Millions of beach-goers flock to the Jersey shore each year to frolic in the sun, surf and sand. Although shore business and tourism drops drastically during the winter, the beach communities of New Jersey aren’t quite as barren as one would think during the cold-weather months. From outdoor activities like surfing and bird-watching to indoor pleasures like fine dining, visiting the Jersey shore during the winter is time well-spent.

Taking the Plunge

The Atlantic Ocean averages around 35 degrees off the coast of South Jersey in February. Factor in bone-chilling wind and bitter cold air, and the beach seems like the last place anyone would want to be during the winter. Even so, on any given winter day, a handful of surfers can be spotted riding the waves in most beach locales.

Frank Levin, 45, of Somers Point is one of those die-hards who brave the winter weather.

“I’ve been surfing winters since I was a little kid,” Levin said proudly. “You just love it so much, the thrill of the ride and how it makes you feel. You’ll do it in any condition.”

For many, surfing is more of an addiction than an activity, so cold temperatures are not enough to dissuade them from doing what they love. Not only is winter surfing a great way to extend a typically-summertime sport, but winter weather often creates more favorable surfing conditions.

“In the offseason, heading out of the summer into the fall and into the winter, we get a lot of northeasters,” Levin explained. “The swells that we get are more consistent.  The waves are unbelievable.”

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Winter surfing is a popular Jersey shore activity. Here, Longport resident Ben Geraff cuts back on a wave on his way to winning the men’s division of the Dean Randazzo Cancer Foundation’s “Freeze for a Cause” charity event on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 in Atlantic City.

“You have to wear a lot of rubber and it’s a lot more work—it’s like going skiing, you have all of this extra equipment,” he said.

That rubber equipment Levin referred to is a winter wetsuit, which is usually thicker than a standard wetsuit and comes complete with a hood. Over the years, winter wetsuits have become “higher quality, more flexible, and lighter,” according to Levin, to the point where the surfer is so well protected that the frigid water can become an afterthought.

“You can be warmer in the water than the guys standing on the boardwalk watching. Sometimes you can actually be sweating out there,” Levin said.

Of course, the cold water still rears its ugly head at times.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Levin said. “If you go under, it’s a quick shock and you’re going to get a brain freeze. It’s agonizing sometimes, just screaming pain.”

Back in the day, winter surfing wasn’t as popular as it is now.

“When we were kids, it was just the die-hards,” Levin said. “The last few years, it’s become so popular, just like extreme sports in general. It just opened up the floodgates.”

These days, it isn’t just the local die-hards who hit the waves in the winter.

“Winter used to be the time of year when you’d hope you’d be able to see a lot less crowds, but surfing has become such a popular industry and sport that more people are doing it on a year-round basis,” Levin said. “They’ll come and travel from Pennsylvania. When there’s a swell, they figure out a way.”

While some shore-goers will enter the frigid water on their own volition, it does often take a charity event to coax them into the ocean in the offseason.

In addition to his leisure surfing, Levin is involved with the annual “Freeze for a Cause” charity surf event in Atlantic City. Now in its sixth year, the event is hosted by professional surfer Dean Randazzo and the Dean Randazzo Cancer Foundation, an organization for which Levin serves as a trustee. In 2014, the event drew roughly 70 participants and raised over $10,000. This year’s “Freeze for a Cause” is slated for Saturday, Feb. 28.

Another popular charity event that takes place in the frosty waters of the Jersey shore is the Polar Bear Plunge, a tradition in which participants do their best polar bear impressions by running en masse into the icy ocean for a quick dip. The Plunge, benefitting Special Olympics New Jersey, is held annually in both Wildwood and Seaside Heights. Participants must pledge $100 to take the plunge and are urged to raise additional money through sponsorship pledges from friends and family.

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The annual Polar Bear Plunge brings thousands to New Jersey’s beaches despite freezing temperatures.

Delran resident Brian Baiada, 30, partook in his fourth Polar Bear Plunge in Wildwood this January.

“We rent a place and go down for the weekend,” Baiada said. “The first year we did it, it was eight of us. This year, it was 32.”

