When tourists come to Costa Rica’s beautiful beaches they probably are not aware that danger lurks beneath the waves.
This has been the country’s dark secret for years, and little has been done to protect bathers. A few communities, like Jacó and Dominical, set up lifeguard corps, usually with investments from local businesses.
Tamarindo is taking the lead to make beach safety a priority.
A seminar there heard experts say that beaches should have a trained lifeguard every 500 meters. That community has just installed a lifeguard tower at its famed beach. and one more is due to go up.
Between 50 to 60 persons die in the surf in Costa Rica each year, according to a summary of the meeting set up by the Cámara de Comercio y Turismo de Tamarindo with the support of the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo.
Many are tourists who are unaware that they could be caught by rip tides.
The U.S. State Department reported that of the 20 U.S. citizens who died of non-natural causes in Costa Rica in 2014, nine were victims of drowning. Four of the deaths were listed as taking place in Santa Cruz, which probably means in the Tamarindo area.
One was in Cóbano on the Nicoya peninsula. One was in Jacó. Three were in Carrillo in Guanacaste, and one was in the Quepos region. By comparison, only two U.S. citizens died that year in vehicle mishaps, according to the report, and drowning was the leading cause of U.S. deaths.
The chamber’s guests heard that Costa Rica has an annual average in drowning similar to that of the United States or Australia but that the country only has 5 percent of the coastline of the United States and just 7 percent of that of Australia.
Costa Rica’s annual average came from Alejandro Gutiérrez of the Universidad Nacional and Isabel Arozarena of the Instituto Internacional de Oceanografia, according to a meeting summary.
Hernán Imhoff, chamber president, reported that those who attended represented the Guanacaste municipalities of La Cruz, Liberia, Carrillo, Santa Cruz and Nandayure. There also were members of the Cuerpos de Bomberos. the Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas and local teachers.
Gutiérrez, who is director of the ocean institute at the university said that Costa Rica should set as a goal the reduction of these water deaths.
He noted that Tamarindo has had some success with its new emphasis on lifeguard towers.
Professor Arozarena, also of Universidad Nacional, was quoted saying that an intense program should be developed to place lifeguards at the beaches.
Also needed are signs at dangerous areas, flyers for tourists and discussions to raise awareness of the problem, the professor said.
Rip tides are mostly invisible. Rip tides can sometimes be spotted by sandy or darker colored areas in the water. The current stirs up the bottom of the ocean as is flows seaward. Sometimes a line of seaweed, foam, or debris extending seaward can be spotted in a rip current.
Rip currents or rip tides are formed by wind and waves pushing water toward the shore. Oncoming waves can push the previous backwash sideways. The water streams along the shoreline until it finds a path back to the sea. The resulting rip current is usually located in a trench between sandbars.
A.M. Costa Rica has reported extensively on the dangers of rip currents. One news story involved a trip to Florida and said that Miami beaches, which receive millions of visitors a year, are complete with hundreds of lifeguard towers, warning flags and signs advising swimmers what to do if they get caught in a rip tide.
The hundreds of Miami beach signs, some bilingual, advise people not to fight the current and, if unable to escape, to tread water or float.
A healthy male standing in thigh-deep surf can be caught by a rip tides and be unable to move. In one case, five lifeguards and a rope were needed in Dominical to pull a man in that situation to the beach.