Travel & Outdoors

How the Polar Bear Plunge Became a Chilly Chesapeake Bay Tradition

The annual dip in support of Maryland's Special Olympians—which will draw tens of thousands to splash off in Sandy Point—returns with five events from Jan. 26 to Feb. 3.

It was in 1996 that the first few brave souls took the Polar Bear Plunge in support of Maryland’s Special Olympians.

“The story I’ve been told is that Special Olympics was simply looking for a way to raise money other than running around the state selling T-shirts,” says Kira Northrop, senior director of marketing and communications for the nonprofit. “I doubt they had any idea it would get this big.”

In its second year, the now-annual chilly dip in the Chesapeake Bay drew 300 people into the 35-degree water at Sandy Point State Park. By its third year, the number of “polar bears” in the Bay totaled 1,000, raising more than $200,000 for the cause.

From the start, support for the event has been led by the Maryland State Police, whose officers provide logistical assistance and were among the first to participate. Also from the start, Maryland’s elected officials have backed the effort—though not always with the courage of former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who dove headlong into the surf back in 1999.

The Baltimore Ravens’ cheerleaders and pep band have been turning out for years to provide encouragement. Players going for a swim include former quarterback Joe Flacco and former nose tackle Haloti Ngata, who displaced a great deal of icy water in 2008 as a “super plunger”—a polar bear who pledges to take 24 dips over a 24-hour period.

Last year, the now multi-day Maryland Plunge raised more than $3 million for the state’s 15,588 Special Olympians. This year—with five events between January 26 to February 3—10,000-plus plungers are expected to splash off in Sandy Point, helping fund the organization’s 27 sports, free training programs, and competitions.

Explore more winter outdoor activities from our Winter Wonderland issue, here