A dramatic rescue at Lovekin Rock last month has renewed local cries to restore the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve’s surf guard program.
Three 13-year-olds became stranded on the rock, located within the Park Reserve’s popular Long Beach unit, on the afternoon of March 26. Two of them were able to swim back to shore safely, but the third remained on the rock. The stranded teen was joined by three more as two 13 year-olds and a 16 year-old were boogie boarding in the area and became stuck on the rock as they were unable to navigate through the rising tides.
A 911 call was made and the Canadian Coast Guard arrived on scene, but determined the sea was too rough to approach the rock by boat, so a helicopter was called in to lift the four teens to safety.
All involved escaped without serious injuries, but the incident has once again highlighted the dangers of Lovekin, which was the scene of two fatal ocean incidents last year. University of Victoria student Nijin John died at the rock after a surfing incident on Feb. 10 and Ann Wittenberg, 52, of Ottawa died in an ocean accident just hours before her daughter’s wedding in Tofino in May.
Near tragedies have also been recorded around Lovekin, including a July incident where local paddleboarder Mario Chartrand rescued two stranded tourists off the rock.
A $29 million budget cut to Parks Canada in 2012 led the Park Reserve to shut down a surf guard program that had been in place for roughly 40 years and included lifeguards looking over Lovekin Rock from a nearby surf guard tower. The tower has since been torn down and signs have been installed warning beachgoers that there are no lifeguards on duty.
Following March 26’s rescue, West Coast resident Justin Merk launched a petition on April 3 calling on the government to reinstate the surf guard program. It received 486 signatures within 24 hours of being posted. The petition can be found here.
One of the people supporting the petition is Ann Wittenberg’s daughter Victoria Orr.
“100% I think a surf guard is needed there,” Orr told the Westerly News on Thursday. “I’m so happy Justin started this petition, and included me and my sister in it. If this can prevent just one accident, I think it is worth it. I never want anyone to go through what our family did.”
Merk told the Westerly that he spent roughly four years as a surf instructor and often witnessed visitors playing around the rock unaware of its dangers.
“To an untrained eye or a newcomer, you would think that it’s safe at Lovekin Rock. Often the water is calm, the waves are breaking on either side of the rock,” he said. “It’s also beautiful. It’s probably one of the most iconic spots of Long Beach, but that’s the danger spot and that’s where one of the guard towers used to be.”
He added that the spot is also popular among experienced surfers, who might be giving visitors a false sense of safety.
“We’ve nicknamed it the chair lift. It pulls us out behind the rip and we’re ready to catch a wave, and if that’s not your intention you’re in big trouble man,” he said.
“A person can enter danger within seconds of stepping into the water. They can be ankle deep and get swept away. The currents that occur in front of the rock are not like the currents that happen anywhere else on Long Beach…You could be completely safe if you’re 20 feet south of the rock or 20 feet north of the rock, but there’s that one area that it’s so strong and once you step in there’s no turning back unless you get rescued. The rip will pull you straight out behind the rock.”
Merk himself was involved in a rescue in 2016 when he saw two young kids wade into the ocean about waist deep and get pulled in.
“The father tried to be a hero and jumped in after them with no wetsuit and as he was swimming toward them he overshot and he was now further behind the rock than the two kids and he couldn’t reach his kids,” Merk recalled. “I immediately stopped my lesson, grabbed my board and paddled out…It was quite traumatizing for me and a lot of that came back up hearing about the recent [March 26] rescue.”
He added that many local beachgoers have similar rescue stories and that Parks Canada is relying too heavily on bystanders without the proper training or equipment to conduct rescues with no surf guard program in place.
“If you look at all the incidences it initially falls into the hands of the visitors and the beachgoers and the surf community,” he said. “Surf instructors aren’t lifeguards, bottom line.”
The West Coast made a similar plea to Parks Canada to restore the surf guard program last year, but Parks Canada has consistently maintained that the program does not fit with the area’s evolving “water recreation practices.”
In an email to the Westerly News, a Parks Canada spokesperson reiterated the same comments given in response to Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns call for the surf guard program to be restored last year.
“While surfing used to be centralized around a small area of Long Beach, primarily during peak summer months, now surfing is common over a wide area stretching from Ucluelet’s Mussel Beach, through the Long Beach Unit, and into Tofino’s North Chesterman Beach. Surfing is also more of a year round sport now,” the spokesperson wrote. “Since it is not feasible to provide Surf Guard services over such a dispersed area and throughout the year, Parks Canada has partnered with Ucluelet and Tofino to raise awareness of water hazards through the CoastSmart program. CoastSmart not only addresses surfing but other activities such as storm watching and beach walking.”
Merk suggested the educational signage installed at local beaches as part of the CoastSmart program are helpful, but aren’t enough.
“A sign can’t save a life. I’m sorry.” he said. “I think what CoastSmart is doing is great, but until we have eyes on the beach and bodies ready to perform emergencies along with the proper safety equipment, which I think is also critical, having signs isn’t enough.”