Drowning victim’s daughter calls for lifeguards on Tofino surf beach
Published Wednesday, April 24, 2019 1:03PM PDT
Last Updated Wednesday, April 24, 2019 6:31PM PDT
As the sun rose, casting a costal glow on some of Vancouver Island’s most beautiful beaches, Victoria Enom had no way of knowing her wedding day would be the most traumatic 24 hours of her young life.
Her conflicting ordeal sprinkled with gut-wrenching loss, and the bliss of love, was delivered on a west coast beach devoid of lifeguards, while on east coast sands some 6,000 kilometres away a team of surf guards patrol the rolling seas.
"I didn’t want them to go surfing. I wanted them to stay with me."
The morning of May 20, 2018 was what you would expect for a blushing bride and her family. Tucked away at a beautiful hotel in the burgeoning tourist mecca of Tofino, Enom was surrounded by her closest girlfriends, her sister, a hair stylist and of course her mother.
Her white dress, expertly adorned with sequins, was perfectly pressed, and all the preparations had been made for idyllic nuptials on a far west beach. Ahead of schedule, Victoria’s mother Ann Wittenburg and her sister Rachel wanted to steal away for a last-minute thrill – surfing.
Renting gear, the two would leave the bride behind and make a beeline for Long Beach. Both novice surfers, they ventured out just as the weather began to pick up.
A short time later, when another gaze into the mirror couldn’t improve Enom's wedding day hairstyle, and her bridesmaids had ensured her dress looked perfect, a clock caught her attention. She began worrying about her mother and sister, who hadn’t returned to the hotel for several hours.
“I didn’t want them to go surfing,” Enom told CTV News. “I wanted them to stay with me."
What happened next would scar her and members of her family forever. It would also launch a movement aimed at making Canada’s surfing destination safer for uninitiated riders.
"Deaths are going to keep occurring if there are no protections for these people."
In the middle of her own surf session at Long Beach, Ucluelet woman Heather Durward was forced to make a dangerous decision.
She spotted Enom's mother and sister in distress near a jagged outcropping called Lovekin Rock. Outdone by the surf conditions and possibly caught in a powerful current drawing them deep into the Pacific, the two attempted to cling to the tiny island, but were battered by crashing waves.
Pulled in and out of the water, Wittenburg sunk below the surface. For Durward, the decision had been made. She would paddle into dangerous waters and attempt a citizen’s rescue.
Rachel, the awaiting bride’s sister, would survive, but Wittenburg died only hours before her daughter walked down the aisle.
Understanding the confusion, pressure and pain Victoria felt as she decided to continue on with her wedding that day is difficult, but for those who entered the water on May 20 hoping to save a tourist surfer there is a clear understanding of one thing.
"Deaths are going to keep occurring if there are no protections for these people," Durward told CTV News.
In 2020, the Tokyo Olympics will launch surfing into a new stratosphere.
For the fledgling sport in Canada, it is hard to argue that Tofino, Ucluelet and the Pacific Rim National Park aren’t the epicentre. In May, a beach break in the Pac Rim Park will be the battleground for Canadian men and women hoping to collect gold in Tokyo.
The draw to the coastal playground doesn’t end there. Hollywood stars and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau frequent the cold Canadian breaks. But off the water a new swell is rising.
A petition to reinstate a longstanding lifeguard program is quickly gathering signatures, the support of politicians and backing from those touched by loss on Long Beach.
"I truly think there should be someone," Enom answered when asked if a lifeguard should be on duty where her mother died. As of April 24, the petition had collected nearly 800 signatures.
In 2012, the national park’s Surf Guard program was scrapped. In place for decades on Long Beach, Parks Canada said surfing had spread out so much on Vancouver Island's outer west coast that it could no longer maintain the service.
Immediately the decision was criticised. Dough Palfrey had stood watch in the surf tower on Long Beach for years and said the education dispensed by staff to beginners, and the countless rescues they conducted, could not be replaced by signage alone.
"I think Parks Canada really is completely negligent in providing adequate public safety at the beach," Palfrey said in an interview with CTV News.
As many rail against the federal government’s decision, the situation on Canada’s far west coast finds new context when you travel to our country’s eastern seaboard.
In Prince Edward Island, a national park is a bastion for surfing, but the connective tissue to the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve ends there. Seven different beaches in the P.E.I. National Park have surf guards on duty between June and Labour Day. In 2018, Parks Canada estimates 746,000 people visited the east coast destination; while in the same time frame well over a million tourists were recorded visiting the Pacific Rim National Park.
Gord Johns, the NDP MP for Tofino and Ucluelet, has been trumpeting the need for beachside protection ever since two deaths in 2018.
Wittenburg’s passing came just months after a University of Victoria exchange student drowned in nearly the exact same spot.
"What is the government waiting for?" Johns told CTV News. "The community didn’t just want the program retained; they wanted it expanded to the shoulder months."
The coastal MP says he has called on Environment and Climate Change Canada, which oversees Parks Canada, to renew the longstanding Surf Guard program.
Parks Canada says its west coast Surf Guard service isn’t feasible. Questioned by CTV News, federal parks representatives say the Pacific Rim Park’s sprawling beach front property make it difficult to patrol the vast region.
"It is not possible for Parks Canada staff or other emergency professionals to always reach an incident within the critical first few minutes," said Parks Canada’s Stephanie McGlashan.
Local government agents like Gord Johns say they simply want Surf Guard services back at historically dangerous areas like Lovekin Rock on Long Beach, the idea being at least one west coast wave would have someone watching over beginners and tourists.
CTV News also questioned Parks Canada about why the Prince Edward Island National Park has so many remaining Surf Guard services, while arguably more dangerous and more frequented waters on the west have none. Parks Canada missed its deadline for a comment.
As the sun inched behind the forested peaks of Vancouver Island’s west coast on May 20, 2018, Enom had gained a husband but lost her mother.
The indelible images the young B.C. woman will hold from that day are a muddled collage of despair, and euphoria.
She is left with a mixture of the best and worst day a person might ever be able to experience, and nearly a year later she wants to ensure that no other bride or tourist has to grapple with the same dichotomy of emotions.