The increasing size of Baiada’s group reflects the growing popularity of the event overall. There were so many plungers and supporters at the beach this year that “it was almost like a normal summer crowd,” Baiada said.

This year’s Wildwood event featured over 1,000 brave souls who took the plunge, while the Seaside version of the event scheduled for Feb. 21 is expected to have a turnout approaching 6,000.

One of Baiada’s friends who took the plunge with him this year was Dave Hermansky, 27, also of Delran.

Hermansky joked that when he first got involved with the plunge, he was “young and dumb.”

While some plungers just dip their feet into the ocean or only go in up to their waists, Hermansky and his friends take a true plunge.

“We have a gentleman’s agreement that we have to go in far enough to get our whole body wet,” Hermansky said. “It’s a long beach and it doesn’t get deep really quick, so we kind of have to go pretty far out.”

Although Hermansky said the water at the Polar Bear Plunge is “easily” the coldest he’s ever been in, he said it’s a fun event for a worthy cause. That sentiment seems to be shared by all of the participants.

“I truly enjoy and look forward to the Polar Plunge weekend every year,” said Baiada. “I go down with a great group of friends and we all support an even better cause.”

Fish & Fowl

For those who would rather stay out of the water but still want to enjoy some of the fun that Mother Nature has to offer, winter fishing and bird-watching are two popular Jersey shore activities that can be enjoyed year-round.

According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, types of saltwater fish that can be caught in the winter include cod, ling, striped bass, tautog, whiting, white perch and winter flounder.

“Tautog is the biggest fish we target in the winter months, primarily January,” explained charter boat captain T.J. Schwarzwalder.

Tautog, also known as blackfish, are typically between two and four pounds each, but they have been caught weighing as much as 22 pounds. They make for good eating, too, with dense, white meat that can be prepared in the same fashion as flounder.

Schwarzwalder said one of the biggest differences between fishing in the summer and winter is the distance a fishing boat must travel offshore in order to hit prime fishing territory.

“During the summertime, we don’t have to go as far out. Sometimes we’re fishing a mile off the beach, sometimes we’re right up against the beach,” he said. “In the wintertime, we’re 25 to 30 miles offshore to get to the depths we need to be at to find the fish.”

Schwarzwalder’s charter business, Legal Limit Charters out of Lower Township, slows down during the winter, but he still does get customers who want to go out fishing for the day.

“It’s a certain crowd of guys” who fish in the winter, Schwarzwalder said. “It’s not the everyday person. They want to go when it’s sunny and 80 degrees with no wind blowing, which is the worst possible day to go.”

In fact, winter often provides conditions that make for better fishing than a calm summer day.

“You need a breeze,” Schwarzwalder  said. “You need some chop.”

Don’t quite have your sea legs under you? Instead of fishing, consider bird-watching. Birding is a popular activity any time of year at the shore, but the winter season provides a number of unique opportunities.

“The beauty of the Cape May peninsula is that the weather here is kind of moderated by having the ocean on one side and the bay on the other, so you actually have a more moderate climate than you do just up the peninsula,” said David LaPuma, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory. “That means you’ve got lots of birds that can spend their winter as far north as Cape May, whereas in other places, they would be forced to go farther south.”

Another benefit to winter birding is the extended timeframe bird-watchers have to sit back and enjoy the wildlife. LaPuma said in the spring, bird activity tends to be concentrated in the morning, but in the winter, “you don’t have to get up super early in the morning to enjoy birding.”

“You can go out any time of the day and scan over the bay or over the ocean and pick up lots of birds that are spending the winter right offshore,” he said. “Sea ducks, gannets, even things like alcids, which are the group of birds that puffins and razorbills are in, we can find right offshore. You can spend the day out there scanning the ocean for all sorts of water birds.”

While the shore is rife with water birds, the Cape May area is home to other types of birds as well.

