Over the past two decades, the Lewes Polar Bear Plunge benefitting Special Olympics Delaware has grown from it inaugural event attracting 78 plungers to the 2014 event where 3,252 polar bears jumped into the Atlantic Ocean.
A record amount of money – more than $725,000 – was raised on Feb. 2 during a weekend of festivities in Rehoboth Beach.
No one could have predicted just how far the Polar Bear Plunge would go after the first event took place in 1992 in Cape Henlopen State Park. The Lewes Polar Bears Club partnered with Special Olympics Delaware to allow one of its five plunges to be a fund raiser for the organization. The club has been taking dips into the ocean at the park five times a year over the winter months since 1982.
Overall, the event has raised more than $7.5 million to support Special Olympics programs and athletes in Delaware.
The first six events took place at the park until it literally outgrew the venue and moved to Rehoboth Beach with more parking and more beach access.
The coldest event took place in 1995 when the air temperature registered 0 degrees with the wind-chill at minus-25. Even so, the event went on, and 339 polar bears braved the conditions to take a fast jump into the water.
Over the past two decades, the event has been postponed twice because of bad weather: in 1998 because of a nor'easter and in 2010 due to twin snowstorms in early February that dropped as much as two feet of snow throughout the state.
The weekend festival has grown to include cooking contests, ice-sculpting contest, family activities, the 5K Run to the Plunge and the Pooch Plunge. Organizers estimate more than 20,000 spectators line the Boardwalk to watch the event. And because the plunge coincides with Super Bowl Sunday, it's become a major off-season boost to the beach economy.
BY THE NUMBERS
First event: 1992 with 78 polar bears
2009: First weekend festival, 2,923 polar bears raise $490,000
2011: 20th anniversary, 3,094 polar bears raise $550,000
2014: Records fall with 3,252 polar bears who raise $725,000
Overall: The event has raised more than $7.5 million over 23 years
This year: Air temperature, 50 degrees; water temperature, 34 degrees