Three weeks before a 53 year-old woman died in a tragic ocean accident off Long Beach on Sunday, Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns had delivered a letter to Canada’s Environment Minister Catherine McKenna urging for better signage within the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
“Visitors to this outstandingly beautiful beach should be clearly informed of the possible dangers of riptides, surfs and undertows,” Johns wrote to the Minister on May 7.
The letter included a quote from constituent Courteney Preyser who had visited the Park Reserve with her family last August.
“My husband and I, my two nephews and my niece nearly drowned in the rip current around Lovekin Rock last August,” Preyser wrote. “The signage at the beach is woefully inadequate and had we been aware we never would have put ourselves in danger like that. While our harrowing story has a good ending, I am fearful of how many visitors to the park could find themselves in our situation—literally 5-10 minutes after entering the water, with what should have been a day of fun, we were fighting for our lives.”
University of Victoria student Nijin John died in an accident near Lovekin Rock on Feb. 10. Ann Wittenburg died in an accident in the same area on Sunday; five hours before her daughter’s wedding, which she had travelled from Toronto to attend.
“It’s a heart-wrenching, tragic, story,” Johns said of Sunday’s incident. “I can’t even imagine how difficult that must be to go through. To lose your mother at a special time like that. A time that’s supposed to be a happy time. Our whole community really felt it. Even though we didn’t know the family, there’s no one that heard that story that wasn’t really emotionally touched by it and certainly my condolences and thoughts go out to the family.”
The Westerly News reached out to Johns who said he had hand-delivered another letter to McKenna on Wednesday calling for better signage as well as the resurrection of the former surf guard program that involved lifeguards monitoring Long Beach from a tower located near Lovekin Rock. The surf guard program was cancelled in 2012 as part of a $29 million cut to Parks Canada’s budget that included laying off 638 Parks Canada employees, 12 of whom had been employed by the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
“The Surf Guards at Long Beach, on average, performed eight water rescues and made about 800 contacts with people on the beach every year,” Johns’ letter states.
Johns recalled fighting against the decision to shut down the surf guard program when he was the executive director of the Tofino-Long Beach Chamber of Commerce in 2012.
“When that program left our community six years ago, people knew that we were putting a significant risk on people that don’t really understand the conditions they might be facing when they go out in the water,” he said. “We can’t connect whether the surf guard program would have saved this woman’s life, or the young man’s life earlier this year, but what we can say is that it has saved lives in the past and we know that, the more people we have on the ground with their eyes and their ears on the water, and with local knowledge, that helps prevent incidents and mistakes from happening.”
He suggested the Park Reserve welcomed roughly 1.1 million visitors in 2017, is heavily marketing the region as an attractive place to visit and is offering free entry to youth 17 years and under this year.
“With that, it means we have more responsibility to look after the people that are visiting,” he said. “We want them to have a safe, healthy, happy and memorable visit to our region. The last thing we want is their families scarred with a really terrible tragedy, something that possibly could have been prevented.”
He said other popular surf destinations have lifeguards in place and said the Park Reserve should be able to reinstate the program fairly quickly.
“Maybe some knowledge is gone and maybe some infrastructure is gone that we need to build back up to reinstate a program like this, but I think it’s something that could be reinstated because we’re fortunate to have some people that have been invested in the Park for so long that, possibly, they could help put the program together in short order.”
In an emailed response to the Westerly, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve Superintendent Karen Haugen defended the decision to cancel the program.
“The Surf Guard program, which ran during summer months in a popular section of Long Beach, concluded in 2012 as it was no longer in step with evolving surf and water recreation practices in the area,” Haugen wrote in an email to the Westerly News. “While surfing used to be centralized abound 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.”
She said it is not feasible to provide surf guard services over such a wide area and that the Park Reserve, instead, chose to collaborate with Tofino and Ucluelet on a massive signage and education campaign dubbed CoastSmart.
“Through the CoastSmart program which launched in 2016, Parks Canada has been collaborating with Tofino and Ucluelet, along with tourism-based businesses and safety organizations to educate visitors and local water users about the risks the ocean in this region,” she wrote. “Through CoastSmart, we educate people on the dangers of tides, unexpected waves, the power of rip currents, and the debilitating effects of cold water.”
Ucluelet’s municipal council publicly questioned the CoastSmart program last year, and, while the program’s signage is believed to be completed, Johns is questioning why those signs have not yet been erected.
“We need those signs up,” he said. “We need much better interpretive type signage to help people understand the elements that they’re facing and the conditions that they’re in.”
Haugen said the CoastSmart program includes current rip current signage near Lovekin Rock and additional standardized signs will be installed throughout the region this year.
“There is also a CoastSmart website, an interactive quiz, videos with local ambassadors, rack cards, information sheets, restaurant coasters, advertisements and more,” she wrote. “Parks Canada staff also interact with visitors on Long Beach to share CoastSmart information such as changing tides, rip tides, and hazardous areas.”