Swimmers take the plunge, ring in new year with a splash

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comJanuary 1, 2012 

Swimmers charge toward the 57-degree ocean water Sunday during the annual New Year's Day Pelican Plunge on Hunting Island.

JAY KARR/THE ISLAND PACKET

Unseasonably warm temperatures Sunday helped hundreds of Lowcountry swimmers start the year off with a refreshing dip in the Atlantic Ocean.

For the fourth consecutive year, the Friends of Hunting Island sponsored its Pelican Plunge at Hunting Island State Park to ring in the new year and help raise money for Discover Carolina, a state parks education program that teaches students about biology, maritime forests, plants and animals.

Intended to be a local twist on polar bear plunges in colder climes, Sunday's swimmers were treated to sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70s.

"I can't believe this weather," said Leanne Goldman of Lady's Island before the event. "I've come to this the past few years and the weather has always been a little chilly but this just feels like a day at the beach."

At about 1 p.m., park manager Jeff Atkins and other event organizers led nearly 400 swimmers -- some wearing costumes, including one man who tore away a Viking costume to reveal a dark brown loin cloth underneath -- on a slow march from the park's historic lighthouse to the beach where they soon dashed into the surf.

The chilly temperature of the water, expected to be in the upper 50s, was a shock to some.

"It was definitely chilly," said Lee Simon of Beaufort. "I wasn't sure what to expect because the air is so warm but it's definitely a bit of a shock when you first get out there."

The plunge was the only such event locally after the annual Hilton Head Polar Bear Plunge was canceled earlier this week because of an unusually high number of Portugese men-of-war in the ocean.

Organizers at Hunting Island said they monitored and did not spot as many of the large, blue siphonophores as were reported near Hilton Head Island.

The threat of being stung by one of the ocean's most deadly predators did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the event's participants.

"I mean they're out there, they live out there," said Chad Campbell of Bluffton. "The way I see it, they wouldn't let us go sprinting into the ocean if it was full of jellyfish. It's not stopping me from going into the water and it doesn't seem to be stopping anyone else either."

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.

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