Are they nuts? Plunging into water at 8 degrees Celsius (46 F)! Perhaps they are, but people have been known to do stranger things.
- A Polar Bear “Swim” or “Plunge” is a tradition that goes back more than 100 years. It originated with the Scandinavian sauna tradition as a way to rapidly cool off after the heat of a sauna.
- In China and Russia, ice-swimming is reputed to have health benefits and is performed whenever the need arises, not just on New Year’s Day.
- Russian ice-swimmers are referred to as ‘walruses’ instead of the North American ‘polar bears’.
- In North America, the oldest annual plunge belongs to Boston, MA (1904). Dorchester Bay water was 3 degrees Celsius (37 F) on January 1, 2012 – barely above freezing. Regardless, over 600 swimmers came out to take the waters.
- Full submersion is the objective for the purists. They say that it’s not so bad once you get your head wet. I don’t know about that!
- Costumes are optional but preferred in North America. Superhero costumes are common. At least one person has donned a polar bear costume.
- The biggest event in Canada takes place in Vancouver, B.C. Vancouverites plunge into a frigid English Bay, part of the Pacific Ocean. The swim was initiated in 1921 by a local restaurateur who invited friends to join him for a quick dip and rewarded them with a free lunch. Nowadays, there are more than 2,000 participants and 10,000 spectators.
- Water temperatures in English Bay on New Year’s Day are usually in the vicinity of 8 Celsius. Considering that normal body temperature is 37 Celsius, you can see that there is a significant gradient. Most people dash in and dash right back out. A few brave souls actually swim for a couple of minutes, but the majority just plunge. One participant commented that “it’s quite pleasant once you lose feeling in your limbs”.
- January 1, 2012 saw a record 36,000 polar bear swimmers in various locations around the Netherlands.
Thousands of dollars are raised for charity each year by New Year’s Day ‘Polar Bears’.
Plunging into icy water can be done for health, fun, charity or just to strike it from your bucket list. If you missed the New Year’s Day plunge, you can head north to Yellowknife, North West Territories for their March “Freezin for a Reason” in Great Slave Lake, 400km (250 miles) south of the Arctic Circle.