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Taking the Plunge
Published Monday, January 05, 2009 9:00 AM
By Paul Zoeller
Summerville Journal Scene
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Some toast the New Year with champagne or eat black eyed peas for luck. And others race with wild abandon towards the Atlantic to jump into the ice cold water. The events, known as Polar Bear Plunges, first started in the far north as people would break through ice so they could jump into freezing waters.

Every year for the past 15 years, Dunleavy's Pub has hosted their event, the Polar Plunge, on Sullivan's Island to benefit the Special Olympics.

Normally I don't think South Carolina qualifies as a cold enough climate to label any plunge as polar. On Christmas day for example, the mid-70s brought many to the beach for a non-traditional holiday outing. New Year's was not that kind of day. The water was 57 degrees and those standing around in swim trunks were greeted by mid-30s and a good gust of breeze.

Thousands rush to the water during the Dunleavy's Pub Polar Plunge on Sullivan's Island.

The cold weather didn't stop thousands who gathered at Dunleavy's Pub for the pre-plunge party. The sensible people dressed appropriately in heavy coats and scarves while others wore much less. I believe the level of dress was directly proportionate to the amount of alcohol consumed by many at the pub.

Eliza Hoffman, of Summerville, and her friends participate in a game of beer pong before taking the plunge.

And swimwear was really optional. Some stood in trash bags, Baby New Year wore a diaper and many felt Calvin Klein was an acceptable swimsuit as they stood in underwear drinking to stay warm.

Buzby Bramble dons beer goggles and a flamingo hat.

Many plan their costumes months in advance. I ran into a group of zombies who were either really hung over or getting into their parts as members of the living dead. They moved slowly and moaned a lot.

Groups of all ages dressed up for the dip. Some local ladies were dressed in bags and labeled themselves as the 'Hot Chicks.' A family of four came as clowns and a group of teenage girls covered themselves with colorful hand prints. Everyone had fun people watching as some of the wildest costumed characters passed by.

Some were out for water; these zombies were out for blood.

Throughout the morning people played games and listened to music as they ate and drank. Soon the food and drink were gone and the donations to the Special Olympics had been made. Like ants returning to the mound, lines of people headed past the dunes to the beach.

Wesley Hawes helps advertise hot chocolate for sale.

Once at the beach, many huddled together for warmth or posed for pictures. Most gathered around a roped-off area to be the first to hit the water. At this point spirits were high as everyone still believed a plunge was a good idea.

Some even entertained the crowd with impromptu dashes around the inner ropes. It was like a concert or sporting event as people jumped and cheered and even did the wave. The closer it got to plunging time the louder they got and crazier they acted. I think it was more to stay warm than for entertainment purposes.

Baby New Year is chased by Father Time during a pre-plunge lap past the crowds of observers.

A couple of minutes before 2 p.m. the bagpipes started blaring as the Dunleavy family made a grand entrance to welcome everyone to the Polar Plunge. The crowd went wild for the group who looked more like they were going to the prom than hitting the beach in white tuxedos with tails. They  all didn't make the plunge, I guess the suits were rentals.

Bag pipers lead the way as the Dunleavy family enters to officially start the festivities.

Soon the bagpipes were quiet and the air was thick with anticipation. Up to this point no one had really felt the water temperature but nothing was going to stop them from exercising their God-given right to do something really foolish.

As if signaled by a gun shot, they were off and running for the water as if the ocean were filled with beer or cola and they had to have a taste.

Moments before the big plunge everyone is pumped up about the swim.

Now at this moment I was standing knee deep in water. Caught up in all of the excitement, I had decided I couldn't shoot this without being in the water myself. How cold could the water be?

Needles, one million of them, were sticking into my legs and after one big wave I was soaked. The water was only 50 something degrees but I felt like hypothermia was setting in with every second I stood there. The swimmers were racing towards me and I was looking for a quick exit but it is hard to go against the flow as more than a 1,000 people were heading my way.

One moment everyone rushes to the water happy and excited.

As the last of the heat was leaving my body, I turned to watch everyone jumping up and down with excitement in the ocean. Moments later, those that had just passed me were following me as everyone charged the dry beach like an invading army. No longer laughing, they were looking for warmth. People were screaming, kids crying and the alcohol induced were sober again.

After all of the build up, the preparation and the excitement, it was over as soon as it began. Some who were either braver or dumber stayed in the water to play in the waves. The rest found comfort wrapped in towels and huddled together.

Seconds later everyone retreats from the freezing waters screaming and cold.

Why put yourself through such torture? Everyone had their own story. I met a group who had traveled from Atlanta just to partake in the plunge with some friends. They did it for the rush and soon after the plunge they popped the top on a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Others said it was a tradition and they usually followed up that statement with the number of years they had been attending the event like it was a shiny medal of accomplishment.

Still some like myself just wanted to try something different.

Some were excited, splashing away in the water...

Once out of the water, it didn't take long for the beach to empty as some headed for the pub and others for their cars. Besides, the wind was unbelievably cold as it blasted the beach and they had done what they came to do.

I dried off and left with a sense of accomplishment as well.

Others were ready to go home.

No, my New Year's resolution did not include catching pneumonia but it didn't include skipping out on the fun either.

Happy New Year everyone!

For more photos from the plunge you can visit the gallery on Spotted.

Paul Zoeller is a freelance photographer new to the area. Do you have an idea for a new blog or a question about a current blog? If you do contact Zoeller at

Comments (5)

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local yokel
Monday, January 10, 2011 12:31 AM

there are those like 'lifetimelocal' (whom i hope i never have to stand next to at a party) and then there are the rest of us who like to have fun. this was a blast and i can't wait to do it again!!

Posted by:
Doesn't compare to Wisconsin but Sign me up
Monday, February 09, 2009 3:41 PM

Having participated in the Polar Bear Plunge in Milwaukee Wisconsin, I have to say that this doesn't really compare (temperature wise), but the characters are just as lively. How fun to include father time, etc. and the costumes. Up here we have to plunge our entire head under the water for it to count. We usually have to dodge the ice chunks and we always wear shoes. It's a long held tradition, but how fun. We'll be there soon, Sign me up for the fun!

Posted by: L.Shaw
Friday, January 09, 2009 4:32 PM

If there is any doubt that this town is now filled with a large population of imbeciles, the participants in this ridiculous event provide all the proof necessary.

Posted by: Lifetime Local
Crazy Crazy Crazy
Tuesday, January 06, 2009 5:48 PM

This is too hilarious. Love some of those "costumes" though... I must admit, it takes lots of guts to do this

Posted by: Co Hoa
That's totally nuts!
Tuesday, January 06, 2009 7:49 AM

It was way too cold outside for that, I could never do it. But I think I admire them!

Posted by: Janice

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