Chilling at the Island: Hundreds take to the cold beach for Polar Bear Dip

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — Hundreds of people lined the beach outside Clayton’s Beach Bar and Grill on New Year’s Day, ready to plunge into the teeth-chattering waters of the Gulf Coast.

Dressed in costumes of all kinds, participants of the Polar Bear Dip braced for what was to come at noon, running into the waves of the water.

“It (the water) feels like little needles,” Samantha Maldonado said. “It doesn’t even feel cold, I guess because you’re already cold to begin with, but we’re warming up now, so it’s nice.”

Maldonado was accompanied by her mom, dad and brother for the dip. The family has participated in the South Padre Island Polar Dip for the past five years, making it their yearly tradition.

“We were ready,” Maldonado said. “We already knew what to expect, but this year’s dip has definitely been the coldest.”

According to Jason Straub, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Brownsville, the temperature at South Padre Island during the noon plunge was about 51 degrees with a water temperature of 62 degrees. Compared to last year’s weather, it was a little warmer, with the air temperature then at 44 degrees and water temperature at approximately 54 degrees.

Barry Goldsmith, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Brownsville, said this year waves were exceptionally high compared to that of prior years. Friday’s surf also had record strong currents.

The beach event is more than just a party. All of the proceeds collected from the SPI Polar Bears Club will go toward organizations, including the South Padre Island Walk for Woman, the South Texas Surf Rider Foundation and the Friends of Animal’s Rescue.

KTEX radio morning team member JoJo presided over the gala, with Pelican West and Geoff Clifton providing the entertainment. A costume contest was held with the winner receiving a $100 gift certificate from Clayton’s Beach Bar.

The first people to arrive were given coupons for an adult beverage, a cup of black-eyed peas and a champagne toast. T-shirts were also sold. A raffle took place, giving two winners night stays and dinner at the Hilton Garden Inn. Another drawing gave a winner a stay at the Holiday Inn Express.

“Today is our 18th anniversary,” said Blain McCulloch, one of the four founders of the SPI Polar Bears Club. “It started out as a party on New Year’s Eve. We were sitting around having some margaritas, the four of us, and it was just a goofy idea.”

McCulloch said the group suggested taking a polar bear dip. With three club members living on Whiting Street, they gave themselves the name the Whiting Street Polar Bear Club. They went down into the water at Boomerang Billy’s, a beach bar. Afterwards, they had some champagne and black eyed peas for good luck. Their first dip was Jan. 1, 1999.

Gradually, year after year, more people started joining them. To date, the group has about three thousand members with 250 more registering New Year’s Day.

In 2005, after noticing that a couple hundred people had joined in their tradition, they decided to sell t-shirts and use the proceeds to give to local charities. The group numbers continued to grow.

“We were getting a thousand people going into the water,” McCulloch said. “We made the switch from Boomerang Billy’s to Claytons four years ago. It was very fortuitous because this venue has an amphitheater, and the weather has been not as nice as we’d like it for the past few years. This has provided us some shelter from the elements.”

“Actually, a lot of us like to take our first bath in the Gulf of Mexico,” co-founder Greg Morrison said. “We’re very much lucky to be around people who come out here and support us. We’re polar bears with a cause.”

Morrison said that they’ve held the event for 18 years, facing every element of weather. Regardless of the cold temperature, he stated the show must go on.

“This is a really good family event,” Morrison said. “It’s a great way to start the New Year with people, on a positive note,” McCulloch said.

All founders, including Traylor Sells and Cindy Shomrock, look forward to it all year.

A spectator, Alex Palacios, said the plunge was the first he’s seen. When asked if he would take part in future South Padre Island Polar Bear Dips, he answered: “If it’s sunny, yes.”