SURVIVING A RIP CURRENT IN LALOMANO, SAMOA
Some days ago I was in a meeting and the thought that my chair could have been easily empty distracted my mind for a while - in other words I was just enjoying the tangible and mere fact that I was still alive.
Few days earlier, on Sunday 13 May 2012, I was spending a week-end at Lalomano, in south-western Upolu (Samoa), enjoying the Aleipata Marine Reserve with my family. I love and respect the Ocean, I have a sacred fear and attraction for it. As a marine biologist, I have experience of temperate seas (Mediterranean and South-eastern Pacific); while I do not have experience about tropical seas and coral reefs.
I took the sea in late morning, while the tide was mounting, with the aim to snorkel along the coral reef-- taking the opportunity that the reef is so close to the beach in that part of the coast. I wore the mask and the snorkel, but not the fins (I thought I would enjoy some swimming). I then started enjoying the sight of the corals when, as I approached the rip of the reef, on surprise, I was pulled by a strong current. Like taken by a sudden river flood I was swiftly and helplessly pulled across the rip towards the open sea, passing through turbulent and life-threatening waters.
The speed at which I was drawn was overwhelming: I could have a clear sense of it by watching the corals underwater, beneath me, that were “running” just opposite to my movement direction – but I knew that as a matter of facts it was me moving swiftly towards the high seas!
In the attempt to escape the ambush, I tried to desperately swim obliquely away from the current, but helplessly: the current outpaced me easily. At a certain moment I almost thought that I had made it--only to realize that I was already caught it again by the monster. I cursed my naivete for not having worn the fins--had I worn them I probably would have made it to escape the current.
I paid this desperate attempt of escape with physical exhaustion and breathlessness. Therefore I found myself struggling to float, with the mask misted, across whirling and dark waters. Meanwhile I had lost sight of the beach. The panic started to pervade me quickly. In a period of about 15 minutes, that seemed to me an eternity, I started to think that I would have not made it this time. I was inexorably travelling, at high speed, towards the high waters of the legendary southern seas.
Always been quite confident about my swimming skills, that morning I had to learn the hard way that, due to panic and breathlessness, floating can become a difficult matter, especially when dealing with agitated and running waters. The feeling of vulnerability and of not being able to make it infiltrated gradually inside me like a dark and bitter desolation. Worryingly, I was already starting to swallow some sea water at times. In those moments I began seriously thinking that I would get drowned shortly.
Here my thoughts during those moments. “Well, I might have to surrender, I will get drowned shortly. Gosh, look at that, dying of a violent death, just today, on this beautiful day and at this marvelous beach. Death ambushed me without possibility of escape. I just have to accept this. Everything will be over soon, I may not suffer much during the process, I am so weak and tired... Luckily I have a baby that will console my relatives about my premature death.” By then a melancholy veiled my inner side, like a large cloud, at the thinking that I would have never seen her grown up, never get to know what kind of person she would become - never been able to talk with her.
Meanwhile I was getting further and further away from the coast, the beach had become thin and far, I could barely see it through the steamed mask and the waves surrounding me. The green islet of Nu’utele that I had admired from the beach early that morning had suddenly become enormous in front of me-- startling evidence that I was getting increasingly offshore. I had been informed that sharks cruise across the deep channel separating the islet from the shore (and I even had heard of a report of a shark fatal accident in that area long time ago)--but in those frantic moments this was my last concern, as the risk of getting drowned was the most imminent one I was facing in that very moment. Just for an instant I contemplated with my fantasy that a dolphin could rescue me, like seen in movies (yes, even approaching the end, I was contemplating and gazing at times).
Everything looked like a lethal plan to eliminate me. But suddenly something aroused inside me, it revolted against this deadly resignation and torpor. Perhaps really the idea that I would not be able to see my baby growing up--something that suddenly became unbearable to me. I then shout to myself that I should not surrender without a fight. I committed to myself that I should recover some clear head, even though I was still so scared. I reminded myself what I have always thought, that one should respect but not be scared by the sea; that one should abandon himself to its power, and let be drawn by it; just hoping that it would be merciful. I knew by experience and training as scuba diver that the more relaxed the more able to float naturally we are--scare to death only makes one heavier, and pushes one underwater.
