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Swimmers in La Jolla greet 2021 with pandemic version of the Polar Bear Plunge

A group dressed as polar bears takes part in the unofficial Polar Bear Plunge at La Jolla Shores on New Year's Day.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Dozens of brave people from across San Diego County gathered Jan. 1 for a scaled-down pandemic version of one of their favorite traditions: celebrating the new year by splashing in cold ocean water at La Jolla Shores.

There was no giant group photo and no post-swim potluck lunch.

Dozens of brave people from across San Diego County gathered Jan. 1 for a scaled-down pandemic version of one of their favorite traditions: celebrating the new year by splashing in cold ocean water at La Jolla Shores.

Many traditional elements were missing from the annual Polar Bear Plunge, but the event — started locally in the 1980s — went ahead in a less formal way, with smaller groups of swimmers practicing social distancing in and out of the water.

Kristin Jensen from Bay Park said she was fine with 2021’s more low-key, freelance version.

“I don’t need a big group picture this year,” said Jensen, who added that the only crucial element is getting immersed in the cold water, which was 57 degrees on New Year’s Day. “It’s cleansing. I feel like I’ve just washed off 2020 and I’m ready for 2021.”

Sophia Magaudda holds her 18-month old son, Bowen, as they prepare to hit the water.
Sophia Magaudda and her 18-month old son, Bowen, prepare to hit the chilly ocean on New Year’s Day at La Jolla Shores.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Eric Hough of Serra Mesa said the pandemic initially made him hesitant to continue his family’s seven-year tradition of participating in the plunge. But he realized they could check a lot of key boxes.

“It’s outside, we can socially distance here and we’re all immediate family,” he said.

Then came the next challenge: slightly lower than normal water temperature.

“We’re all kind of dreading it this year because of the water temperature, but tradition is tradition,” Hough said. “It’s a fun way to start off the new year by doing something wild and something that just takes a smidgen of courage, maybe.”

Rob Tavakoli of Rancho Penasquitos was taking the plunge for the first time but said it won’t be the last.

“It was exhilarating and fun and cool — I’m glad I did it,” he said. “I think we’re getting the ‘private’ version of nearly every event this year, so I’m very much looking forward to being part of the public version” next New Year’s Day.

Some small formalities did take place this time.

Shortly before 10 a.m., when the official plunge would normally kick off, Steve Dillard of Bay Park pulled out a trumpet and, per tradition, played “Auld Lang Syne” to the 50 or so people assembled in Kellogg Park.

Just after that, about 10 people donning polar bear hats hit the water.

Then Chelsey Rogers of Mira Mesa tiptoed into the surf carrying her year-old son, Tyler.

Many other children also participated, including Chloe Mitten, 10, from Lakeside.

“I’m looking forward to this because in Arizona I went into a 50-degree pool,” said Chloe, who was taking the plunge for the second year in a row. “It was really cold last year, so I ran out fast. I’m going to stay in for a while this time.”

Dwayne Kao of Sabre Springs was among the longtime participants who said the decision to continue the plunge in the face of COVID-19 was relatively easy.

“We’ve been doing this for several years and we didn’t want to stop doing it,” he said. “When you do it once you say, ‘I’ll never do it again,’ but then the time comes around and you think, ‘It wasn’t too bad.’”

But some participants found the plunge quite challenging. “I run ultramarathons, but this was tough — I’m freezing,” said Daryl Knight of Lemon Grove.

People take part in the unofficial 2021 Polar Bear Plunge on New Year's Day at La Jolla Shores.
Though the official version of the annual Polar Bear Plunge was called off this year, many people still went to the beach at La Jolla Shores to carry on the tradition.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Some people had fear and dread written all over their faces, while others smiled ear to ear over the chance to do something unusual along with others.

Members of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club, which founded the event, aren’t sure when the first plunge was held. The event moved from La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores on New Year’s Day 1998 because of large waves.

La Jolla Shores has better parking and provides easier water entry and exit, so the event has remained there.

— San Diego Union-Tribune photographer Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.