The annual Polar Bear Plunge - the New Year's Day tradition that draws thousands of people into the chilly Atlantic Ocean - sometimes has people asking: Why take the plunge?

For Ventnor resident Mark "Sparky" Buckley, 49, and his group of willing participants, the answer is simple.

"Every year, we normally jump in for somebody that we have lost," the Local 172 laborer said.

This year will mark Buckley's 10th dive into the water at Newport Avenue beach in Ventnor and his 25th year participating overall. But this year's wintry dive is especially important he said.

"This year, I'm going to jump in for my father-in-law, so it has special meaning to me," he said.

Buckley said that his wife's father, Tom Doherty, formerly of Longport and a retired Atlantic City lifeguard, died about three months ago, and he and his group have taken the plunge in honor of other relatives and friends throughout the years.

In 2012, a group of about 40 volunteered to take part in the tradition in memory of Bryan Bradley, 40, a friend and laborer who died in September 2011 at the Revel construction site.

Buckley said he can't deny the challenge of running into the freezing cold waters.

"It takes a lot of courage," he said weeks before the upcoming plunge. "Little bit of cheer, but a lot of courage. You hit that water and it's like, 'Why did I do this?' And the older I get, I keep telling myself, 'Why am I doing this?' But it's fun."

Buckley's friend and longtime participant, Steve Jones, of Ventnor, is responsible for designing the group's shirts, which are on sale at the Atlantic City Moose Lodge 216 and Kelly's Corner Pub in Atlantic City.

Jones, 60, who took his final plunge last year, said this year's shirts will salute Ventnor's first responders and Hooked On Ventnor volunteers who provided assistance during Hurricane Sandy in a thank you message on the shirt's back. It will pay tribute to Bradley on the front.

"On the front, it will have three bears, one large bear and two cubs in honor of Bradley (and his two sons)," Jones said.

Shirt-sale profits will be donated to the Worker's Memorial Fund, which aids families who have lost relatives to workplace tragedies. In the past, the group has made donations to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Jones said.

Buckley and Jones expect about 50 to 75 of their friends and families to venture to the Ventnor beach on that first day in January, but the Ventnor event's organizer, AAAA Bike Shop owner Mike Weisen, said he expects more than 1,000 participants, depending on the weather.

"We've been really fortunate these past few years to have somewhat of a mild first," he said. "We are not the biggest, but it seems extremely crowded for a one-block area."

Last year, the plunge attracted about 1,200 divers and close to the same amount of spectators.

Weisen explained that the event is free and does not require registration. "I Did It … In Ventnor" long sleeve T-shirts and sweatshirts featuring the iconic polar bear will be on sale for $15 and $35. Proceeds will be donated to the Ventnor Recreation Board, he said.

Immediately following the 1 p.m. plunge, free chili will be made available for both participants and spectators inside the community center of the Ventnor library.

Contact Caitlin Honan:

609-272-7227

If you go

What: Ventnor's Polar Bear Plunge

When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 1. Weisen advises participants to arrive by 12:30 p.m.

Where: Newport Avenue Beach in front of Ventnor's library on 6500 Atlantic Ave.

How much: Free

More info: Call AAAA Bike Shop at 609-487-0808