Swimmers greet the New Year with a pandemic version of the Polar Bear Plunge

Friends take part in an unofficial polar bear plunge at La Jolla Shores
A group dressed as polar bears takes part in the unofficial Polar Bear Plunge at La Jolla Shores on Friday.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It’s cleansing. I feel like I’ve just washed off 2020 and I’m ready for 2021.”


There was no giant group photo and no post-swim potluck lunch.

Dozens of brave people from across the county gathered Friday for a scaled-down, pandemic version of one of their favorite traditions: celebrating the new year by splashing in cold ocean water at La Jolla Shores beach.

While many traditional elements were missing from the annual Polar Bear Plunge, the event — started locally in the 1980s — took place in a less formal way with smaller groups of swimmers practicing social distancing both in and out of the water.

Kristin Jensen from Bay Park said she was fine with 2021’s more low-key, freelance version.

“I don’t need a big group picture this year,” said Jensen, explaining that the only crucial element is immersing yourself in cold water, which was 57 degrees on Friday. “It’s cleansing. I feel like I’ve just washed off 2020 and I’m ready for 2021.”

New Year’s Day swims are traditional in many places around the world, including much colder climates in the Eastern U.S. and Europe.

Sophia Magaudda holds her 18-month old son, Bowen, as they prepare to hit the water.
Sophia Magaudda and her 18-month old son, Bowen, prepare to hit the water.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Eric Hough of Serra Mesa said the pandemic initially made him hesitant to continue his family’s seven-year tradition of participating in the plunge. But he realized they could check a lot of key boxes.

“It’s outside, we can socially distance here and we’re all immediate family,” he said.

Then came the next challenge: slightly cooler-than-normal water temperatures.

“We’re all kind of dreading it this year because of the water temperature, but tradition is tradition,” Hough said. “It’s a fun way to start off the new year by doing something wild and something that just takes a smidgen of courage, maybe.”

Rob Tavakoli of Rancho Penasquitos took the plunge for the first time this year, but he says it definitely won’t be the last.

“It was exhilarating and fun and cool — I’m glad I did it,” he said, adding that he’s looking forward to a more formal version next New Year’s Day. “I think we’re getting the ‘private’ version of nearly every event this year, so I’m very much looking forward to being part of the public version.”

Some small formalities did take place Friday.

Shortly before 10 a.m., when the official plunge would normally kick off, Steve Dillard of Bay Park pulled out a trumpet and, per tradition, played Auld Lang Syne to the 50 or so people assembled in Kellogg Park.

“Back by popular demand,” Dillard said.

And just after 10 a.m., a group of roughly 10 people donning polar bear hats hit the water.

Then Chelsey Rogers of Mira Mesa tiptoed into the surf carrying her son Tyler Rogers, who turned 1 on Saturday.

“He was here last year in utero,” Chelsey said.

Many other children also participated, including Chloe Mitten, a 10-year-old from Lakeside.

“I’m looking forward to this because in Arizona I went into a 50-degree pool,” said Mitten, who was taking the plunge for the second year in a row. “It was really cold last year, so I ran out fast. I’m going to stay in for a while this time.”

Dwayne Kao of Sabre Springs was among the long-time participants who said the decision to continue in the face of COVID-19 was relatively easy.

“We’ve been doing this for several years and we didn’t want to stop doing it,” he said. “When you do it once you say ‘I’ll never do it again,’ but then the time comes around and you think ‘it wasn’t too bad.’”

But some participants found the plunge quite challenging. That includes Daryl Knight of Lemon Grove. “I run ultramarathons, but this was tough — I’m freezing,” he said.

The unofficial polar bear plunge at La Jolla Shores
The La Jolla Cove Swim Club, which hosts the annual Polar Bear Plunge, called it off this year but many people still came to the beach to carry out the tradition.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Some people had fear and dread written all over their faces, while others smiled ear-to-ear that they got a chance to do something unusual along with others.

Members of the La Jolla Swim Club, which founded the event, aren’t sure exactly when the first plunge was held. The event moved from La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores on New Year’s Day in 1998 because of large waves.

La Jolla Shores has better parking and provides easier entry and exit to the water, so the event has remained there ever since.

A similar event run by the city of Del Mar, the Penguin Plunge, was officially canceled this year.

Photographer Sam Hodgson contributed to this story