Polar Bear Plunge draws hundreds to La Jolla Shores beach on New Year’s Day 2020

As is tradition, participants of the annual Polar Bear Plunge — held at La Jolla Shores on New Year's Day 2020 — gather for a large group photo.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ken Haygood, 91, grew up in the waters of La Jolla Shores, often playing in the surf or bodysurfing, and was even a lifeguard there during the late 1940s.

On New Year’s Day 2020, he was there again. With about 400 others, Haygood took part in one of his favorite annual traditions: a brisk morning plunge into the Pacific Ocean to kick off the New Year.

“It sobers you up,” joked Haygood, drenched in the icy water. “There are all these things going on, but you come down here and you see people you haven’t seen all year and swim with them. It’s fun.”

The Polar Bear Plunge has been a La Jolla tradition for about 30 years. Such swims have become a tradition for people throughout the country, including in places with incredibly cold weather along the East Coast. The La Jolla event often proves a big draw, bringing in upwards of 300 people from all across the county for the past several years.

An estimated 400 people participated in the event this year, according to organizers from the La Jolla Cove Swim Club.

“For a long time, from what I’ve heard, it was just the swim club, a small gathering of maybe 30 to 40 people, and then it just grew from there and became more of a community thing,” said Dan Simonelli, president of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club. “It’s a little strange. It is not as extreme as some cold places right — kind of the joke about Southern California polar bear — but it is chilly. I think, generally, people just want to do something active as a real nice jump off for the new year.”

After taking a group picture on the beach around 10 a.m., dozens of swimmers of all ages broke out in a sprint for the ocean — many decked out in furry polar bear caps — eager to feel the flush of the cold water. Others took a more tepid approach, content to gradually dip their toes into the 57 degree water.

Once in, participants played in the water, embarked on long-distance swims with friends or just relaxed and floated about in a doughnut or flamingo floatie before returning to the shore for a potluck at Kellogg Park.

For many swimmers, braving the chilly waters is invigorating.

“On a day like this when it’s sunny and warm, and just that cold water and the ocean, it just makes you feel so alive,” said Kathleen Bober, a 65-year-old from Tucson who was participating in the plunge for the third time. “Why not spend the new year that way and with a bunch of other people who feel the same way?”

This year marked the second go at the plunge for Lisa King and members of her family. King, 61, was joined by her son Hayden King, 27, her daughter Alexandra Goforth, 33, and her son-in-law Alex Goforth, 36.

“It’s so exhilarating and refreshing, it’s a great outlook and a fresh new start,” Lisa said. “I’m all about family traditions, and I hope this is one we’ll carry on for many years.”

Bundled up in robes, towels, and an old high school swim jacket, the family also highlighted their love of how the plunge brings the community together.

“We grew up in San Diego but we both don’t live here now,” said Hayden, who lives in Mississippi. His sister lives in New York. “It is just always fun to get back to the beach and good vibes and jump in ... it’s a little shock to the system, and here you go.”

“For a bunch of people to come out and make an event of it, that’s a really fun part,” Alexandra said.

“Just seeing everyone from La Jolla and other parts of San Diego come together and celebrate the new year in a fun, different way than most people (is wonderful).”

Charles T. Clark writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Some participants wore polar bear-inspired outfits for the annual Polar Bear Plunge in La Jolla Shores on New Year's Day 2020.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)