Fifty-eight degree surf is just too cold for most mortals. But for the polar bears of South Laguna, the New Year's Day waves were just fine--though, perhaps a tad warm.
Polar bears off Southern California's coast? No, it's not a biological phenomenon or a new wrinkle on the proverbial pink elephants glimpsed after truly memorable New Year's Eve parties.
No, the 43 people charging into the Pacific Ocean in nothing but their bathing suits Tuesday were official, card-carrying members of the Treasure Island Polar Bear Club, gathering for their 29th annual New Year's Day dunk as nearly twice that number cheered them on from higher ground.
Reminded of Creek Dips
"I love it," said John F. Parks, who at 74 was celebrating his 15th year as a Treasure Island Polar Bear. "Where else could you get a crowd like this together and have so much fun?"
"(It) brings back memories of when I lived back in Connecticut as a kid and used to go into creeks during the wintertime on a dare," Parks said with a grin.
Founded Jan. 1, 1957, by nine residents of Treasure Island's mobile home park, the club's sole purpose is to meet once a year "to promote friendship with a dare to brave the chilly winter waters," founding member and secretary pro tem Bill Crespinel said. Today, the club boasts more than 600 card-carrying daredevils.
"All you have to do is sign up and jump in," said Diane Sparkling, 36, who nearly missed the cue for her first New Year's Day wade-in because she'd taken a stroll with her Sony Walkman only to return to find the ceremony at countdown stage.
This year's old-timer was Ellen Pelletier, 79, of Laguna Hills, who has been a Treasure Island Polar Bear since New Year's Day, 1964, when she and her husband happened on the traditional ceremony by accident.
"I borrowed a bathing suit and went right in--and I've been doing it ever since," said the silver-haired swimmer. "To me, the day I'm not able to swim with the Polar Bears is the day I'm going to feel much older."
Three-year-old Stephanie Roper retained her 1984 crown as the youngest Polar Bear, but apparently outgrew her 2-year-old fancy for skinny-dipping.
"She's so spunky, as you can see," said her mother, Rose Roper, as the little girl danced in and out of the tide line after the ceremony.
"I guess it's a way to tip your hat to the new year," said Roper, 31. "Hopefully, it's a better year for her in 1985," she said of Stephanie, who was hospitalized at least 24 times last year and had just recuperated from reconstructive bladder surgery.
Daddy of Them All
No mad ocean dash would be complete without Father Polar Bear.
Mark Aubrey, who held the title for the third year running, started a new tradition Tuesday. Instead of emerging from behind a bluff onto the beach below Treasure Island, the 28-year-old landscaper dove from a sportfishing boat anchored outside the secluded cove and swam to shore.
Shivering slightly, Aubrey strode onto the beach where he received the traditional crushed red velvet mantle trimmed in fake white ermine.
"OK, now here are the rules," he told the assembled crowd. "Men, you gotta dunk all the way. Ladies, you just have to go in to your shoulders--so you don't ruin your hairdos."
To complete the pep talk, Aubrey said, "The water's perfect. It's beautiful. You're gonna love it!"
Next, a bikini-clad girl dashed into the surf with an Olympic-pool-sized thermometer to take the ritual temperature. Back she splashed and held it out for Aubrey.
"Fifty eight degrees? That's too warm. Let's cool it down," Aubrey said, handing her a bag of ice.
Back into the water she went, dumping the miniature ice floes into the surf.
"OK everybody, join hands and line up," Aubrey shouted, and 43 brave souls followed suit.
Then began a breathless 10-count. And--fully 9 minutes before the traditional plunge at noon--a zigzagging line of the most daring sprinted into the surf, some sinking quickly to their knees in shallower water so they wouldn't have to run so far back.
Some had prepared themselves in advance. May Brown, enjoying her first day of retirement from her career as a film industry script supervisor, and Rosary Hough, the Mother Polar Bear of 1978, lifted jigger-sized bottles of brandy and sipped before shedding their jackets.
"If you're warm inside, you're not so cold on the outside," explained Brown, a Treasure Island resident who gave her age as "none of your business."