South Walton Fire District hosted its fifth-annual Polar Bear Plunge on New Year's Day, to the delight of many locals and visitors.
This was the coldest year for the plunge, with the temperature in the low 40s and water not much better in the 50s, but that did not deter the 200 or so who took the plunge or the 200 or so who came to watch.
Fire Marshall Sammy Sanchez was part of the committee that came up with the idea for the event five years ago and was instrumental in implementing it.
"We were looking for events to raise funds for educational fire prevention materials and thought of this as the only other one nearby was in Destin," said Sanchez. "Schools here continue to grow and we are doing more programs than ever. We give out 50-200 kids' helmets and coloring books when we do the programs."
The Plunge's first year had to be cancelled due to double-red flags flying, meaning dangerous surf conditions, and the next year, less than 100 people showed up. But after the slow start, Sanchez said participation has grown since then. Last year saw around 250 plungers.
"They come from all over," he said, "but most are locals or people here visiting."
While Sanchez has taken the plunge in the past, he doesn't do it every year.
"Sometimes the water is cold, and sometimes it's not as bad as you might think," he said. "But this year was the coldest."
Even though one would expect the water to be chilly on the first day in January, many choose to wear regular swimsuits or even costumes instead of wetsuits.
"They can wear whatever they want," said Sanchez. "They can jump in and right back out. It's not about how long you stay in. It's about rinsing off the old year and getting ready for the new -- a way to kick off the new year."
Cost for participating in the event is $20 for those 12 and up, and all money is infused back into the community.