Beach deaths prompt safety campaign

Beach deaths prompt safety campaign

Michele Ellson

A string of drowning deaths over the last few months on Northern California beaches has prompted the United States Coast Guard, National Park Service and East Bay SPCA to launch a campaign to keep beach lovers – and particularly, beach-loving dog owners – safe when they stroll alongside the waves.

Their message to dog owners: Resist the urge to jump into the water even if your dog appears to be struggling, because they are more likely to make it out of the water safely than you are.

“We cannot urge you enough to resist the urge to go after your dog,” East Bay SPCA Executive Director Allison Lindquist said during a press conference to announce the public safety campaign on Friday. “Unequivocally, the answer is, just don’t.”

Instead of feeling gratitude that they’re about to be pulled out of the water, Lindquist said a dog will see a person attempting to rescue them as a surface to climb out of the water onto.

Since 2008, seven people have died on Northern California beaches while trying to rescue their dogs from the ocean, four of them just in the last few months, Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Pamela J. Boehland said. In all four of those cases, the dogs survived while their human owners perished.

“Pets almost always make it out (of the water). Humans do not,” Lindquist said.

The Bay Area has seen additional drowning deaths over the past two months, including the death of a father and his 9-year-old son while fishing near the Point Bonita lighthouse and another this past weekend of a woman who was hit by a sneaker wave and swept out to sea while walking on an Humboldt County beach.

Lindquist said dogs are better swimmers than people and better built to ride out a rough ocean current. They’re also less likely to panic if swept out into the ocean by a big wave.

Even so, she and others who staged Friday’s press conference recommended that dog owners keep a close eye on their pets while on the beach, and that smaller dogs be kept out of the water entirely – particularly during the winter months, when sneaker waves – also known as rogue waves – are more prevalent.

Alexandra Picavet of the National Park Service said they conduct hundreds of rescues each year after dog walkers and other beachgoers get themselves into dangerous situations. Often, she said, people are lulled into a false sense that they know where the ocean waves will strike and are caught off guard by an unexpectedly large wave.

A Eureka couple and their teenage son reportedly died in November while trying to rescue their dog from the ocean at Big Lagoon, 300 miles north of San Francisco. The dog had been pulled into the ocean after being hit with a 10-foot wave while retrieving a stick, according to press reports.

On New Year’s Day, another man died off the coast of Point Reyes after trying to rescue his wife and dog from the ocean. The woman was reportedly pulled out of the water by Good Samaritans, and the dog swam out on its own.

But Picavet said that even six inches of water is enough to knock a full-size adult over. In addition to being mindful of the power of the ocean, she and others at Friday’s press conference urged caution around the Oakland/Alameda Estuary and other bodies of water, adding that drowning is the number one cause of death in national parks.

The groups urged people to be safe around the water, but they also offered advice for people who get pulled out to sea by a rogue wave or rip tide. Coast Guard rescue swimmer Gabe Pulliam said anyone who finds themselves caught in a rip current should try to remain calm and either swim parallel to shore until the current releases them or tread water and yell for help so they can be rescued. And Picavet urged anyone who sees another person or dog in distress should call 911.

“Unless you’re trained, you shouldn’t try to rescue anyone,” Picavet said.

She said that if a dog is pulled into the ocean by a wave, its owner follow the dog along the beach and call to it so the dog can reach its owner safely. Lindquist recommended dogs be tagged and microchipped so that if a dog is separated from its owner, they can be reunited more quickly.

Pulliam urged beachgoers to be mindful of the sneaker waves, which are most prevalent from October to March.

“The rogue waves do exist. They happen all the time,” Pulliam said. “So just respect the ocean and never turn your back on it.”