, it was so upsetting," she says. "I had a hip replacement and started to feel better."
Wanting to get back to exercise, Nicole heard about Aracadia Swim Club who took to the sea every Sunday. "I thought about joining them, but I was too shy," she says. "So when I was talking to a friend at a birthday party we thought the two of us would give swimming in the sea a go.
"You read about all its benefits - it's free, it's on your doorstep."
And since then, Nicole hasn't looked back. "It was just instant, unbelievable and, obviously, a bit of pain relief too because your blood starts to pump a bit harder.
"It's the Atlantic Ocean so it's not terribly calm all the time so there's lots of waves. You're bobbing up and down a lot, and diving in and out of the waves."
Nicole, who is mum to two daughters, Lucia (8) and Giannina (6), describes sea swimming as the best anti-inflammatory out there, adding: "An invigorating dip makes you feel invincible and ready for the day. It should be on prescription."
Although the initial experience lasted for around two minutes, the buzz and fun brought the women back the very next day. New members mostly join by word of mouth with people turning up at the beach. On average they receive four new requests every week.
With temperatures around 10 degrees at this time of the year, plummeting to five or six in March, Nicole admits: "It's easy getting in, but it's horrible getting out."
So what's the appeal?
"It's how the cold affects your body," she explains. "It takes a couple of minutes for your body to adjust. It's just beautiful, it's almost euphoric. It gets the adrenalin and endorphins going - you feel like a child again - and the craic with the others, laughing, chatting, squealing and shouting is just lovely."
Since lockdown the Menopausal Mermaids - who also want men to join their groups - have had to curtail the social outings they enjoyed and practise socially distanced swimming with two groups tipping a dip at separate times in Portrush and Portstewart.
Most importantly for Nicole, though, is the social aspect of the sea swimming group. "For me and most of the women it's the friendships we've all made. They are women I wouldn't otherwise have met - some are grieving, old or new mums, working women. Before lockdown we would go for coffee and cake after a swim. We went for dinner, to the cinema and even have our own golf society."
Many of the women who join the swimming group had felt isolated or were suffering from depression before they got involved. "It's been a lifeline for me and a lifeline for some of the other women too," adds Nicole.
"I've made friendships that I know are going to last a lifetime."
She agrees they are fortunate to have beautiful Blue Flag beaches on which to swim. "We've never had any problems - except for jellyfish," she reveals.
Nicole says sea swimming should be safe at all times - but never to be done in isolation. The Mermaids initially met with both the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) and Coastguard to ensure they abide by crucial safety advice with key reference points on safety in numbers and the wearing of high visibility safety floats.
Describing themselves more as "dippers and bobbers" than swimmers, Nicole (below) says she does get out for a swim in the calmer days.
Meanwhile, a team of experts supported by an army of volunteers is working hard to ensure Northern Ireland's beaches are litter-free with safe, clean bathing water for swimmers and other beach-users alike.
One of those is Conor Bush, Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful's local environmental quality officer, whose job it is to ensure our beaches are pristine.
From monitoring through litter survey work and picking up what other's drop on our beaches, Conor is assisted by an enthusiastic bunch of volunteers who work selflessly to pick-up both washed-up and dropped debris, most of which is preventable.
He says: "Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful carry out quarterly marine litter surveys across Northern Ireland. These surveys record the different types and amounts of litter that wash up on our beaches.
"During the surveys we see some very interesting things ranging from walking frames to mattresses and the one occasion, a multitude of clothes. One beach in particular is notorious for its bottles and jars of mayonnaise."
As well as being an eyesore, litter is an environmental hazard to local wildlife. "You can see birds coming down and eating or picking up litter to take back to their nests to feed their chicks." However, the survey findings are used by OSPAR - a global body which includes the EU and the UK - to fight for new legislation to protect oceans from litter pollution.
Another behind-the-scenes hero is newly-qualified scientist Megan Whitty, who is research assistant for EU SWIM at University College Dublin. She is leading the pioneering work of UCD aimed at ensuring clean sea water all around Ireland.
SWIM is a venture which oversees the testing of bathing water by collecting water samples from selected beaches in Ireland to ensure high standards of water quality.
"Bathing and spending time at beaches is a very popular activity in Ireland, especially given the new government staycation initiative," she says.
"I spend up to 12 hours a day beach sampling, processing the findings and recording data. Travelling around Ireland is an added bonus of my job, taking water samples."
The information will be used to inform the public through on-site information boards, the EU SWIM app and social media.
l Menopausal Mermaids are on Facebook and WhatsApp
l Find out more about EU Swim, visit www.swimproject.eu, Facebook page or download the app
l Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, visit ww w.keepnorthernirelandbeautiful.org
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