Incoming Phuket Governor Pakkapong Tawipat will officially take up the post as the island’s top-ranking official on Monday (Oct 1) to face a mounting beach drowning death toll nearly double that of last year, when the beaches had comprehensive lifeguard protection by trained lifeguards armed with proper equipment by a single organisation.
This past week alone has seen a flurry of deadly surf-danger incidents, leaving one tourist dead, another comatose on life support pending a decision by his relatives and one American who entered the surf drunk at night but later safely recovered.
Japanese tourist 62-year-old Nobuhiko Suzuki drowned at Karon Beach last Saturday (Sept 22), while later that night an American tourist missing after entering the sea at Patong Beach was found angry and drunk, but safe, two hours later.
Meanwhile, a Chinese-born American* as of Wednesday remained comatose and on life support in the ICU at Bangkok Hospital Phuket after he was pulled from the surf unconscious and unresponsive at Mai Khao Beach last Wednesday (Sept 19).
Tha Chatchai Police Chief Col Prawit Suttiruangarun explained to The Phuket News that the man had entered the water where red ‘no swimming’ flags were posted.
“There were no lifeguards on duty along that part of the beach,” Col Prawit noted, adding that the man was rescued from the surf by a foreigner.
“His blood pressure is better, but his brain went without oxygen for too long,” Col Prawit explained.
“Now we are waiting for his relatives to make a decision,” he added.
The day after the man was pulled from the surf, Sarawut Srisakukam, Chief of the Mai Khao Tambon Administration Organisation (OrBorTor), declared Mai Khao Beach not safe for swimming.
“The tourist was swimming in front of a hotel about halfway along the beach, near the Pru Jampa Lake area,” Mr Sarawut explained.
Mr Sarawut explained that there are only four lifeguards on Mai Khao Beach – Phuket’s longest beach at just over 10km long.
Mai Khao OrBorTor hired the lifeguards directly, after LP Laikhum Co Ltd, which had been granted the government concession to provide lifeguards at several of Phuket’s main beaches, discontinued providing lifeguards, he added.
In May this year, LP Laikhum Managing Director Dr Nutpol Sirisawang flamed the Phuket Provincial Administration Organisation (PPAO, or OrBorJor) for not providing the equipment needed as per their agreement under the government contract provided.
Meanwhile, Mr Sarawut on Monday said that red flags have been posted along Mai Khao Beach.
“Mai Khao Beach is not safe right now. The rip currents and the strong waves are too dangerous. We have posted red flags on the beach where we can,” he said.
“I have also asked hotels in the area to warn their own guests about the dangers of entering the water at this time,” he added.
The drowning incidents this past week has brought the beach drowning death toll so far this year to 13 plus Mr Ding, who is not expected to survive without life support.
The tally does not including two beach drownings at Koh Racha and another at Koh Hei (Coral Island) since the start of the year, though both islands are within the administration of Phuket.
The tally also does not include the drowning deaths of two people at Koh Khai Nai, just 7.6km east of Koh Siray on the east side of Phuket Town, but technically located within Phang Nga Province.
In stark contrast, during the same period last year (Jan 1 -Sept 30) when the Phuket Lifeguard Service provided lifeguards to patrol all the major beaches, Phuket suffered seven drowning deaths: one at a location where lifeguards were on duty; the remaining six where lifeguards were not on duty.
Prathaiyuth Chuayuan, Chief of the Phuket Lifeguard Service (PLS), warned that next month, October, is one of the most dangerous for beach swimmers.
“This is the (southwest) monsoon season, when the wind and waves are strong,” he said.
“October is ‘double dangerous’ as there are extra tourists from China during their national holidays and it is nearly the beginning of the tourism high season. A lot of Australian and Chinese tourists come at this time, while the weather is varies greatly.
“Large numbers of tourists on the beach when the surf is not safe and while there are not many lifeguards – or even skilled, experienced lifeguards – is not a balance we want.
“And all beaches in Phuket are dangerous to swim at in October, especially Mai Khao and Patong beaches. These beaches are risky for tourists’ lives,” Mr Prathaiyuth warned.
Mr Prathaiyuth pointed out four critical areas of concern to stem the growing tide of drownings at the beaches.
“The point is tourists don’t know about the surf in Phuket. It is really dangerous. Tourists need to know they must swim only in safe swim zones, but instead they go around unaware of the dangerous surf and they ignore red flags marking dangerous areas,” Mr Prathaiyuth said.
