Polar bear swimming on Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro is one of the port city’s oldest and most popular traditions.
And this year it’s back again, cumming at noon on Saturday January 1st after being canceled due to the pandemic in 2021.
Dating back 70 years, the New Year’s ritual draws hundreds of people to the recreational coast in the Port of Los Angeles for a brisk sprint through the waves.
The idea: to encourage a good start to the new year with healthy exercise, camaraderie and some time outdoors in nature.
The annual get-togethers typically reach 800 swimmers and include friends and neighbors, parents with children, and young and old folks who stayed in shape off the coast of San Pedro year-round.
Many wouldn’t think of missing out.
Then came the pandemic.
For the first time in its generation-long history, the 69th swim was canceled for January 1, 2021. Some people gathered informally anyway, one of the organizers said, and a virtual swim was posted on Facebook.
But it was a far cry from the huge, boisterous collection of bodies that rushed into the breaking waves of years past.
The 70th annual polar bear swim begins with the king and queen coronation at 11:30 am – with people laughing and screaming at noon as they take the plunge.
No rain is predicted. It should be sunny. But it’s going to be cold, by LA standards, with an expected daily high of around 59 degrees.
Under stormy skies, Steve Herbert and Kathleen Seixas-Greene, King and Queen of San Pedro’s 70th annual polar bear swim, will lead the New Year celebrations on Thursday, December 30th, 2021. The sun is forecast for Saturday, January 1st, when the annual New Year’s Polar Bear Ocean Fall hits San Pedro on Cabrillo Beach. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram / SCNG)
This year’s presiding kings and queens elected by Polar Bears members are Steve Herbert, an audio technician and daily sea swimmer, and Kathleen Seixas-Greene, teacher and mother.
There are some adjustments made because of the pandemic, with the most recent variant of Omicron now on the rise: participants are asked to wear face masks when not in the water; the traditional hot cocoa and cupcakes are not served; and everyone is asked to keep 6 feet away from other households to allow for some social distancing.
Other polar bears swim more cautiously elsewhere.
The 102nd Polar Bear Swim for Vancouver, Washington, will be a virtual event for the second year in a row, encouraging attendees to plunge into chilled bathtubs or kiddy pools at home.
But what is considered the oldest organized dive, dating back to 1903, but New York’s Coney Island Polar Bear Club will bring back what is believed to be the oldest organized dive after a year-long hiatus – back to 1903.
The annual break-ins in San Pedro began informally sometime in the 1940s. The late John Olguin was among those who started the idea along with Los Angeles County’s lifeguard Jack Cheaney.
They later founded the Cabrillo Beach Polar Bears and the first official polar bear swim took place on January 1, 1953.
Participants meet on the beach to jump in the water, with about 100 going further out to swim.
Nancy Utovac, 63, one of the first women to work on the docks, said she won’t be surprised if this year’s swim draws a large and thankful crowd. She served as the queen of the event in 2000 and regularly swims in the ocean. Just this week, she and a few other swimmers were accompanied by about six dolphins outside the breakwater.
“It’s a friendly tradition,” she said, “and people turn up who haven’t been seen in a long time. For so many, it’s just what they do on New Years Day. They bring the children and grandparents with them, they get their (participation) certificate and then Coco. “
The last time the swim took place – Jan 1, 2020 – weeks passed before COVID-19 was confirmed on U.S. shores.
Seemingly carefree on the horizon, the crowds gathered as always to welcome the year 2020. After soaking in 50-degree water, they returned to the sand, drank the traditional hot cocoa, and planned to do it again next year.
It was 64 degrees, a pretty typical New Year’s Day on the southern California coast.
And nobody could have guessed how pretty much everything would change in 2020.
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