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New UNA Study Focuses On Swimmer Education

November 20, 2009

Costa Rica’s coastal waters pose great risks to visitors who are not familiar with their power.

In May 2009, Jermaine Zimmerman, 21, and his brother Darnell, 25, from Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States, drowned off the coast of Playa Azul in the northern province of Guanacaste.

During the same month, a strong riptide swept 21-year-old University of SouthFlorida student Aly Zain Lakdawala out to sea near Tamarindo on the Pacific coast.

Last month, British journalist Michael Dixon, 33, went missing in Tamarindo. Hotel officials said they last saw him on his way to the beach with a towel in his hand on the morning of Oct. 19. The investigation into his disappearance is ongoing.

Between 50 and 70 people drown yearly in Costa Rican waters, according to a 2009 study by researchers at the National University (UNA) in Heredia, north of San José. The U.S. Department of State says that strong riptides cause the deaths of eight to 12 U.S. tourists in Costa Rica annually.

Few beaches have warning signs, and the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) has been under fire from visitors for not taking more precautionary measures to help prevent the deaths of more tourists in open waters.

But a new project recently undertaken by the International Ocean Institute based at the UNA could better advise swimmers about the sea’s ebb-and-flow hazards.

The project, begun in September of this year, will establish an index of riptides for the main beaches along Costa Rica’s Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Researchers hope the outcome will guide key governmental and tourism institutes in implementing a system to alert swimmers about the strength and patterns of currents.

“This is an important project, and it is the first of its kind for Central America and the Caribbean region,” said Alejandro Gutiérrez, director of the institute and collaborator for the study. “It could save a lot of lives.”

The project has four major objectives and is in its first phase of visiting and monitoring coastal zones where riptides appear to be most hazardous. The beaches of Jacó, Manuel Antonio, Quepos, Dominical, Esterillos, and Isla Damas are where the majority of deaths by drowining occur, according to the project’s proposal.

All of these beaches are in the central Pacific province of Puntarenas, and that’s where scientists will begin their study.

Researchers will examine wave and tidal conditions and gauge the motion and force of currents in order to identify the most dangerous areas under normal weather conditions.

The results of the work will be presented to critical government agencies and emergency groups such as the Costa Rican Red Cross, the ICT and the National Emergency Commission (CNE). The oceanic institute will also host conferences with high schools and academic institutions and work with tourism companies and hotels interested in the information.

Researchers hope to complete the project and begin presenting the index by August 31, 2011.

–Mike McDonald

 

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