“Communicating the danger to tourists is most important right now. Right now there are not enough warnings for tourists. More warning signs are needed and they must be in multiple languages, especially Chinese, they really need to know about it,” he added.
Although deterring people from entering dangerous surf remains his top priority, Mr Prathaiyuth pointed out that having trained, experienced lifeguards was also vital.
“And they need the life-saving equipment to support their work. We need real lifeguards who have skills and experience at Phuket’s beaches and understand what is happening and how to respond,” he said.
Lifeguard towers were also essential in spotting swimmers in distress.
“Currently there are no towers at many Phuket beaches. They are either broken or as with at some beaches, there are not even tents for the lifeguards to use as lifeguard stations,” Mr Prathaiyuth said.
“That makes it very hard for tourists to know where to swim, or more importantly where to go to if they need help.”
A last request from Mr Prathaiyuth was for hotels to do more to warn their guests.
“They need to make the safety of the lives of tourists a priority. They must inform tourists to swim only where there are lifeguards and what to do if they get into trouble. Tourists need to know how to save their own lives,” he said.
Mr Prathaiyuth remains chief of the PLS, which has been independently contracted by Patong Municipality to provide lifeguards at Patong Beach since Governor Norraphat on Dec 12 last year ordered all local administrations to organise their own lifeguards.
Previously the PPAO was responsible for securing full-time lifeguards to patrol Phuket’s beaches during the dangerous southwest monsoon season.
Governor Norraphat gave the order after the PPAO failed to organise lifeguards months after it had failed to attract a single bid for the government contract offered, a contract that the PLS had fulfilled for more than a decade.
The PLS did not enter a bid for the contract last year as the PPAO refused to increase the budget, which it had slashed by 10% to offer at B19.8 million for a contractor to provide 98 lifeguards at 12 of Phuket’s busiest beaches, and provide the life-saving equipment.
Instead, the PPAO earlier this year contracted Bangkok-based consultancy LP Laikhum Co Ltd to provide lifeguards at some beaches – a contract as noted above that has now been failed to be honoured due to disputes over the level of support funding.
Meanwhile, as reported by The Phuket News last week, Region 8 Police have now handed over details of their investigation into the awarding of a government contract for lifeguard services for alleged corruption to the National Anti-Corruption Commission in Bangkok for further investigation.
ISLA South East Asia (International Surf Life Saving Association), which has been instrumental in supporting lifeguards in Phuket and providing free training by internationally qualified lifeguards, issued a statement to The Phuket News through Daren Jenner, a certified ocean lifeguard and Marine Safety Officer for the ISLA based in Phuket.
“Region 8 Police (Investigation Division) are set to make major announcements about the six month long probe into fraud and corruption in the provision of lifeguard service in Phuket.
“Investigators have interviewed dozens of witnesses in the case, including local police, former lifeguards, business owners, beach operators, expert witnesses and good Samaritan rescuers who have assisted drowning victims at Phuket’s beaches,” Mr Jenner said.
“This follows the collapse of Phuket’s lifeguard protection in November of 2017. Since then, lifeguard service has been intermittent and ineffective on many of Phuket’s beaches. Some popular beaches have no lifeguards at all, while others have untrained personnel on duty, who have inadequate manpower, lack lifesaving equipment, and are completely unable to perform the necessary duties.
“A company that was quietly awarded the PPAO contract to provide 96 lifeguards earlier this year, was unable to meet its obligations. As a result, drowning deaths have occurred, including Thai nationals and foreign tourists. The deaths have been thoroughly documented by Region 8 Police Investigators.
“A growing group of local business owners, community leaders, and beachgoers are demanding that a unified, professional lifeguard force that meets international lifeguard standards (ISLA) be launched immediately to prevent further drowning deaths.,” he added.
“A large number of local people, who are internationally certified lifeguards, are unable to work for the low wages and no benefits packages that were offered by the company in question.
“Meanwhile an international lifeguard watchdog, the International Surf Lifesaving Association, has been working with Region 8 Police to resolve the deadly problem. The ISLA urges the Thai government to support a unified, professional lifeguard force in Phuket that meets international standards. This will require sufficient funding, and a long-term contract to allow time to upskill the existing lifeguard force,” Mr Jenner explained.
“It’s time for the Thai government to recognise the efforts and importance of professional lifeguards on Phuket’s beaches. Many of these local lifesavers have saved dozens of lives and are true heroes,” he urged.
“ISLA asks the government to recognise their long service, and their status as unsung heroes, who are here to protect and care for Phuket’s locals and tourists,” he concluded.
* The man's name withheld at the family's request.