Polar Bear Plunge Marks 20th Year; Founder ‘Papa Bear’ Carney Honored

by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes

Fay Carney carries out the 2020 Polar Bear Plunge on New Year’s Day in honor of her late husband John, who founded the plunge.

The Polar Bear Plunge of the Sanibel-Captiva Chapter of the National Polar Bear Club marked its 20th year without its founder John “Papa Bear” Carney, who suddenly passed away about a week before the New Year’s Day tradition. John’s wife Fay carried out the 2020 plunge with an estimated 160 people who convened on Tarpon Bay Beach at high noon.

“This year’s plunge was very successful and incredibly well attended,” said Fay. “A majority of the people here went into the water and we had a special farewell toast.”

John assembled 29 people for the inaugural Polar Bear Plunge on Sanibel. His immersion in polar bear plunging originated on Lake Chataqua in New York and he went on to participate in similar events around the country and world. After moving to Sanibel some years ago, he and Fay thought it would be funny to bring the plunge to the island.

Prior to entering the 65-degree Gulf of Mexico waters, this year’s plungers proudly sang the anthem written to the tune of “God Bless America” by John 20 years ago. In 2012, John was unable to lead the song after being diagnosed with throat cancer – a disease he fought with tremendous courage. The Polar Bear Plunge is only a part of John’s legacy. He was an esteemed member of the island community with many feeling the loss.

“Today was a lovely tribute to John,” said Francine Dale, who first met the Carneys in 1998 when she first came to Sanibel. “They were among some of my first friends on the island.”

John taught and judged photography for more than 40 years in Michigan, New York and Florida. During the course of his distinguished career, he studied with Oscar Bailey, Charles Swedlund, Clyde Butcher and other renowned photographers.

The Polar Bear Anthem
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea
Let us swear allegiance to our club that’s free.
Let us all be hopeful for a day with sun.
As we raise our glasses and we have some fun.

God bless the Polar Bears
On New Year’s Day.
Stand beside us and join us
To the shore with a roar as we play.
From the uplands, to the marshes,
To the Gulf shore fillies with ice.
God bless the Polar Bears — it sure feels nice.
God Bless the Polar Bears — we’re bears not mice!

Comments (4)

  1. The article about John Carney and the San Cap Polar Bear Club was great but only minimally touched his involvement on The Islands and the contributions he made to make this a better place to live. His Input and memory will last forever and his love of Elvis,dancing, acting, leadership, cooking, singing will never be forgotten. We will miss him dearly. Bill Bachman…a 20 year friend of his.

  2. Fran Kiesgen Kieling

    John Carney was a dear and treasured friend.
    He loved Sanibel and attended nearly every event. All the organizations he was a member of and his wide circle of friends will feel his loss deeply.

  3. Fay, I am sorry to learn that your husband passed away last month, my prayers are with you. Happy to see that you follow his tradition. Our next door neighbors in Cohasset Ma have been doing it for many years with his DOW Syndrome son, now 48 and a Special Olimpics Athlete, somewhat more challenging as the temperatures in the water and outside are much colder than in Sanibel…
    Carmen Schramm

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