The morning hours of New Year’s Day brought gray skies and choppy waves to La Jolla Shores, along with a few dozen people who braved the wind and rain to take the annual Polar Bear plunge.
Some shivered in the cold — well, cold for San Diego — as they shed layers of clothing, then trotted out into the ocean. The water was 57 degrees Sunday morning and the surf reached 4 to 5 feet, San Diego lifeguards said.
“This is not what it was like yesterday,” Sue Parnes said as she looked out at the waves. She said she had gone for a swim a day earlier when the water was much calmer.
“It was flat, like a lake,” the Carmel Valley resident said. Sunday was different.
“The sea is angry,” she said with a chuckle.
Which raises the question: Why? Seriously. Why would anyone do this?
“It’s a tradition,” Parnes said. “It’s invigorating. It feels like a fresh way to start the year.”
Her husband, Bill Hartwell, said he’s been dipping into the ocean on Jan. 1 over many years — about 20 by his count. This time he had his swim clothes at the ready, but had not yet decided to take the plunge.
“If I go in, it’ll be just to get my hair wet,” he said.
Both avid ocean swimmers, Parnes and Hartwell are members of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club, which often hosts the annual Polar Bear Plunge gathering on Jan. 1. This year, the group canceled the official event because of the weather. But people showed up anyway — some were members of the swim club and others were from local organizations such as the Triathlon Club of San Diego and One With The Ocean.
“It’s peer pressure,” said Cassie Berta of Clairemont, who was toweling off after a dip in the waves. “When you join a community like this, you want to do these crazy things together.”
Some swimmers noted that even though they were at the beach for a lighthearted good time, safety was key.
“You can just tell by the way the waves are, the undertow is super strong,” said Gabe Wu, a South Park resident.
Ruth Shelton of La Mesa said many of the people who gathered were accustomed to swimming together and looking out for one another in the ocean. “We spend all year putting each other’s lives into our hands,” Shelton said. “Ocean swimming has risks. … We’re swimming together, trusting each other to have our backs.”
This year’s gathering was quite small when compared to Jan. 1, 2022, when more than 200 showed up in La Jolla to take the plunge. A similar event was scheduled on Camp Pendleton. A Penguin Plunge took place in Del Mar.
Some in La Jolla, like Patty and Bob Magaudda of Scripps Ranch dressed for the occasion in fuzzy polar bear-themed hats with long flaps at the sides that hung like paws. Others, including children and adults, donned onesie outfits adorned with giraffe prints or unicorn horns.
In short: People were having fun.
“It’s like a palate-cleansing for the year,” said Karen McCord of Rancho Peñasquitos, who was among a group of San Diegans who said they had been swimming together, and taking the Polar Bear Plunge, for more than a decade.
Standing nearby was Nancy Nowak, also of Rancho Peñasquitos, who described the morning’s experience as chilly, refreshing, invigorating — “All the good adjectives.”
“Embrace the Popsicle toes,” she said.
Many of the swimmers who emerged from the water Sunday headed straight for their vehicles as soon as they dried off. But some huddled together on the grass at Kellogg Park for warm beverages, hot chili and lively conversation by the beach. As they did so, the question of why they would subject themselves to the cold, wet elements on a dreary New Year’s Day seemed to become less and less important.
The answer, perhaps, was in yet another question.