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Polar Bears reunite New Year’s Day for 11th anniversary

By Staff | Dec 29, 2010

Papa Bear John Carney.


No, it’s not binary code — it’s the date of the first Sanibel-Captiva Polar Bear Plunge. The date of this year’s plunge — 01/01/11 — marks the 11th anniversary of the annual event that draws hundreds of veteran and aspiring Polar Bears to Tarpon Bay Beach every New Year’s Day.

The first Polar Bear Plunge drew only 29 people. But in 2009, a record turnout of 232 Polar Bears — ranging from “Cubbies” (first-timers), to “Juveniles” (one-time previous dippers) and seasoned “Adult” bears — took to the Gulf waters on New Year’s Day as part of the popular island event.

“Papa Bear” John Carney, who’s organized the event since 2001, is an accomplished Polar Bear.

“There are Polar Bear clubs everywhere — I’ve done it in Lake Erie, Lake Michigan, Russia, Norway, the Great Barrier Reef,” Carney said, noting that Norway was his coldest location, Sanibel the warmest.

“It’s a memorable experience and people seem to have a good time — some come from out of town every year. I love seeing the little kids look up from the membership cards with those smiles they have on their face,” Carney said. “It’s nothing but pure fun and a way to bring in the new year in a silly, fun way. That’s what it’s all about — starting the year on a positive note.”

On New Year’s Day at noon, the meeting will begin with the singing of the traditional Polar Bear anthem, after which, the Polar Bears will brave the icy Gulf waters backwards, facing the crowd of supporters, on-lookers, tourists and “mice.”

“There have been times, usually when the weather is bad, that the crowd of mice — those who wished they had the courage to join in — have outnumbered the Polar Bear participants. They like to bring their chairs and watch us and we give them lots of entertainment,” Carney said.

Everyone brave enough to take the plunge will receive a free membership card and a certificate.

“You feel really great when you’re done. People come out of the water and dry off, they try on the shell pith helmet and take pictures and everyone gets a sip of champagne from the big glass,” Carney said. “We never know what the weather is going to be like — but we do it anyway — and many islanders, after 10 years of guilt and shame, have finally pledged to come out on New Year’s Day.”

The 11th annual Polar Bear Plunge is open to everyone and is free. Parking for 89 cars is available at the city lot on Tarpon Bay Road — but don’t forget to display a current new sticker or pay the parking fee.

Sign-in begins at 11 a.m. and the meeting begins at noon. Tarpon Bay Beach is located at the south end of Tarpon Bay Road.

For more information, contact John Carney at 395-1767.