The Sanibel Island Polar Plunge occurs annually on the first of January at Tarpon Bay Beach at the “crack of noon,” allowing for all to recover from late New Year’s Eve celebrations the night before. Since 2001, local Floridians and tourists alike gather to submerge themselves in the sea. The Polar Bear Plunge is a fun way to kick off the New Year, surrounded by other festive spirits.
The Sanibel Island Polar Plunge is quite different from similar gatherings in other destinations. Other polar bear chapters have to hack ice off frozen lakes and ponds before jumping into rigid water; so Sanibel’s event in sunny Florida is jokingly known as the “Solar Bear Plunge.” Exceptionally good weather can coax few hundred willing polar bears to the Sanibel Island Polar Plunge, accompanied by a smattering of spectators, jokingly referred to as “mice.”
After signing the official Polar Plunge register with veteran “Papa Bear” John Carney and his volunteers, participants mill around the beach. Some head towards the shore and tentatively dip their toes in, testing the water. (My Dad insists that’s cheating.) And others bask in the sun, warming up before the chilly dip.
At noon, the Sanibel Island Polar Plunge crew gathers together in a huddle. Rather than letting out a big bear roar, they sing the polar bear anthem as a rally crew to the tune of “God Bless America.”
“While the storm clouds gather far across the sea/
Let us swear allegiance to our club that’s free/
Let us al be hopeful for a day in the sun/
As we raise our glasses and we have some fun…”
“…God bless the Polar Bears/
On New Year’s Day/
Stand beside us and join us/
To the shore with a roar as we play…”
“…From the uplands, to the marshes/
To the Gulf Shore filled with ice/
God bless the Polar Bears – it sure feels nice/
God bless the Polar Bears – we’re bears, not mice!”
The Polar Bear Anthem complete, the migration to the Gulf begins. In the photo above, Papa Bear John Carney leads the bears into the water, whistle in hand.
While the “polar bears” wade into the sea, the “mice” stand comfortably on the shore, waving to their more daring companions. Many also document the plunge with photographs and video.
The local newspapers normally include a picture of the Sanibel Island Polar Plunge, too. This encourages some participants to dress up in order to identify themselves in the large group photo. Santa hats and New Year’s Eve crowns are common.
Check out this video compilation of the Sanibel Island Polar Plunge by Kenneth Burgener.
Last year, in 2017, a group of friends graced Tarpon Bay Beach with polar bear hats. However, representing your home state is common, too. I’ve also seen Wisconsin cheese heads, Texans in cowboy hats and Minnesotans with Viking helmets.
The Polar Plunge commences with everyone completely dunking their bodies in the water and gathering for a large, sopping wet, group hug. One of the best parts about the Sanibel Island Polar Plunge is the variety of participants. Toddlers to grandparents get together, and a few dogs even join in the occasion.
Once back on dry land, Sanibel Polar Bears receive a certificate of completion and a membership card. Polar Bears can take photos in the Sanibel “shell pith helmet,” and glug a gulp of champagne from the large glass, shown on the table in the photo below.
If you’re in Sanibel over New Year, you should definitely go for some smiles and laughs. I lost count of how many times I took the plunge, but each year, I have a “swell” time!
Thinking about taking the Polar Plunge?