A witness to a tragic fatal drowning near Tofino on Aug. 7 is calling on Parks Canada to reinstate lifeguards at Lovekin Rock within the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
Vancouver resident Darleen Saxer told the Westerly News she was at Long Beach when the tragedy occurred and saw two surfers pulling a person out of the water near Lovekin Rock as bystanders raced to assist prior to paramedics arriving.
“My heart goes out to the family…I just really hope to see some sort of change to make it more welcoming to every level of surfer to the beach,” she said. “It’s something that could change somebody’s life forever.”
Saxer said she did some research after witnessing the incident and learned about the rescues and tragedies that have occurred at Lovekin Rock, including two people who died in the area in 2018 and four people who were rescued off the rock via helicopter in 2019.
Surf Guards had been stationed at a tower overlooking Lovekin Rock for 40 years before budget cuts in 2012 prompted Parks Canada to cancel the program.
“I’m actually really surprised that a National Park doesn’t have a lifeguard on duty, especially at such a hot tourist location,” Saxer said, noting the Park Reserve sees over one million visitors a year. “That’s kind of shocking.”
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve superintendent Karen Haugen told the Westerly News via email that Parks Canada is “deeply saddened” by the tragedy, noting that BC Ambulance Service, Parks Canada staff and off-duty doctors, who were bystanders at the time of the incident, all responded to the scene.
“Our hearts are with the family and friends of the victim,” Haugen said.
She added though that the Surf Guard program will not be returning.
“Parks Canada does not have plans to reinstate the surf guard service. Surfing is an activity that takes place year round in the Long Beach Unit and surrounding region. It is not sustainable to provide extensive supervision,” Haugen said. “Parks Canada strives to educate visitors about ocean hazards and prevent tragedies from occurring. Water users are responsible for making informed decisions about ocean safety.”
She said Parks Canada has continued to expand its efforts to help visitors make informed decisions about ocean safety through education and prevention measures including, monitoring environmental conditions every day, determining the level of risk, sharing the information with visitors, and implementing risk reduction tactics like closures, if needed.
“During the summer months, this information is also shared by a team of Coastal Stewards. Coastal Stewards were working at Lovekin Rock at the time of the incident actively sharing information about ocean hazards with visitors,” she said. “Through the CoastSmart program—developed in collaboration with the Districts of Tofino and Ucluelet— standardized signs have been installed at key beach access locations throughout the Pacific Rim Region, including Lovekin Rock. There is additional signage at Lovekin Rock related to rip currents as it is a high-risk area.”
The Park Reserve also launched an Indigenous Junior Guardian program last year that provides safety information to visitors and more information about staying safe around the ocean is available at www.coastsmart.ca as well as the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve’s social media channels.
Saxer said surfing is booming in popularity, especially with its arrival as an Olympic sport and that the Park Reserve needs to do more to help keep its growing number of visitors safe.
“It needs to change. Knowing the risks, it’s hard to allow myself to go back into the water but I can’t imagine letting my children eventually go into the water and surf and there being this risk,” she said. “The (Junior Guardians) are doing their very best in terms of educating the population and the National Park has put up signs, but are people really stopping, looking at these, reading the stuff or understanding what is being told to them?”
She said it’s impossible to know whether a lifeguard could have prevented Aug. 7’s tragedy, but added that Parks Canada’s response that the area is too large to provide Surf Guards misses the mark because the Surf Guard tower that was in place until 2012 overlooked the area of highest concern at Lovekin Rock.
“It’s frustrating. It’s very frustrating,” she said. “I have done more research on it and the response from Parks Canada is just not acceptable. There needs to be more change and it needs to happen now. If we wait seasons upon seasons for anything to come back or any changes to be made, it’s going to be too late. How many more deaths do we need to have before change actually happens?”
Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns who has long advocated for the return of the Surf Guard program also retorted Parks Canada’s assertion that lifeguards would be needed across the entire area.
“They keep pointing to other areas of the Park Reserve that they would need Surf Guards, we’re not asking for that. We’re asking for Surf Guards to be placed back where (the tower) was at Long Beach right near Lovekin Rock. That’s all we’re asking for,” he said.
The dangers at Lovekin Rock prompted Ucluelet resident Justin Merk to file a petition calling for the return of the Surf Guard program to the area with the House of Common in 2019 that received 829 signatures.
Johns supported the petition, but said the federal government never followed up on it.
“The government has still not responded to the petition set out by Justin Merk in an appropriate, responsible way nor to the questions I’ve asked in the House of Commons,” he said.
READ MORE: RCMP confirm fatal drowning near Tofino