The Coney Island Polar Bear Club took their New Year’s Day plunge into the icy, fun-filled waters of the Atlantic Ocean today. A tradition since 1903, nearly 700 men, women and children enjoyed their frost-happy dip and laughed to scorn reason and sanity. Nearly 3,000 spectators attended this annual event that’s now over a century old.
Dennis Thomas, the club’s current president, told TIME that it’s “a very cathartic and cleansing experience” because it’s so “distinct” and different an activity from our normal lives. “We all have stress, we know that — job, relationships, pressures, everyone’s got that. And I guarantee you that once you’re in that water, all that stuff disappears. You cannot think or worry about anything.” Indeed, its more enthusiastic members take a swim each Sunday during the winter months.
The group has a sort of pre-plunge ritual that has evolved over the years. It starts with the blowing of a conch shell to rouse and assemble the members into a circle. Then the group walks down to the beach, forming a larger circle as they approach the surf line, doing jumping jacks to get the blood flowing. The circle widens (personally, I would’ve widened my way home at this point) yet again as they start to go into the water, where a free form display of reactions (screams, laughter, etc.) and open swim is performed to excite and delight one and all. The nearby New York Aquarium provides hot tea after this exceptionally cool event to help defrost the swimmers.
A health food supporter by the name of Bernarr McFadden founded the club. During the early 1900s, winter swimming in Coney Island used to be a popular activity and 12 to 20 winter-bathing clubs were once in existence; the Coney Island Polar Bear Club is the oldest and sole surviving club. Coney Island is the heart and soul of the group and, each year, these hearty swimmers evoke the spirit of the island’s more adventuresome, frolicsome days.