Support is growing for lifeguards and a warning flag system to be introduced on some of Cayman’s beaches to help protect tourists.
Six people, including five visitors, have died in the water so far this year.
The Cayman Islands Red Cross has called for trained lifeguards to be put on patrol on the beaches.
Dive operator Steve Broadbelt, of Ocean Frontiers, agrees.
“When something happens once, you can call it an accident but when it keeps happening again and again, you start to think you need to learn from this and put some measures in place,” he said.
Divers from Ocean Frontiers assisted with the search last week for snorkeler Norman Lee, who was reported missing after apparently getting into difficulty in strong currents close to the Reef Resort, where he was staying with his wife.
Mr. Lee, 47, an artist for Marvel Comics, was never found.
Mr. Broadbelt believes lifeguards could provide information to tourists so they would know where and when it was safe to swim, as well as being ready to intervene if they got into trouble.
He said currents were strong in the area where Mr. Lee was swimming because of waves crashing over the reef and surging back out through the channel.
“If someone is out swimming in the wrong place at the wrong time because they are not knowledgable about local conditions – these things are avoidable,” he said.
“My view is that I would like to see something in place to improve safety – a lifeguard on duty and a flag system. We are not reinventing the wheel, this is pretty common,” he added.
A large majority of water-related deaths in the Cayman Islands have been linked to medical conditions. But Mr. Broadbelt notes that early intervention from trained lifeguards when someone experiences a medical emergency in the water may help prevent a fatality.
“If someone has a heart attack on a golf course, you can get a different outcome for the same medical event,” he added. The dive operator said he was making the recommendation despite concerns about adding to the government budget. He said the bad publicity associated with tourist deaths and lack of lifeguards as reassurance likely put off tourists.
“It is not a difficult thing to do,” he said. “The tourists that come here pay 13 percent tax per night. They bring a lot of money to the island and we have little in the way of water safety. It should be done as a public service, it has happened too often.”
The Cayman Islands Red Cross, which trains lifeguards for the Turtle Farm as well as for the Bermuda lifeguard service, has been advocating for some time for lifeguard patrols in Cayman.
Peter Hughes, first aid program manager and a lifeguard instructor, believes a lifeguard service would not prevent all fatalities but could provide reassurance to tourists and help deal with other issues on the beaches.
“I continue to maintain a vision of a National Lifesaving Society which will maintain a presence on selected local beaches. To date, we have had no direct support for this goal,” he said this week.
Mr. Hughes believes interest and support in lifeguarding is growing. He said the Red Cross was working with the amateur swimming association, as well as with resorts and businesses, to train lifeguards for their facilities and events.
The Ministry of Tourism said the parks department had responsibilty for beaches.
A spokeswoman added, “As lifeguard cover is currently not provided on our beaches, both visitors and residents alike are encouraged to be aware of the conditions and self-aware of any limitations they may have due to health or ability.
She said, “The Cayman Islands is known as a safe destination for travelers and it is always distressing when a visitor perishes under any circumstance while vacationing with us. As a leading destination for water-related activities by people of all ages, it is important to bear in mind that the vast majority of visitors to the Cayman Islands enjoy our land and sea based attractions without incident.
“It is difficult to anticipate whether someone will encounter difficulties doing something they have come to love, such as snorkeling, but when incidents do occur, the emergency response infrastructure is in place to quickly respond when a report for assistance is received.”
The Bermuda government spends $500,000 annually on a full-time lifeguard superintendent and 17 seasonal employees to guard five beaches during the tourist season from May 1 to Oct. 31. Statistics for the service, from the Bermuda government budget, show that the service rescued 58 swimmers in distress and made 5,780 visitor assists in the 2011/2012 financial year.