The Cayman Islands Red Cross says life guarding at busy tourist spots, like Seven Mile Beach, would save lives and send a positive image to safety conscious tourists.
The organization believes it is only a matter of time before Cayman’s legislators follow the example of islands like Bermuda and introduce mandatory lifeguard coverage.
The Red Cross has set up a training course in readiness and is beginning to actively advocate for lifeguards in private resorts, as well as on beaches.
Between eight and 10 people die each year on the water in the Cayman Islands. That figure includes snorkelers, boaters and scuba divers as well as swimmers.
The Cayman Islands Tourist Association does not currently support lifeguards as a solution, pointing out that, in many of the cases, the victims suffered medical conditions, such as heart attacks, that could equally have killed them on a golf course.
The association believes lifeguards are unnecessary and greater public awareness of how to handle emergency situations would be a better solution.
Jondo Obi, director of the Cayman Islands Red Cross, said staff from the organization had already trained lifeguards in Bermuda, where a cadre of lifeguards operates in high season on the main public beaches.
She believes Cayman will ultimately need to follow Bermuda’s example and bring in beach patrols.
“Of course it would save lives. You are not going to save everybody, but you will save some. It seems like we always wait for that tragic incident before we act. What we are saying is let’s have the discussion about it now, before that happens.”
Peter Hughes, training manager at the Red Cross, said the organization had set up a lifeguard training course four years ago, anticipating an increase in demand.
“We made an assessment that, at some time in the near future, there would be legislation to govern life guarding on the beaches and we should position ourselves to be ready for that,” he said.
The legislation has not yet arrived but the Red Cross has trained lifeguards for organizations like the Amateur Swimming Association and the Cayman Turtle Farm.
The introduction of lifeguards at the Turtle Farm’s swimming area followed recommendations from the cruise industry, which sends thousands of tourists to the venue each year, according to the Red Cross.
Keith Sahm, watersports director for the Cayman Islands Tourist Association, believes lifeguards would have little effect in Grand Cayman and could potentially create new problems.
“Drowning can happen quickly and quietly anywhere there is water and even in the presence of lifeguards, so having lifeguards on Seven Mile Beach is redundant.
“Most places where you see lifeguards, there are other circumstances like rip-tides, high surf or strong currents to keep folks away from such high potential harmful areas. We have nothing like this on Seven Mile Beach.”
He added that there could be liability issues.
“What happens if you do have lifeguards and staffing issues arise? Would you close Seven Mile Beach? Would Seven Mile Beach be open on Sundays?
“Once you set that precedent, then you deem that they are necessary and a whole new set of rules, responsibilities and blame game comes into play.”
Mr. Hughes believes there will always be a number of swimmers, divers and snorkelers that die each year in the water, even with a comprehensive lifeguard system in place.
But he believes properly structured year-round patrols on the busiest public beaches would save some lives and help tourists make informed choices about when it was safe to swim.
“What you can do, and what they do all over the world, is say that the beach is life guarded between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and select the most popular beaches.
“Outside of that, people swim at their own risk. That way, people can make decisions. You can decide not to put your kids in the water when the lifeguard is not on duty.”
Mr. Sahm said fatalities could be minimized by the general public being more aware of what to do in an emergency situation.
He added, “I think we need to be proactive in reminding parents and visitors to the island to be responsible and supervise their children around the beach. I see many adults, reading, playing cards, taking on cell phones, conversing with others, and not having someone supervise their small children on the beach.”
Damian Rose, 20, became the 11th person to die in the water this year when he drowned while swimming off West Bay Beach earlier this month.