“You can also get into the woods,” LaPuma said. “The southern part of the peninsula is quite moderate in terms of climate, so there are lots of what we call half-hardy species, like Carolina wren and brown thrasher and northern mockingbird that don’t migrate out of here and spend the winter in the northern end of their range, which is Cape May. You would be hard-pressed to find these birds up in Somerset County. “

In the winter, bird-watchers in New Jersey have the exciting opportunity to catch a glimpse of birds that don’t typically make their home in the Garden State.

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Despite a typical tundra habitat far north of New Jersey, snowy owls are occasionally spotted at the Jersey shore in the winter, like this owl who stopped by Stone Harbor in December 2013.

“We get to experience some really cool tundra-breeding birds—birds that breed in the Canadian tundra like the snowy owl and the rough-legged hawk, which is a tundra-breeding hawk that comes down here only in the winter,” LaPuma said. “We can find them hunting over the marshes and agricultural areas.”

Because of the high diversity of bird species that live or stop by the area, the Jersey shore is an extremely popular spot for bird-watching. While most of the winter visitors to the Cape May Bird Observatory are local, many visit from out of town.

“We have members coming from all over the mid-Atlantic through the winter,” LaPuma said.

Bird enthusiasts don’t have to be a member of the Cape May Bird Observatory to come and check out the facility or participate in its programs. LaPuma encouraged beginning birders and experts alike to stop by and see all that Jersey shore birding has to offer this winter.

“You could spend all day outdoors and see different birds every hour, sun up to dark,” LaPuma said.

“America’s Playground”

Some people simply aren’t cut out for the cold weather. In that case, a trip to Atlantic City is the perfect way to enjoy the Jersey shore during the winter.

“Atlantic City is certainly a year-round destination,” said Larry Sieg, the director of marketing for the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

For most, gambling is the first thing that comes to mind about Atlantic City, and while there is no shortage of casinos in town, there is more to Atlantic City than poker and slot machines. Whether hitting up a hot nightclub, catching a concert or sporting event at the famed Boardwalk Hall, or enjoying a delicious meal, Atlantic City—aptly nicknamed “America’s Playground”—has something for everyone.

“Not just the entertainment, but the dining and the nightlife and the non-gaming amenity options that are available in Atlantic City really far surpass any other gaming destination,” Sieg explained. “That’s why I think we have such success at being a year-round destination, because of those amenities.”

Jessica Forsman, 27, of Maple Shade was one of many happy visitors who spent a weekend in Atlantic City this winter. Forsman said she loves the variety that a trip to Atlantic City offers, and she visits Atlantic City every few months, regardless of the weather or temperature.

“We go there to get away from the world,” she explained. “It’s like a different place out there. We like the freedom.

“When it’s nice out, we cruise the boardwalks and go into the different casinos and gamble, and in the winter, we’ll go to the pool, gamble, drink, and find a nice place to eat dinner.”

Good food never goes out of season, so even when the droves of seasonal tourists check out for the winter, the best local restaurants remain busy. While many beach communities in New Jersey boast an array of excellent eateries, the mecca of delicious food at the Jersey shore is Atlantic City.

“Dining is such a huge part of Atlantic City now,” Sieg said. “We have so many new restaurants.”

Among the recent additions to the AC restaurant scene are Guy Fieri’s Chophouse at Bally’s, Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at Caesars and Martorano’s at Harrah’s, opened by notable restaurateur and Philadelphia native Steve Martorano.

“We’re really very honored to have well-renowned chefs like this joining Atlantic City,” said Sieg.

Delectable dining is a staple in Atlantic City any time of the year, but one of Atlantic City’s most popular food events—its annual Restaurant Week—takes place each winter. From March 1-7, participating Atlantic City establishments offer affordable prix-fixe lunches ($15.15) and dinners ($33.15).

“Restaurant Week is one of the highlights of the winter season,” Sieg said. “Even in the economic climate that we have and the struggles and challenges that Atlantic City has faced, we still have over 70 restaurants participating in Restaurant Week. It gives people an opportunity to try restaurants that typically may be outside of their budget range and allows them to go enjoy a great meal at a valued price.”

For more information on Atlantic City Restaurant Week, visit www.acrestaurantweek.com.