“We surfers are always rescuing people,” said Pablo Sanchez over the phone while taking short breaks to keep running his business, a surf school on Samara beach in Nicoya.
Sanchez is the president of the Samara Surf Sports Association, a group made up of six surf schools that noticed, both in the water and from shore, that the beach needed lifeguards.
Although Samara is known for its calm waters, Sanchez Sánchez says that there are people who get drunk and go into the ocean, or decide to paddleboard or kayak to Chora island, but something happens to them. “They fall or they don’t know how to get back, and those are problems that we surfers were addressing.”
But records tell another story too. Between 2001 and 2018, Samara was among the beaches with the most drownings: 11 people in total. Tamarindo also appears on the list as one of the beaches with the most drownings during that period. This was revealed by data analyzed by the Observatory of Coastal Processes of the National University.
In 2019, in light of the recurring need for rescues, the association thought that it was time to formalize aquatic surveillance off the coast. After two years of work, they succeeded: Samara became the second beach in Guanacaste to formally have a body of lifeguards ready to handle basic emergencies on the beach and carry out aquatic rescues.
For at least seven years, Tamarindo was the only destination in the province with lifeguards.
Both coastal communities followed a similar path to achieve this distinction: they saw a need, came together, knocked on doors, insisted and persisted.
Challenged by (In)security
Tamarindo also frequently faced critical emergencies due to currents.
Seven years ago, we saw that there was on average one drowning per year in Tamarindo,” recalled the president of the Tamarindo Integral Development Association (ADIT), Urs Schmid.
Looking at the statistics, in 2015, ADIT created the lifeguard program that got started with the same strategy that Samara is using now to embark on its program: donations from the community.
The owners of a restaurant in Tamarindo paid for the salary of one lifeguard and contributions from other businesses and community residents paid for another.
They also built the first lifeguard tower with donations. “But we lost it due to a storm in 2017. During a very high tide, it was damaged,” recalled Schimd.
The formula for seeking more donations was to document every task the lifeguards performed. “Every time they treated a person, they wrote down information in a log such as name, age, nationality, the reason for the rescue,” said Schmid. “And that documentation allowed us to reach people and tell them, ‘This is what we are doing. Help us to maintain the project.’”
They continued that way until 2019. In that year, the Red Cross and the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) signed an agreement to place lifeguards on the coasts with the greatest risk, and Tamarindo benefited.
Schimd recalls that Claudia Dobles (the first lady and liaison for the Chorotega Region) visited Guanacaste and he talked to her about the project. “I told her that it wasn’t fair that the private sector had to pay those salaries for such a very basic need as protecting human life,” Schmid said. And she connected them with ICT.
The ICT-Red Cross project remains active on six beaches in the country: Playa Cocles and Manzanillo on the Caribbean side, and Ventanas, Bahia Ballena, Espadilla (in Manuel Antonio) and Tamarindo on the Pacific coast.
“But it’s not something that was achieved indefinitely,” pointed out Schmid. “[The ICT and the Red Cross] usually let us know if they’ll continue to pay the lifeguards, which is great, because for ADIT, those two salaries are a very high burden. If they tell us one day that there are no funds, we have to see how we manage to maintain them,” explained Schmid, convinced of the need to have them.
During most of the years since the project was implemented in 2015, Tamarindo hasn’t recorded deaths from drowning. Last year, just one was recorded.
Financial sustainability is one of the challenges pending for the lifeguards in Samara. Right now, they have two regular volunteers and two who help out from time to time. But that’s what they are: volunteers.
Some businesses like Locanda, Gusto Beach and Mama Gui give them food, others pay for their lodging and others donate to give them a small monthly stipend, but their compensation is far from being a salary.
That’s what we’re aiming for. Our idea is to have a salary for them, in addition to the life insurance they already have,” said Pablo Sanchez.
Researcher and former IOI director Alejandro Gutierrez noted that salaries commensurate with the tasks that these aquatic rescue units carry out are a fundamental point and that valuing this work is key.
“People think that the only thing that a lifeguard does is jump into the water, and that is important, but the best rescue is the one that doesn’t happen. The preventive aspects are fundamental, the medical attention to know what to do when someone is taken out of the water, in addition to the scientific part, to be able to guide the tourist accordingly,” he added.
In both communities, local governments paid for the lifeguard towers. In Tamarindo, the Municipality of Santa Cruz installed it in 2019, and in Samara, it was erected last year.
“They weren’t obstacles, but there was a lot of paperwork to show that we were ready and that we have a solid structure, with personnel and legitimacy,” said Sanchez.
Legislation does give municipalities much more possibilities to get involved in the aquatic safety of their coasts.
The Law on the Implementation of Lifeguard Units on National Beaches, signed in December 2019, modified the Law on the Maritime Land Zone and established that 40% of the municipality’s income from concessions in the Maritime Land Zone should be invested in improving tourist areas, which can include covering the costs of these units.
But implementation of the law is slow. The ICT still hasn’t formed the National Commission for Preventing and Responding to Drownings in charge of issuing the guidelines for preventing and responding to accidents due to immersion, and for drawing up a preventive list of national beaches, according to their level of danger.
This commission must also indicate which beaches require the implementation of these units and time periods for their implementation.
The current Red Cross lifeguard supervisor, Ariel Lafuente, pointed out that although the process is slow, Costa Rica is a pioneer in Latin America. “We are the first country to create a lifeguard body law,” he indicated.
The urgency for decisions made on paper to be translated into action is evident to researcher Alejandro Gutierrez.
In the country, we’re scared by landslides, earthquakes, storms … but sometimes it seems that the 50 or 60 deaths a year from drowning don’t scare us,” he said.
And from Gutierrez’ and Lafuente’s point of view, a big first step is to standardize lifeguard certifications because to date, there is no official guideline, although there are several entities certifying them, from the Red Cross to local groups such as Swim Safe.
Beyond the Community; Always for the Community
For the Samara association, knocking on doors outside of the community was also a mandatory task. Pablo Sanchez said that to take the first steps, they had meetings with the Municipality of Garabito, a pioneer in forming a department of lifeguards to monitor the canton’s beaches.
“We needed to learn from those who know, and they’ve been working on this issue for more than 10 years,” said Sanchez. “We went to ask questions, how it worked, what materials they used for the tower, how many lifeguards there were, how they organized shifts and who could certify us as lifeguards,” he said.
Urs Schmid, from ADIT, agreed with him. “They are learning processes and people who already have experience can give important details: how to build the tower, what material to use, what is the profile of the lifeguards,” he listed.
“I would knock on the municipality’s door and, if it’s a community where there are funds, I’d try with hotels, with those who benefit from this program, because they want their clients to be safe,” he recommended.
Talk with [development associations] that already have it, with the Red Cross, with international organizations. With the internet, it’s now easier to get in touch and learn,” he added.
Both associations also see it as a project to promote tourism. Having lifeguards is attractive to national and foreign travelers. “It allows us as a community to compete with other beaches,” pointed out Sanchez.
Schmid, for his part, added that “the town benefits because if someone drowns, it’s a heavy blow for the entire community.”