By Donald Wittkowski
Polar Bear Plunge mania has gripped Sea Isle City.
It is marked by a peculiar predilection by thousands of bathers dressed in swimsuits and outrageous costumes to jump into the chilly ocean in February.
As many as 50,000 visitors are expected to pour into town for a Polar Bear weekend of partying, dining, shopping and plunging – giving Sea Isle a huge economic boost at a time when the Jersey Shore is usually mired in its winter slumber.
The plunge, scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday off the beach between 38th and 40th streets, is the headline event. However, the entire weekend will feature an array of entertainment. Another highlight is the Mike’s Seafood Run-Walk for Autism at noon Sunday, an event expected to draw about 3,000 participants.
City Councilman William Kehner said the economic impact of the annual Polar Bear Plunge Weekend celebration is comparable to the surge of business that Sea Isle experiences on the Fourth of July, at the height of the summer tourism season.
Local shops, restaurants and bars reopen especially for the weekend, grabbing enough business to sustain them until summer’s arrival.
“It’s the greatest weekend of the winter season,” Kehner said. “So many business owners look forward to reopening. It helps everybody get through to May.”
Polar Bear Plunge coincides with the Presidents Day weekend every February, allowing Sea Isle to capitalize on the extended holiday.
“So many people have made Sea Isle a destination for Presidents Day weekend,” Kehner said. “It brings families together. It’s a special weekend.”
Kehner noted that there is such heavy demand for lodging over the weekend that real estate agents encourage second-homeowners to rent out their properties. The rent money that homeowners reap over the weekend can be enough to pay their local property taxes for the year, he said.
This is the 25th anniversary of the plunge, which started modestly with only 25 bathers in 1994 but has grown into a colossal event. Kehner said other shore towns have tried to emulate Sea Isle over the years with their plunges, but have never had the same level of success.
“Nobody’s equaled Sea Isle,” he said.
LaCosta Lounge, at the corner of John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Landis Avenue, serves as the entertainment epicenter throughout the weekend. The wildly popular Polar Bear Plunge costume contest will unfold under the tents at LaCosta at noon Saturday. It serves as a wacky prelude to the plunge itself.
Plungers were busy registering for the event on Friday. Amy Cossaboone, who was signing up people at the registration tent, said the plunge often draws visitors from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and Maryland – and even father away.
“I know last year we had people from Washington state,” Cossaboone said. “I know there were some people from Florida, too. I remember seeing that.”
One family from Pittsburgh made a six and a half hour drive to Sea Isle on Thursday to participate in the plunge and spend the entire weekend at the shore.
Rose Pennavaria, a member of the Pittsburgh group, said this is the seventh year her family has done the plunge. She plans to jump into the ocean with her husband, Justin, and a relative, Pat Townsend.
Pennavaria’s parents, Kris and Mel Scarpaci, will be watching from the sidelines. Their job is to hold the towels and shoot video of the event.
Letting out a hearty laugh, Pennavaria said it’s not considered a real plunge unless you get completely submerged.
“It’s the energy when you’re in there. It’s a huge party,” she said of the excitement of charging into the frigid surf.
Townsend said he heard the water temperature is around 39 degrees. He’s jumped into colder water during other Polar Bear plunges, but acknowledged that a 39-degree ocean is sure to sting.
“It’s going to hurt for 30 seconds,” Townsend said. “The pain will be temporary, but the glory is forever.”
Townsend joined with Rose and Justin Pennavaria on Friday to sign up for the plunge, making it official.
Other visitors strolled through the downtown business district, hitting the bars, restaurants and shops.
Liz Essick, owner of the Sunsations boutique on JFK Boulevard, had her store decked out in Polar Bear Plunge-themed decorations and novelties, including caps, T-shirts, gloves and leg warmers.
“We’re all in – head-to-toe bear,” Essick joked.
Glancing at all the customers crowding her store on Friday, Essick called Polar Bear Plunge Weekend a nice lift for local businesses in the middle of winter.
“It’s a blessing, because you’re getting a little jumpstart on spring,” she said.
One of the Sunsations customers, Andrea Ritter, who lives in Wallingford, Pa., and has a summer home in Sea Isle, said her family has enjoyed the Polar Bear celebration for about 15 years.
“We’re going to catch the plunge, for sure,” Ritter said while wearing a silly polar bear-style white cap.
Ritter, though, said she plans to enjoy the event on the beach, not frolicking in the frosty water.
“I’m all about being warm,” she said, emphasizing the word “warm.”