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Double Ava’avaroa tragedy avoided

Friday 23 September 2022 | Written by Supplied | Published in Local, National


Double Ava’avaroa tragedy avoided
Go Local Turtle Tours business partners Dee Hallin (left) and John Young (fourth from left back row) have invested heavily in safety equipment for their business. “Our other big investment is in our kids, teaching them water and survival skills, about respecting our marine environment and appreciating that we come from a great place.” SUPPLIED/22092208

What could have easily turned into a double tragedy for two inattentive swimmers yesterday was averted by quick-thinking locals who are familiar with the dangers of Ava’avaroa Passage.

The couple, who were out walking their dogs along Vaima’anga beach yesterday morning, say it was a spur of the moment decision to take a different direction to their normal westerly Vaima’anga foreshore stroll.

Wanting to remain unnamed, the local woman said the water conditions weren’t the best yesterday morning to be out in the Vaima’anga lagoon. “It was high tide, the lagoon was choppy, there was quite a gust happening and the passage was churning with white tops. You can see the strong current running through the passage happening. So we weren’t surprised that none of the usual tour operators were out, its common sense not to venture out in those conditions.”

The first sign along their walk that not all may be well was seeing belongings laying on the beach. “We thought to ourselves, have people actually gone out in these conditions this morning and thought it must be tourists, so began walking quickly to Vaima’anga passage while scanning the water.

“We soon saw two people swimming towards the blue of the passage, and immediately became really concerned. The water was choppy and it looked like they were struggling a bit and not very strong swimmers, they had no fins on and just heading straight for the passage blue water which they were very close to at this stage. They were too far out to hear us and the wind was too strong anyway.

“We began waving frantically from the beach and at the same time we called Johnny Young of Go Local Turtle Tours because we know they have a boat with an outboard motor and are qualified life guards, he would’ve been the closest to Vaima’anga and able to reach the swimmers the fastest on the Go Local boat if they had been dragged out by the strong current.

“It was very scary watching these two tourists just dumbly heading straight into danger. Johnny told us to keep waving them to come back and he’d hook the boat up and head out straight away…to stay on the phone and keep him updated.”

Fortunately, one of the tourists looked back to the beach and saw the couple vigorously waving them away from the passage before reaching its dangerous deep blue. The two women swam away from very possibly being taken under and swept out to sea.

“It was really good to be able to tell Johnny that the tourists had seen us and were heading back to shore. It was a very harrowing moment and things could’ve turned out very differently if we hadn’t been seen waving by that swimmer and they’d just carried on into the current.”

Asked if they’d remained on the shore to caution the tourists about the passage, the local woman said they hadn’t as she was so upset by the incident that she, “…probably wouldn’t have been very polite to them”.

“There’s a sign at the passage entrance that warns about it being dangerous. The conditions and lack of any activity happening on the lagoon or in the passage should’ve made it clear to any thinking person that, oh I better not.”

Go Local Turtle Tours co-owner John Young says yesterday’s most recent incident is just another to add to many of tourists venturing out into the passage without local guides or any local knowledge and getting into trouble.

“This could’ve turned out a lot differently if that couple hadn’t been on the beach at the right time, there was no one else around and those two tourists are very, very lucky.”

Young says there is a need for more signage in the area warning of the danger of Ava’avaroa Passage and local tour operators in the area should each contribute towards having a number made and installed.

“We are more than happy to contribute towards that and let Cook Islands Water Safety organise it, we hope that the other operators will come onboard with this idea. It’s for everyone’s benefit.”

He believes that the sign should include that a fine will be imposed on anyone venturing out without an established local tour and getting into difficulty that requires rescuing. The Ministry of Transport is understood to be working towards legally introducing this condition.

“Tourists have to understand that local tour operators understand how the passage behaves, the conditions and when it is a good time to take people out. At Go Local Tours we’ve made sure to have all the right water safety equipment, water safety training and a fast boat. We have invested a lot in making sure every aspect of every single tour is safe. Visitors here have to act responsibly too and not go out in the passage unaccompanied by a qualified local tour.”

Cook Islands Tourism’s director of destination development, Christian Mani said the situation was very unfortunate and could easily have been avoided. 

“Cook Islands Tourism take our role in preventing these situations very seriously and do our best to mitigate the risks associated with water safety, however there will always be some who do not give heed to the warning signs,” Mani said.

“Cook Islands Tourism play an active role in promoting and supporting water safety in the Cook Islands. In partnership with Cook Islands Water Safety Council we have erected warning signs in the Ava’avaroa passage and supported the roll out of the Bronze Medallion Certification held in early July.”

Mani said the organisation’s water safety messages were shared on all its different mediums.

“We encourage visitors to adhere to the warning signs and if in doubt, ask a local for advice.”

Manava Media/Caleb Fotheringham