After a week of of searching by air and sea, hopes are quickly fading of finding Polish tourist Mateusz Juszkiewicz, 26, and Thai national Werakan Siriprakon, 23, from Nakhon Sawan, safe.
The couple disappeared while kayaking with friends off Yanui Beach last Saturday (Dec 7). Mr Juszkiewicz and friends had rented four kayaks to explore the waters and small island just offshore Yanui Beach, but when the group returned ashore at about 6:30pm Mr Juszkiewicz and Ms Werakan – together on the same kayak – were missing.
Mr Juszkiewicz’s friends told police that he had called them while they were on the way back to the beach, and that he said that he and Ms Werakan were still far away and not able to return to the shore. They lost contact after that.
Search efforts by boat were launched last Saturday night, and continued each day with Navy and police helicopters joining the effort last Sunday.
By Tuesday, however, the search area had been expanded to cover 600 square nautical miles – nearly 2,059 square kilometres.
Leading the search efforts was Rear Admiral Cherngchaiyot Atsuwee, Deputy Commander of the Royal Thai Navy Third Area Command base at Cape Panwa, who by Tuesday had already called the situation “quite worrisome”.
“I hope that both of them are still alive somewhere. I want to see them alive,” he said.
However, even by Monday R/Adm Cherngchaiyot had admitted, “Whether the couple survive depends on how strong they are. They may stay alive a little longer, but not if they were not already quite healthy.”
By Thursday the search teams turned to divers in hope of at least recovering the bodies.
The apparent loss at sea of Mr Juszkiewicz and Ms Werakan comes as only the latest of a slew of deadly incidents involving tourists engaging in water-related activities in Phuket.
The deaths of 10 people prompted Tourist Police Commander Lt Gen Chettha Komolwatthana and Vice Admiral Cherngchai Chomcherngpat, Commander of the Royal Thai Navy Third Area Command base at Cape Panwa, to call for a raft of measures to improve safety in the water, including qualified lifeguards at all major beaches in Phuket as standard and for better scrutiny of dive tour leaders’ qualifications and snorkelling tour leaders.
The call came at a meeting of key officials involved in tourists safety while engaging in water-related activities held at Chalong Pier on Dec 4.
Attending the meeting to hear the two commanders’ appraisal of what was needed to improve water safety in and around Phuket were Tourist Police Region 3 Chief Maj Gen Krissak Songmunnak, Chief of the Phuket Marine Office Wiwat Chitchertwong, and other relevant officials.
After the meeting, V/Adm Cherngchai told the press that the Third Area Command was working with local dive tour operators and snorkelling tour operators to ensure that those leading the tour groups in water activities were properly qualified.
“For dive and snorkelling tours, the problem is the qualification of tour leaders. A lot of tourists have drowned during dive and snorkelling tours. At this stage, the Thai Royal Navy Third Naval Area Command is working with dive clubs in Phuket to find out ways to take care of dive tour participants.
“We are also working on setting up an association that includes dive tour operators and snorkelling tour operators so when accident or disaster happens, we will have a group of skilled people to help,” he said.
V/Adm Cherngchai’s comments about dive tour and snorkelling safety follows 37-year-old Japanese tourist Ryo Kubota dying during a snorkelling tour at Phi Phi Island on Nov 4, and the death of Russian tourist Ruslan Asaupov, 28, while snorkelling on a day tour to Racha Yai Island, south of Phuket, last week.
As is usual with deaths of tourists who drown while snorkelling off Phuket, no explanation has been given as to why tour leaders have been consistently unable to identify tourists in distress in the water before they become motionless.
Also, V/Adm Cherngchai’s move to engage more with dive tour operators to improve tourists’ safety while on underwater tours follows the deaths of South Korean tourist Sunghyun Cho, 37, and his Thai dive group leader Pongsathorn Madnui, 34, during a shallow dive tour at Koh Racha on Oct 19.
The dive was reportedly to a depth of no more than seven metres. Mr Cho was apparently an already experienced diver, but was on a Try Dive tour at the time of the fatal incident.
Phuket Vice Governor Supoj Rotreuang Na Nongkhai is now heading a provincial committee tasked with investigating the state of dive tour safety, but has admitted that officials know very little about the safety measures already practiced by dive companies in Phuket, and has admitted that there are no specific laws to enforce for dive tour operators.
Regardless, a crackdown was launched on making sure dive tour companies are complaint with what laws are in place, and on making “freelance” dive tour leaders hired by tour companies are appropriately qualified.
V/Adm Cherngchai also called for better protection of tourists swimming at Phuket beaches.
“Regarding the issue if lifeguards, there should be lifeguards under the same standard at all beaches in Phuket, as well as designated areas specifically marked for swimming, and clearly marking areas where swimming is prohibited,” he said plainly.
“But sometimes tourist don’t listen to lifeguards’ advice and get injured,” he added.
That call for standard qualified lifeguards followed a slew of drowning deaths at Phuket beaches during November, starting with the death of 31-year-old Belarus tourist Maksim Shchartsou, who disappeared while swimming at Nai Thon on Oct 29. His body was found five days later.
The area where Mr Shchartsou was swimming is not patrolled by lifeguards.
On Nov 5, 61-year-old Russian tourist Altaf Sharifulin, originally from Moscow, in Phuket on holiday with his wife, died after being pulled from the water unconscious at Karon Beach. The section of beach where Mr Sharifulin drowned was patrolled by beach guards provided by a local resort, not the experienced, qualified lifeguards hired to patrol the sands elsewhere along the beach.
The next day, 55-year-old tourist Sergei Oshkin from Russia's Far East also drowned at Karon Beach. Mr Oshkin drowned at the southern end of the beach, also where no lifeguards were reported as on duty.
On Nov 12, Dong Xuyan, 42, from Hebei, in northern China, was pulled from the water unconscious at Nai Harn Beach, and on Nov 13 Chinese tourist Ho Leong Lawrence, 50, from Hong Kong, was pulled from the water unconscious and unresponsive at Merlin Beach, south of Patong. Both men later died in hospital.
Tourist Police Commander Maj Gen Krissak said that his officers would play their part in trying to make swimming at Phuket beaches safer, particularly with trying to get tourists to stay with in safe swim zones marked off with floats in the water, in an obliqued reference to the death of German tourist Helmut Prock, 63, at Kamala Beach on Nov 22.
Mr Prock suffered fatal injuries from a parasail speedboat that was returning to the beach. Mr Prock was outside the safe swim zone when the accident happened
Until now, no official has offered any public statement to explain what was being done to prevent any further similar deadly accidents.
Of note, while Maj Gen Krissak and V/Adm Cherngchai were trying to assuage public concern over the distressing number of people killed in Phuket’s waters, a Chinese woman suffered a broken leg in a collision between rented jet-skis at Patong Beach – with jet-skis being one water-borne danger not mentioned by the top-ranking officers.
Reporting by Eakkapop Thongtub and Tanyaluk Sakoot