April 29, 2022
MAKING A SPLASH
WITH THE CONEY ISLAND POLAR BEARS
Photography by Carol Dronsfield
Words by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
If you live in New York State in the winter it is best if you find something fun to do to help the short days go by over these long cold months. Some ski, skate, fish, snow mobile, while others who live in Coney Island in Brooklyn, and the surrounding boroughs of New York have found their own way to enjoy and be inspired through the short days and bitter cold of winter.
In 1903 Bemarr Macfadden founded the oldest cold water swim club in the United States, ‘The Coney Island Polar Bear Club’. He was called ‘The Father of Physical Culture’, being an early advocate for a nutritional diet along with physical exercise. Bemarr believed training the body to endure the cold elements made you stronger and healthier, in body and mind. He was convinced that the dips in the cold water during the winter months boosted your stamina, virility, as well as your immunity.
I spoke to the President of The Coney Island Polar Bears, Dennis Thomas, and he shared the club's member information, and what it takes to be a member. “Currently we have about 170 members on our roster and have around 80-90 members at each of our weekly swims. To become a full member, aspiring Cubs must do 12 swims within a single season and be voted in by the membership. To remain a member in good standing, bears must do at least 4 swims within a season.”
While the Bears swim every Sunday, rain, snow, or shine, Dennis believes they are best known for their annual Coney Island New Year's Day Plunge where around 3,000 swimmers take a refreshing plunge in the Atlantic Ocean with an additional 10,000 spectators watching. The event has always been free to the public, but we do encourage all attendees to make a donation to our charity partners. In the past we have supported the Special Olympics, Camp Sunshine in Casco Maine, and recently cultural organizations in the Coney Island community such as the NYC Aquarium, Coney Island USA, Coney Island History Project, Coney Island YMCA, Parachute Arts, Friends of Kaiser Park, and New York State Marine Education Association.”
The Coney Island Polar Bears descend upon the boardwalk every Sunday from November through April for a dip in the frigid cold air and freezing temperatures of the ocean at Coney. Photographers and filmmakers from all over like to experience and share the inspiration with the bears and are dedicated to their swim, becoming part of that extended family and Coney Island community. Carol Dronsfield is a photographer currently residing in Brooklyn New York, and has committed her Sundays to photographing the Bears. Carol shares her amazing portraits of the Coney Island Polar Bears, documenting over twenty two swims while getting to know the bears. Carol shares her ideas behind this series of work she has created with passion and respect for the Bears, and for the Coney Island community. These are her observations:
“With these portraits, I aim to capture the joy, bravery, determination, and love for the frigid Atlantic Ocean these Bears all possess.
Bears may be young or old, male or female, large or small, tattooed or plain, fit or not; most of all they are a dedicated group of swimmers, an eclectic tribe.
It’s a Sunday at 1:00pm on the beach in Coney Island. A typical Winter day at the height of the Bears’ season: Water temp 38 degrees. Air temp 32 degrees. Wind chill makes it feel subzero.
Dress code: bathing attire. The nastier the weather, the happier the Bears are at the beach.
Some Bears radiate calm, a healing effect the water has on the individual; they worship the ocean. With some, I capture the exuberant reaction to the cold waters rushing over them. I look for Bears who enter and emerge from the water as a group, as if taking the ocean by storm. I try to give the Bears their space, not to interrupt their Sunday ritual; it can feel like witnessing something sacred.
There are close bonds between Bears; I’ve watched some casual swimmers become official Bears at pre-swim ceremonies. Graduating from “Cub” to “Bear” is a big deal.
I’ve watched as the American flag and the Polar Bear flags are placed in the sand near the water where they swim. I watch with my lens as the Bears march to the water. The group forms a circle, they chant and warm up. They race into the water, frolicking and forming a circle holding hands. They stay in the water anywhere from 5 minutes to 1/2 hour.
I try to capture the mutual respect and camaraderie of the Bears: running into the water together, coming out together, encouraging a novice Bear hesitating at the water’s edge.
I savor the surprises that come with every Sunday swim. Whether it’s a Bear arriving in costume, bringing a favorite inflatable toy, doing a dance on the beach, their joy is contagious.”
The Coney Island Polar Bears are a uniquely diverse group of people that are connected with bonds that only come close to the ties you make within your own personal family. We usually spend years developing friendships and making lasting connections. Somehow those connections are made in the instant you make that plunge and are determined to become a bear. Your family of experienced Bears, welcome and guide you in, often offering some advice, a warm hand, an extra pair of swim shoes, with a big smile, and eyes full of inspiration. In those few minutes societal and cultural differences are washed away at sea, and they are all just simply Coney Island Polar Bears.
So let’s meet some of The Coney Island Polar Bears.
The years come and go, but one is never exactly like the other. There are always new Bears, lifetime Bears, one time Bears, young and old, from all walks of life that bring new spirit and energy everytime they come. They always look forward to seeing what those twenty minutes will bring. One big Happy Family.
We conclude here with Carol’s closing thoughts about Carol's cherished Bear family and beloved community.
“I’ve witnessed so much with my camera during the 22°F Sunday swims I’ve attended; maybe one day I’ll dip my own toe into the frigid surf.
The Bears have shown me their unique personalities and I am grateful that my camera and I have earned their trust. The Bears inspire me; they’ve taught me bravery, determination, friendship; how to seek joy while I’m out on the streets photographing strangers.
A huge thank you to all Bears who have participated in this project. I look forward to continuing the project next season.
Until we meet again at Coney,
“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author/s, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.