Two Tofino surf instructors want to put lifeguards on West Coast beaches and their local government seems onboard with the idea.
Alina Abramovich and Andrew Jones dropped in on Aug. 23’s regular council meeting to pitch a lifeguarding program that would boost ocean safety and prevent tourists from getting too clucked to enjoy Tofino’s waves.
Abramovich said she moved to Tofino about two months ago after spending the past several years working as a maritime lifeguard in Hawaii, where she trained with North Shore Lifeguard Association on Oahu, and was surprised by the absence of lifeguards.
“I quickly noticed the lack of formal, rigorously trained and knowledgeable waterfront lifeguard presence,” she said.
“Tofino is proudly known as Canada’s surf capital with powerful and consistent waves to back that statement up. However, these ocean conditions, though enticing to surfers and surf-curious visitors, are often very dangerous, especially considering all of our beaches are currently unsupervised.”
She said she had heard arguments that lifeguards would be “unnecessary and redundant” because of the amount of surf instructors in local waters but said this notion doesn’t hold water.
“The majority of the instructors are simply not trained enough to handle anything past a basic first aid scenario,” she said. “It is also the instructor’s duty to focus singularly on their client and ensure the happiness and safety of their client. That means that it’s not only unjust and unsafe to request the instructors keep an eye out on the general public, but it’s also a request that directly breaches the terms of their jobs.”
She suggested a lifeguard presence was “not only a necessity, but it’s also an obligation in maintaining safe beaches in Tofino,” and said she’s witnessed dangerous behaviours around the ocean.
She cited two separate incidents where she had rescued young children.
“I prevented a wayward child from drowning…He wandered too far away from his parents and I plunked him out of the deeper water and I assisted a child who was playing in deeper dangerous waves with a board and he had his leash tied around his neck,” she said.
Abramovich was joined by fellow surf instructor Andrew Jones, a former lifeguard in Australia, who echoed her safety concerns.
“It is my professional opinion that these beaches are incredibly disorganized within the water and that the majority of people in the water do not have an understanding of how to control their equipment, nor orientate themselves safely in regards to conditions and other people in the water,” Jones said.
“Just the other day, I was surfing at Cox Bay, in my own time, and there was a girl getting pulled out to sea in a rift. I paddled out there, obviously I know how to get someone out of a rift due to my professional experience, and I got her out of there. But, if I wasn’t there, it could have been a different story.”
Abramovich said she had reached out to local Coast Guard personnel and learned they have responded to various non-vessel related calls around Tofino’s beaches this year.
“Up to July 15, there had already been 11 search and rescue call outs for South Chesterman, Long Beach, Cox Bay and Radar Beach,” she said. “These calls could have easily been handled or assessed immediately by an oceanfront lifeguard.”
Jones outlined what a local lifeguard program could look like, including a guard tower around Cox Bay as well as a jetski and ATV to allow a wide area to be covered.
He said a swimming area could be set up and delineated with flags.
“People don’t go swimming out there because they see it as too dangerous,” he said adding surfers would be kept out of the swimming areas. “It would promote a healthier culture in Tofino.”
Abramovich acknowledged the costs associated with such a program could be daunting, but stressed it was needed.
“It sounds very expensive and pretty wide but, we do want to ensure the program we set up is fully trained and ready to respond,” she said. “We don’t want just a half-program that wouldn’t be able to respond to critical situations.”
She said she has reached out to the provincial and federal governments in search of funding and suggested community fundraising efforts and online campaigns could help cover costs as well.
“Tofino is a beautiful and unique, surf-filled town with incredible beaches, great waves and a plethora of ocean related activities,” she said. “It’s time to make Canada’s surf capital, Canada’s safe surf capital.”
After hearing the presentation, council expressed interest in pursuing the program and directed its staff to follow up with Abramovich and Jones specifically in terms of costs and possible funding sources.
Coun. Dorothy Baert noted Tourism Tofino heavily promotes the area’s surfing opportunities and the absence of lifeguards is a gap that must be addressed.
Coun. Duncan McMaster agreed.
“I don’t think we can continue to promote surfing and water sports in this town without making a safe area,” he said. “Being on the beach everyday, as I am, I see some of the problems that are out there…Something needs to be done.”
Coun. Greg Blanchette suggested the program could be brought along incrementally and affordably.
“You don’t need a bazillion dollars to launch a whole program. We could start with even just training locals. I’m sure there would be many who would be interested,” he said adding he liked the idea of opening the ocean up for swimming.
“When we think and hear about recreation around this table, it usually involves things like gyms or ice rinks and we don’t really acknowledge that we’re surrounded by the biggest playground on earth.”