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Pelicans make spectacular dives into area waters, no matter how frigid, for nutrition. And for the last few years, intrepid humans have adopted the birds as their namesakes on New Year's Day and plunged into the ocean, for education.
Bonnie Wright, 69, is a past president of Friends of Hunting Island and has braved the waters at the mid-50s degree mark in both of the first two Pelican Plunges. The third annual plunge begins at noon Saturday.
"We get people to sponsor us -- or dare us, really -- to go into the Atlantic on New Year's Day," she said, to benefit Beaufort County school children.
Wright recalled that park officials came to FOHI three years ago with the idea of raising money to fund park trips for Beaufort County children in both public and private schools.
HELPING THE KIDS
Plungers' pledges benefit the Discover Carolina school program, administered by FOHI and Hunting Island State Park. Denise Parsick, a retired teacher and vice principal and a member of FOHI, said that Discover Carolina is a statewide parks program that matches parks with environments conducive to a given grade's science curriculum.
The Pelican Plunge will bring fifthgraders studying marine ecology and seventh graders learning about barrier islands to Hunting Island for daylong field trips.
Parsick said the park also will offer a Discover Carolina program about loggerhead sea turtles for Beaufort County students in the third grade. The program's goal, according to Parsick, is to give students a hands-on sense of the natural resources throughout South Carolina.
Though classes typically take field trips to Hunting Island, most teachers have not been familiar with the program. Parsick said support for the Discover Carolina program fits in perfectly with the goals of FOHI. "We want to help children build their appreciation and love for the environment and a desire to protect it," Parsick said.
Friends of Hunting Island's mission is to protect, promote, preserve and enlighten.
"Not just about Hunting Island but about the environment in which we live," Parsick said. "Beaufort County is 50 percent marshland and water." As a retired teacher, she said some area students don't know the difference between a pine cone and an acorn. Besides, she added, "most children learn better when they experience things with all their senses."
In this school year, 800 students have either come out to Hunting Island with the Discover Carolina program or are scheduled for a day trip there.
The first year's plunge raised about $1,000, Wright said, and the second brought in $3,000. The 2010 Plunge saw 400-500 people on the beach, 200-300 of whom ventured into the water. "We want to double that this year," Wright said, as well as doubling the amount of money raised. FOHI has been tapping police and fire departments, classrooms and others to form teams "and challenge each other to see how much money they can raise."
Members of her shag club have pledged for Parsick's plunge, and she said FOHI and park officials hope "a lot of educators will participate."
But giving money isn't strictly necessary to take the plunge. Those who just want to challenge themselves to a New Year's Day run into the Atlantic can come out just for the fun of it. Supporters can also donate to the educational program online.
JUMP RIGHT IN
Wright had a broken ankle the first year of the Pelican Plunge, but that didn't stop her: She put a plastic bag on the cast and went in waist deep in an all-terrain wheelchair with big balloon tires.
"I started to float away into the ocean," she said. "Seriously, if people hadn't steered me back, I would've kept floating out there."
Intrepid plungers and those who want to watch from the relative warmth of the sandy sidelines arrive at noon and will be greeted with a steel-drum band, chiminea fires, hot chocolate and a rousing round of Simon Says to get fired up for the plunge.
Kazoos will be provided to all for a less-than-somber rendition of the national anthem.
Many people dress in costumes. "We've had people come in bikinis; men will paint their stomachs," Wright said. "There have been Viking outfits ... can-can outfits. You never know what you're going to see. Everyone's out to celebrate and have a good time because it's New Year's Day."
The social period lasts for an hour. At 1 p.m., the group will go to the water's edge, and at the count of three, plunge in. "Some go waist deep, some just stick a toe in and some dive all the way in," Wright said. She added that she is among the divers, though "as I get older, I wonder if my heart will take all that."
On two feet again this year, Wright is looking forward to the plunge but would only slyly allude to her ensemble: "It's a secret, but I will say I have a funny hat."
Though Parsick walks the beach all summer with the loggerhead sea turtle program, she rarely goes in the water, but, she said, "I'm going in Jan. 1. When the funds raised go for education, how could I not? I'm 60, overweight and I don't care!"
She is considering wearing a leotard, depending on the weather, and has thought about testing it out on a cold day. "(I'll put) a hose on me and see how that feels," Parsick said. "That's my training."
Like Wright, Parsick takes a full plunge. When asked how the water feels when she dives in, she described it as "an invigorating kind of 'take your breath away' feeling."
For those planning on partying on New Year's eve, both Parsick and Wright agreed that a quick dip in the Atlantic works as a great morning-after cure.
"As long as you can drive (to Hunting Island) safely this will definitely wake you up," Parsick said. "Plus there are a mass of people out there with you, and they're all doing it, too. It's not like you're alone. It's a good feeling."