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Are you tough enough to take the plunge?

By Staff | Dec 31, 2009

To plunge or not plunge?

For many islanders, the question of whether or not to participate in the Sanibel-Captiva Chapter of the National Polar Bear Club’s annual plunge at the “crack of noon” on Friday, Jan. 1, is an easy one.

“It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s free and it’s the only thing going on at the crack of noon,” said John Carney, the local chapter’s founder and coordinator.

On New Year’s Day the San-Cap Chapter of the National Polar Bear Club will hold its 10th anniversary meeting at noon at Tarpon Bay Beach (the south/Gulf end of Tarpon Bay Road). Sign-up sheets are available at 11 a.m.

Parking for 89 cars is available at the city lot. Participants need to display their current new sticker or pay the parking fee.

Carney said he is hoping to break last year’s record of over 200 attendees.

“Last year blew me away”, Carney said.

Carney started the annual event – which involves, splashing around mild gulf water, sharing a communal champagne glass and joining in a group bear hug – as a way for people to simply get together and have fun.

That goal seems to have been accomplished. Over the the past decade the event has ballooned from 29 people in 2001 to 232 last year.


Folks come out and get a chance to get in the less-than-arctic waters and get certified as a genuine Polar Bear and toast their success – for free.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” said Tom Giles.

Giles has been going since the event started in 2001, only missing one year. He looks forward to seeing the assortment of swimsuits and costumes people don for the event, particularly a group of mature women at last year’s event who wore old vintage-style bathing suits.

Charlie Sobczak, a popular island author and veteran Polar Bear, wouldn’t dream of missing the event. “I love doing the Polar Bear Plunge,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s so obscurely easy. I think everybody on Sanibel should do it. It’s a great Mayberry-by-the-Sea tradition.”

The meeting will begin with the singing of the traditional Polar Bear anthem by the “Cubbies” (first -timers), “Juveniles” (one -time previous dippers) and seasoned “Adult” bears (those who have taken the plunge several times in previous years).

Following the anthem the Polar Bears will enter the icy Gulf waters backwards, facing the huge crowd of supporters, on-lookers, tourists, and “mice” (those who wished they had the courage to join).

Following various bear-frolicking activities in the water and the traditional Polar Bear Group Huddle/Hug (a body-warming activity), all participants will receive a free membership card and a certificate suitable for framing. There will also be an opportunity to sip from the giant Polar Bear champagne glass, have your picture taken in the infamous shell pith helmet, and engage in story-telling about your heroic experience with fellow Polar Bears from around the world.

The event, started by the Red Cross years ago as a tribute to Commodore Longfellow, draws adventurers like Carney. The local polar bear club founder is quite seasoned in plunging the chilly depths on New Year”s Day. And many of his plunges have been a bit nippier than Sanibel’s high 50s to mid 70s degree temperatures. He has even taken to the icy waters of Norway and Alaska.

On Sanibel there is a chance for everyone to brave the waters without needing subsequent resuscitation. Polar Bear hopefuls need to wear a bathing suit and bring a towel. Chairs and coolers are optional.

Sign in and song sheets start being handed out at 11 a.m.

For more information about this “chilling” event, call Papa Bear (John Carney) at 395-1767.

(A press report contributed to this story.)