On February 8th the San Jose Mercury News ran a story about a surf-photographer who rescued a drowning surfer at Mavericks, a surf spot near Half Moon Bay, CA. There is no doubt that surfer Jacob Trette, who had lost consciousness, would have drowned if the photographer hadn’t swiftly entered the impact zone on a PWC (Personal Water Craft) and extracted him from the 30-foot surf.
Trette is fortunate that his rescuer, Australian surf-photographer Russell Ord, borrowed the PWC from his friend Kenny Collins, another surfer, on the day of the incident. But now Collins, not Ord, could be facing a $500 fine for operating a PWC in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. PWCs, also known as jet skis, are prohibited in the sanctuary because they harm marine life, including protected marine mammals and endangered species.
I’m no expert on PWC-marine life interactions, but I would speculate that an animal that is struck by a fast-moving jet ski will be seriously injured or killed. Furthermore, it’s entirely conceivable that the noise from these vehicles harasses marine life. I worked as a California State Parks lifeguard and PWC deckhand (riding on the rescue sled, not driving) in Monterey, CA, and let me tell you—those engines are LOUD.
The PWC ban is a topic of contention between NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the surfing community. I find points in both NOAA’s and the surfer’s arguments with which I can agree. Marine sanctuaries exist to protect marine ecosystems, and the adverse impacts from jet skis definitely undermine this objective. However, as a lifeguard, I know that using a PWC is the fastest and safest way to make a rescue in the heavy winter surf of Northern California.
So do I believe that the PWC ban should be lifted in the sanctuaries? Well… no. The Northern California coast is a place of wild and rugged beauty that is rarely found elsewhere. To allow the widespread use of these machines would detract from that natural value in an irreplaceable way. At the same time, I recognize and respect that for those who surf to discover and push their own limits; those towering waves are the ultimate challenge. And in the inevitable event that limits are pushed beyond the brink, there will be a need for rescuers—be they lifeguards, or a cameraman in the right place at the right time—with the means to quickly and safely extract people from the waves.
Lifeguards and all Ocean Rescue personnel are exempted from the ban, and a well trained PWC operator can make a rescue with limited environmental damage. So what is the solution to this dilemma? Hire more lifeguards of course!