Water deaths are increasing at a rapid annual pace

Rhiannon Hull and son Julian in a recent photo on a Costa Rican beach. Hull family photo

With two months remaining in the year, the number of water-related deaths in the country have already surpassed by a large margin those from 2010, marking what local authorities are calling an unusually dangerous year for swimmers.

From January through October, more than 92 people have died in rivers and oceans in Costa Rica compared with 76 people in all of 2010, according to Cruz Roja statistics. The deaths have occurred principally in Guanacaste and Puntarenas, with more than 30 in the latter.

Freddy Román, a spokesperson for Cruz Roja, said in an effort to curtail the growing problem the volunteer organization has stepped up staffing levels at its rescue centers in those areas and is attempting to spread the word about safe swimming practices in the ocean.

“We don’t know exactly why this year is particularly dangerous,” Román said. “But we think it may have to do with lack of preventative measures.”

He said tourists, national and international, characterize one of the larger demographic groups of victims. And with the elevated tourist weeks of December and November still to come, the death toll could increase even more dramatically if similar trends persist.

One of the most recent casualties was Rhiannon Hull, 34, of Healdsburg, California. Ms. Hull was swimming with her 6-year-old son Julian a little over a week ago in Avellanas Beach, a secluded strip in the Guanacaste province, when they were swept out into deep waters.

Ms. Hull was able to keep her son afloat until surfers arrived, but after handing him over, she drowned. Her body was recovered two days later by the Costa Rican Guardacostas six nautical miles away from where the incident occurred.

Ms. Hull’s husband, Norman, speculated that his wife, an able athlete and runner, was caught off guard by the current or reached a drop-off and unexpectedly found herself with the 6-year-old child struggling to swim. He said the tragedy should be a warning to anyone entering the ocean.

“It was a completely flat day,” Hull said. “She didn’t expect anything to happen or she wouldn’t have taken my son out there. There needs to be education about what the risks are.”

Hull said his wife of nine years was in the process of opening a Waldorf school in the Tamarindo area when the accident occurred. He was in California with their other child and planned to join her in mid-month.

He said the incident could have been twice as fatal and cost the son his life as well had Rhiannon Hull not been able to keep his head above water.

“If she hadn’t been so strong, my son would have died,” he said. “She gave up her life for my son.”

A coast guard commander, Óscar Rodríguez, emphasized that a seemingly innocuous beach like Avellanas, and many others along the Costa Rican coastlines, may not be as safe as they appear. He said lack of lifeguards or other beach-goers within earshot can make it difficult to receive aid in case of an emergency and that the presence of strong undercurrents or large waves can catch even someone wading in shallow water off guard.
He surmised a similar scenario played out with Rhiannon Hull.

“It’s a very dangerous beach,” he said. “It’s not safe for the swimmers. It has a strong, strong current and no lifeguards.”

A similar scenario played out Saturday night at Playa Agujas north of Jacó on the central Pacific coast. A 27-year-old man identified by the last name of Murillo died when he and a woman companion were taken by a wave about 8:30 p.m. said the Judicial Investigating Organization. The woman managed to save herself, but friends and family did not find Murillo’s body until 1 a.m. Sunday.

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