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Taking the Plunge on Sanibel

By Staff | Jan 5, 2012

John Carney raises a celebratory toast during the 12th Annual Polar Bear Plunge on Sanibel Island. (Photos by Bill Schiller)

Sanibel Island’s answer to activities typically associated with Polar Bear Society could be seen in full, if not frigid, force on New Year’s Day as hundreds amassed at Tarpon Bay Beach for the 12th Annual Polar Bear Plunge.

With temperatures in the low 70’s, this event could be considered more solar than polar, and serves more as something of a rite of intensification than chilly ritual. At the “crack of noon” on New Year’s Day, people of all ages and from all parts of the world traditionally gather in harmony to herald their status as bears (not mice) as asserted in the lyrics of the Polar Bear Anthem. Then, in the flash of an eye (and other anatomy) the throng dashes into the water where there is plunging, splashing, celebratory cheers and smiles on faces which, in this case, has more to do with satisfaction in their sense of participation than accomplishment. Again, on a atypical warm, December day on Sanibel, the thought of jumping into the ocean doesn’t really seem all that odd. As participating Polar Bear Josh Yokel explained, “At home in Minnesota, we’d have to cut a hole in the ice before we could jump into the water.”

Following the plunge, many gather for a massive, dripping-wet, group hug, which is followed by a toast with an equally massive wine glass which is passed for sipping from one participant to the next.

With more than 300 people taking the plunge, and just as many (if not more) serving as spectators on the shore, this year’s ceremony achieved its largest turn-out, far more than that of 12 years ago when organizer John Carney assembled 29 people for the very first launch.

Carney’s immersion in polar bear plunging originated on Lake Chataqua in New York. A teacher and photographer, Carney went on to participate in similar events around the country and world, but after to moving to Sanibel some years ago, he initially thought those days were over. His wife, Fay, explains, “One day, we wondered whether or not we could organize a plunge on Sanibel, and we thought, ‘Why not?’ We thought it would be funny.”

Clair Meyer, Quinn Meyer, Megan Sosbe, Marcus Meyer and Kieran Meyer hold up a poster they made for this year's plunge. Megan explains how "Ameri-Can" is symbolic of the Americans and Canadian participation in Sanibel's Polar Bear Plunge.

And no doubt about it, given the festivities of the event and commingling of various costumed characters, the event is both funny, and fun.

This year, however, there was a certain poignant aspect to the activity in that some feared John Carney, the founding Papa Polar Bear, would not be available to participate. Last year, Carney was diagnosed with throat cancer. As he went through treatments to overcome the disease, there were further complications arising from an infection, and the prognosis was grim. His wife says John was “two inches from death.” The infection destroyed his trachea and voice box, and was spreading to other organs as doctors frantically operated in what proved to be long, intense surgical procedure. Carney survived, but tragically lost his ability to speak in the process. This has been a difficult year of recovery for Carney, and long time participants of the plunge were no doubt aware that Carney was unable, this year, to lead the singing of the anthem lyrics that he wrote 12 years ago. He is coping, as courageously as one might expect from someone with a penchant for plunging into freezing water.

“I’ve known John for more than 38 years, and thought I knew everything about him,” says Fay. “It is only now that I’ve come to know and understand how truly courageous he is.”

Though unable to vocalize, fellow polar bears on Sanibel recently provided Carney with a computer pad device that helps him communicate. In a message typed out, he expressed appreciation for those that include Tom Giles, Ann McDonnel, Bogi Von Below and Sharon Minchie, not only for their support to him, but their assistance with organizing this year’s event.

Happy with this year’s turn-out, and comments from the many well-wishers that greeted him, Carney said the event, in contradiction to typical polar bear perspective, was very “heart warming.”

He plans on seeing everyone, as well as more new faces, same time, same place, next year.