Brent Fisher, president of the Water Safety and Surf Lifesaving Council, wants a law change to fine unsafe operators. He singled out commercial marine companies operating in Rarotonga’s Avaavaroa passage, expressing concern at the lack of specific water-safety guidelines.
Pacific Divers operator Stephen Lyon echoed Fisher’s concerns about the risks: “The Avaavaroa passage is the site where most swimming deaths have occurred in the Cook Islands.”
“It is deceptive, the currents are usually very strong and in certain parts of the passage and particularly around the reef, the current picks up rapidly and the water churns, much like rapids in a river,” Lyon explained.
“This is due to the shallow mouth and underwater canyon features of the passage. There are signs indicating strong currents around the island near the passages and these are considered no swimming areas.”
But he rejected Fisher’s call for compulsory safety courses, calling that approach heavy-handed. Instead, he endorsed better education, and talk of a safety boat for passage tours.
“The passage is used around low tide only, and I believe it is used by four operators. On a good day over 50 people can be experiencing guided tours of the passage shared between the various operators,” he
“Operators have mitigated potential hazards by erecting signs advising people not to enter the passage unguided, and by increasing the number of guides with their groups.”
Among those to die in the Avaavaroa passage were New Zealand tourists Robert Groves and Judy Palmer, who drowned swimming in the lagoon the day before her daughter’s wedding.
But the risks are by no means limited to that passage: A German couple died in the nearby Papua passage in 2015. And just last year an elderly Canadian man drowned at Vaimaanga.
Further around the coast, the Muri lagoon claimed the lives of two US tourists in 2017, brothers-in-law Craig Tieszen and Brent Moline, 61.
And in September, 47-year-old Taiwanese tourist Yang Wei-Chung died in the currents of Aitutaki lagoon, trying to rescue his young daughter who had fallen from her kayak.
Fisher said the Water Safety Council had been offering courses for tourism accommodation providers teaching them about reading weather and sea conditions, identifying hazards and the proper use of equipment.
“We are working with marine operators, Cook Islands Police Service and tourism for a special course that water guides would need to pass,” he said. “We want to get it legislated so that we can issue fines for inadequate water safety and ban operators from using the passages or operating entirely.”
Joshua Utanga, a former lifeguard and Olympic canoeist, said: “We have 168,000 tourists coming in each year. We need to have a level of water safety. There is a minimal water safety presence here, and only a few signs up that have lost credibility because they are ignored.”
Police spokesman Trevor Pitt said they worked with Cook Islands Tourism to make certain lagoon and sea activities were safely managed and monitored. It was police, with the cooperation of the airline and local fishing companies, who staffed search and rescue operations.
“Police have an interest to ensure that any tour operators do not place people’s lives at risk as a result of failing to provide adequate oversight and hands-on expertise.”
He added: “Police are supportive of the training efforts promoted by the Water Safety Council and the ongoing upkeep of emergency equipment like the defibrillators.”