Cold Refuge

Swimming in San Francisco Bay

A new documentary about the philosophical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of full immersion in the natural world has been in production since early 2019. Several sequences have been rough-edited, but most film production has had to stop temporarily due to the pandemic.


The film is not about setting records for time or distance, but about how swimming in cold water helps mitigate life’s difficult hurdles such as grief, loss, disease, discrimination, disability, and stress. The subtext is “get back to nature!” The paradox is that open-water swimming seems like the last thing most people would ever consider!  

Film subjects include a paralyzed swimmer who dives off a tall pier; an African-American swimmer who was told by whites when he was 13 that “black people don’t swim” (it took him until he was 40 to try); a blind man who tethers himself to a sighted swimmer; a lawyer who reduces courtroom stress in the open water; a woman with breast cancer who “swims to chemo;” and a young woman who communes with her mom, who died 3 years ago, in San Francisco Bay where they both swam together.


The film’s subtext is that there’s a real world out there beyond cyberspace; that we need it; and that it needs us. As we emerge from our socially distant quarantine, my hope is that viewers will be inspired to re-calibrate their priorities, spending more time in real places, experiencing real things, rather than living in abstractions inside their screens.


Cold Refuge is the fourth feature-length documentary by Sundance-and-Emmy-Award-winning filmmaker Judy Irving (Dark Circle, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Pelican Dreams), who has been a year-round San Francisco Bay swimmer since 1986. In 2015, in recognition of her theatrical film track record, she was elected to the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


Myriad possibilities exist for distribution, including Netflix, Amazon, iTunes (Wild Parrots, Pelican Dreams) and other online distributors; theatrical distributors such as First Run Features (released the restored 2K version of Dark Circle in 2020), Shadow Distribution (Wild Parrots, Pelican Dreams), or Ro*Co Films (will release the restored 4K version of Wild Parrots in 2021); and television such as PBS’ P.O.V. (Dark Circle) or Independent Lens (Wild Parrots).


The film has been supported to date by individuals, foundations, and by two donor-advised funds from the Dean Witter family. Pelican Media is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and all donations are tax-deductible. For a budget, timeline, and treatment, please contact Judy Irving, producer/director: