TAMARINDO, Guanacaste — When a 7-year-old girl was drowning off the coast of Tamarindo recently, Sergio Pérez didn’t have long to cover the half-mile stretch from the lifeguard stand on the beach’s north end. He also didn’t have a functioning ATV, which the guards usually use to make rescues on the far-off southern points of the beach.
While the Costa Rican girl was brought to shore on the beach’s southern end by a local woman who sells bikinis in town, Pérez quickly jumped on his motorcycle and made it to the girl within a minute of being alerted. “She was completely white and her lips were purple,” Pérez said. “It was pretty obvious she was about to die.”
The 20-year-old Pérez, who is one of just two full-time Tamarindo lifeguards on the beach, resuscitated her and saved the little girl’s life. But for a relatively new lifeguard program that is trying (and largely succeeding) to combat the high volume of drownings that occur on one of Costa Rica’s best-known beaches, consistent funding is noticeably absent. Lifeguards have had to borrow jet skis from local rental companies and race out on paddleboards to save swimmers in distress.
“We at least need two more guys looking over that side of the beach, but we do what we can,” the 20-year-old lifeguard said from his lookout spot on the wooden shack on a sunny, 90-degree afternoon.
Currently, financial support comes from donations and proceeds from the beers brewed by the Witch’s Rock Surf Camp microbrewery, located right behind the lifeguard stand. Joe Walsh, the longtime Tamarindo figure who founded the country’s most well-known surf camp and its many offset projects, like the brewery, said the government won’t help fund the program despite its invaluable worth to locals and tourists alike.
“But you get tired about it and you can complain, or you can do something about it,” he said. “I think that having a successful business model, with a focus on its community and where it’s at, is the best model we have for making investments and improvements.”
Walsh’s Witch’s Rock brand has long had success in attracting tourists and selling beers, including the two-month old IPA tentatively named Hasselhopp, in homage of everyone’s favorite Baywatch star. But now through his business and the Tamarindo’s Development Association (ADIT), Walsh is overseeing a project that he says should be replicated throughout Costa Rica’s unprotected shores.
Walsh, who has lived in Tamarindo since 2001, said he began putting lifeguards on the beach so that he wouldn’t have to carry any more bodies out from the water.
“From years and years of us living right here on the beach and being the first contact to the beach, we’ve rescued dozens and dozens of people,” Walsh said. “I’ve had dead people where I had to recover a body personally here out of the water. A wife ran in, ‘Oh my husband got pulled out.’ By the time I got to him… It haunts me to this day.”
Because Tamarindo’s shoreline is located right next to an estuary to the north, the high tides and low tides are more extreme than on other beaches. The strong currents combine with the lack of warning signs and inexperienced swimmers to form a deadly confluence in one of Costa Rica’s most noted tourist destinations.
An average of up to 60 drowning-related deaths are reported each year in Costa Rica. According to a Tico Times report from June, despite Costa Rica having just 6.5 percent of the coastline of the United States, both countries report a similar amount of drownings each year.
That’s why for Walsh and those overseeing the lifeguard program, it shouldn’t be considered a luxury to have guards patrolling the country’s most popular beaches.
Pat McNulty, who worked as a police officer for 25 years in Rhode Island, works with the lifeguard program and Witch’s Rock Surf Camp. Even in his 60s, the crew-cut, muscle-strapped McNulty can regularly be seen on the beach helping with the lifeguards and making sure everything is in order. After going through the mandatory 40-hour training with the Costa Rican Lifeguard Association, the retiree sometimes volunteers his own time on the stand when one of the full-time guards or volunteers can’t work.
He said the locals like Pérez that he works with on the stand are some of the community’s most important protectors. When 17 swimmers got sucked out to sea in the low tide near the estuary, Pérez and two other lifeguards on duty swam out with three paddleboards and put up to six people on each board.
“There’s guys that I work with on the tower that I know if I get in trouble they’re coming,” McNulty said. “They’ll give their life up to try and save someone.”
He added that its more than just a job for the locals who work on the patrol and take pride in their position. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the week, the guards help in a variety of rescues while also coordinating with other agencies like the Red Cross and the police if they witness crime on the beach.
“It’s really warming to see how much it means to them and how much they want to help,” he said. “But we’re struggling financially all the time and we have no support whatsoever from the government and the municipality.”
Though the municipality of Santa Cruz, which oversees Tamarindo, may not have much money to contribute to the local program, McNulty says it’s up to businesses in the community to step up with donations. Pacifico Bar donated a backboard and neck brace, he said, while a local doctor gave some medical equipment. But the lifeguard program can’t survive on sparse donations alone, as Walsh has to pay many expenses out of pocket.
“Hopefully in a year from now we have money in the bank saved up and we can make it a model for other communities,” he said. “Then hopefully at some point the government says, ‘Oh that was a good idea.'”