Wind and rain can’t stop dozens from welcoming the new year with Polar Bear Plunge in La Jolla

Swimmers wade into the cold waves to take the New Year's Polar Bear Plunge at La Jolla Shores on Jan. 1.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The La Jolla Cove Swim Club canceled the official event because of weather, but many hearty swimmers showed up to La Jolla Shores anyway.

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New Year’s Day morning 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 as they shed layers of clothing, then trotted into the ocean. The water was 57 degrees Jan. 1 and the surf reached 4 to 5 feet, according to San Diego lifeguards.

“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,” Parnes said.

New Year’s Day was different. “The sea is angry,” she said with a chuckle.

Julie Cairelli and Gretchen Pound return from the ocean wrapped in kelp after going for a dip New Year's Day in La Jolla.
Julie Cairelli and Gretchen Pound return from the ocean wrapped in kelp after going for a dip New Year’s Day in La Jolla.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Which raises the question: 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 for about 20 years. This time he had his swim clothes at the ready but hadn’t yet decided whether to take the plunge.

“If I go in, it’ll be just to get my hair wet,” he said.

Parnes and Hartwell, both avid ocean swimmers, are members of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club, which often presents the annual New Year’s Polar Bear Plunge. This year though, 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 organizations such as the Triathlon Club of San Diego and One With the Ocean.

“It’s peer pressure,” said Cassie Berta, 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 [that] the undertow is super strong,” said Gabe Wu.

Mike Strickland holds his daughter Emily during the New Year's Polar Bear Plunge at La Jolla Shores.
Mike Strickland holds his daughter Emily while walking in the ocean during the New Year’s Polar Bear Plunge at La Jolla Shores.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ruth Shelton 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 small compared with Jan. 1, 2022, when more than 200 people showed up in La Jolla to take the plunge.

“It’s a tradition. It’s invigorating. It feels like a fresh way to start the year.”

— Sue Parnes

Some swimmers, like Patty and Bob Magaudda, dressed for the occasion this year 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.

“It’s like a palate-cleansing for the year,” said Karen McCord, who was among a group of San Diegans who said they had been swimming together — including taking the Polar Bear Plunge — for more than a decade.

Standing nearby, Nancy Nowak described the morning’s experience as chilly, refreshing, invigorating — “all the good adjectives.”

“Embrace the Popsicle toes,” she said.

Many who emerged from the water 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 another question:

Why not? ◆