Frisky polar bears and pelicans take a chilly ocean dip on New Year's Day

January 1, 2010 

Participants in the fourth annual Hilton Head Polar Bear Plunge hit the water on Friday morning at Coligny Beach Park to celebrate the start of a new year.

JONATHAN DYER/THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

While many of us were snug in our beds on the first morning of the new year, some hardy souls saw the beginning of 2010 as the perfect day for a swim, albeit a quick one. The average Atlantic Ocean water temperature in December is 54 degrees, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.A day into January didn't warm things up much. Here's how area polar bears and pelicans fared in the surf on Friday.

ON HILTON HEAD ISLAND

The scene moments before the start of the 4th annual Polar Bear Plunge was tense.

In the gray weather at Coligny Beach Park, about 400 people formed a phalanx 20 yards from the water's edge at a few minutes before 11 a.m., preparing to plunge into the chilly water. Hundreds more watched from the sidelines.

The young -- and very foolish -- stood at the front of the line, chests out, courage high, as plunge organizer Tim Guest counted down: "3, 2, 1..."

After a collective "Yay!"from swimmers and curious onlookers, the swimsuited crowd mounted their assault on the elements, scaring away a few waterbirds in the process, who took flight above the splashing masses.

At least 100 people lost their nerve when the water reached their knees, and turned back toward the shore and their laughing families.

Others waded up to the waist.

Others -- and there were very few of them -- dove in, submerging themselves in the cold waves.

Frank Milbourn Sr., and son Frank Jr., were among them.

They emerged from the water red with cold but as cheerful as the holiday season now closing.

Frank Sr. wore a Santa hat with the words "Merry Christmas" written on it. Its white pompom sagged with ocean water. "We're freezing!" he whooped as Frank Jr. delivered a thumbs-up sign and made a beeline for his towel.

Max Semerau of Chapin lingered in the water longer than others, moving in circles, his dark hair and beard dripping. He walked away from the water sans towel, saying he felt warmer than when he'd arrived with his coat and hat on.

Surprisingly few dogs were willing to make the plunge, said organizer Guest, who was shocked when asked whether he'd made it into the water himself .

"Of course I did!" he said, "It's a really nice way to bring in the new year."

ON HUNTING ISLAND

North of the Broad River, more than 150 people sought to ring in the new year Friday by blurring the line between bravery and insanity.

Hunting Island State Park hosted the 2nd annual Pelican Plunge, an event organized by the Friends of Hunting Island that is fast becoming a holiday tradition in the Beaufort area.

Wearing Viking hats, tutus and plastic 2010 glasses, would-be plungers lined up on the shores of the park's north beach and braced themselves for a chilly start to the new year.

Standing on the beach beneath an umbrella, Ron Ellsman of Beaufort knew what role he played in this New Year's Day ritual.

"I'm the designated towel holder," Ellsman said as his wife, Linda and daughter, Jenna, lined up to make their mad dash into the surf. "It's all about making sure those towels and other warm clothes are ready when those yahoos come bolting from the water."

Almost as quick as they entered, wide-eyed swimmers darted from the water in the direction of the nearest warm towel or sweatshirt.

"It wasn't all that bad," said Brad Kennison, one of the last to emerge from the ocean. "When you first get in, it kind of takes your breath away but you get used to it."

Tom Valentino, event spokesman, said the Friends of Hunting Island have been pleased with how the event has been received and the exposure it has given the park.

"Everybody that participates in the plunge and all the spectators have a great time, and it helps bring people to the park in the offseason at a time when it doesn't typically see a lot of visitors," Valentino said.

Proceeds from team and individual swimmer sponsorships and a T-shirt sale were donated to the park's Discover Carolina schools program, Valentino said.

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