Polar Bears Brrring in the New Year
The rarest of wildlife was sighted along the southern Estero Island shores on Tuesday as the Fort Myers Beach Polar Bear Club convened for their annual migration into the Gulf of Mexico.
The bears began gathering about noon at Castaways with Smoking Bill and the Smoking Section band entertaining the growing crowd at the Santini Plaza restaurant and bar. The group has been entertaining the Polar Bear Club on January 1st for several years.Band members volunteer to play for the fun-loving crowd before and after the plunge into the Gulf.
This was the 8th Polar Bear Club gathering for the Fort Myers Beach group. Founded by Dr. Jon Dewers along with Bill Schmidt and Ed Herbert, the friends gathered on the beach on January 1, 2006 to have a little fun with the concept of Polar Bear Clubs, popular in northern states where water temperatures hover in the 30's with air temperatures often lower.
The next year, they invited some friends and the Fort Myers Beach Polar Bear Plunge became a beach New Year's Day tradition. Unlike many other Polar Bear events across the nation, the local event is not a fund-raiser, Treasurer Bill Schmidt explained.
"This is strictly for fun, we invite anyone who wants to join us to stop by. Some people have asked me where they could sign up and how much does it cost. It's free and there is no sign up. This is just for fun!Come on in and have a good time!"
The crowd of over 150 seemed to be taking his advice to heart as they danced and prepared for the plunge. It was a true Beach event, with babies and seniors, locals and visitors all having a good time together. Some wore fuzzy white bear hats; others full costumes or life jackets.
As the time for the Polar Bear March to the beach neared, Schmidt, Herbert and Dewers taught the crowd the Polar Bear Marching Song, that we can't divulge as it's only known to attendees of this annual event.
Soon the crowd was ready for the march, assembling behind the standard bearers carrying the Fort Myers Beach Polar Bear Club banner. Led down and across Estero Blvd, the crowd marched and sang their way to the shoreline, entertaining scores of beachgoers along the way.
The crowd at the shoreline parted to allow space for the Polar Bears as they paused for their pre-plunge rituals.
Long-time Polar Bear Willie Frey entered the water first, "cutting the ice” for the rest of the club.Then, after shedding his union suit, Schmidt waded in and checked the water and air temperature before loosing the bears.
With temperatures in the high 70's, they plunged into the 64-degree Gulf under a bright sun, their growls and shouts blending with the cheering of onlookers.
The large crowd on shore encouraged the bears, asking each other who these people were and what they were doing as scores of visitors learned about a Beach tradition.
"I don't know what they've been drinking, but I want some of that!” commented one observer as he watched the club cavort in the water.