New Year’s Day of 2021 featured a mass stampede of revelers plunging into impressively chilly waters from San Francisco to Alameda for the Polar Bear Plunge, a phenomenon that encouraged a mob of several hundred plungers at Ocean Beach. It was a strong remedy for COVID cabin fever and signified the be ginning of a more hopeful year — though most of the “swimmers” managed just one swift dip before scampering for their towels, then hauling their buns over to the blasting warmth of car heaters.
But a rare tribe of locals exists for whom an icy dive into the Bay is a regular ritual, not a one-and-done test of will. For these folks, Polar Bear “Day” can last for months — indeed, all winter. The Dolphin Club, an Aquatic Park institution founded by 25 members in 1877, today flourishes with more than 1,600 members, many who signed up during the pandemic and became fans of flirting with hypothermia.
“Although the city made us close for a while in March of 2020, our members kept coming to the cove and swimming off the bleachers that line the cove beach,” says Ward Bushee, current president of the Dolphin Club. “But the swimmers weren’t just our members. Other people were hunting for chances for some healthy exercise out in the open air during the worst pandemic months. Word about the cove spread; people got to be friends while going in and out of the water. That’s how many of our recent members came in.”
Since the club resumed accepting members last October, it’s gained 165 new ones. This club forged its reputation by creating local athletic challenges — often in tandem with its companion and friendly competitor on the Aquatic Park waterfront, the South End Rowing Club — and is credited with establishing the first swim event across the Golden Gate in 1917, and in 1960, the first from Alcatraz.
Within its general population of swimmers, there’s now a subset called the Polar Bears who boast the moxie and motivation to stroke a total of 40 miles in the Bay during a period that extends from December 21 to March 21.
The Dolphins and the South Enders (who like to cultivate a more roguish and piratical image) are asked by the city to provide public access. During the shuttered months, former Dolphin president Diane Walton arranged for access to hot outdoor showers through a back gate near the clubhouse. Both clubs traditionally let members bring in guests and, at times, permit non-members to use their facilities for a small daily fee.
At present, however, only members are allowed on the premises, and only vaccinated members can enter the buildings. Walton says the club looks forward to the day when guests and the public can reenter, though the specific timing is unknown.