Had I still have a chance to survive, that was just to attempt to calm down, to get rid of the panic and to start saving physical energies that I could possibly use later in the attempt to swim back to the beach. I also resolved to halt uncoordinated swimming and to restart swimming properly. I decided that since that moment on I would just try to float, seconding and abandoning myself to the current. In so doing relaxing a bit my muscles, my hearth and lungs. Who knows, perhaps somebody from the beach had seen me: I was also nurturing the hope that my partner had made an alert call and that perhaps a kayak would have popped out across the waves to rescue me.
From that moment on, I started to float, abandoned in the arms of this wild ocean current, heading directly towards the cobalt blue immensity. I have then spent some time absorbed and lost in watching the big sky and the oceanic clouds above me, floating like a relic, while I was trying hard to push back and neglect the thought that I could well get lost in the endless expanse of the high waters where anybody would have never found me-- not even my body! This way, still embraced by the wicked arms of the current, I manage to miracously calm down and relax my inner side (at least relatively).
Little by little, nonchalant (almost in the fashion of not attracting too much the attention of the current), I restarted swimming using low-energy ways – one of them being an invention of mine from some time ago, the “jellyfish style”. After some time I realized that I had actually entered the flow of the big oceanic waves heading back towards the coral reef. That stretch of the coast is considered by surfers as a good one: in fact, waves were quite impressing. The first one that hit me was powerful and drew me ahead for a while. You might be surprised in learning that I was not at all scared to get drowned while swept by one of this big waves, or to be smashed onto the reef: I was instead silently rejoicing because that scaring ride heading offshore was finally over, I had finally escaped the grip of the current – and I was eventually heading back towards the lagoon, the beach, life, my little one...
Swimming pushed by the waves from my back I managed to pass over the reef without major physical damage, and enter again inside the lagoon. From which, with the last energies, I reached the beach. This nightmare has lasted about 45 minutes. Getting out from the water I felt my hearth was hurting due to the physical stress. I was exhausted and still incredulous to have made it.
First thing, I went to give a kiss to my baby - almost feeling I undeserved her love for my thoughtlessness. It was then that I learnt that my partner had followed my odyssey offshore by binoculars but only the second half of it, when I was trying to relax and let the current do its work. So she told me that, despite I looked so far away and this worried her deeply, she thought I was doing fine. And she judged that she should not call for help--she was more worried I would not appreciate to see people coming to help! I certainly should have waved a hand when I was in peril: but during that time my partner was not looking at sea anyway, as she was caring for the baby. And on the other hand I was too focused on not getting drowned.
Once enjoyed for a while the pleasant feeling of having narrowly escaped death, I was puzzled to understand what kind of current had captured me. A colleague of mine, a marine biologist expert of reefs, explained me the phenomenon of the rip currents. In the following days I have also consulted internet and became fully knowledgeable about them. I learnt in horror that these currents are the n. 1 cause for drowning in tropical waters of USA, New Zealand and Australia. I read real stories, posted at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration web site, that were closely matching mine. I learnt horrified that even very experienced swimmers, and in fact even Life Guards, get drowned often in such conditions.
I have certainly been unwary. Actually before jumping in the sea I had thought to ask advise from the owner of the resort, but then I saw people that were snorkeling already at the reef. Also I thought mistakenly that if there were currents those should arise only at low tide. Not to mention that I had been snorkeling already at a rip of a coral reef months before, in Samoa, without experiencing any current. I have now learnt, literally the hard way that the rip currents originate at the mid point between the low and the high tides--both when it rises and when it lowers.
I have to acknowledge that overall the vast Ocean was quite indulgent with me. Yes it controlled the brutal game from the beginning until the end. It was the Ocean itself who determined my fate. After scaring me to death, it pushed me towards salvation. I have interpreted, a posteriori, what has happened to me. The current getting out from the reef is at its maximum strength at the rip’s channel. After some distance from the rip the current decreases in intensity and gradually stops heading offshore, becoming probably fringed, and it turns to the sides. At that point, having saved some energy, I was ready to restart swimming, supported by the waves. Certainly had the current continued to push me constantly offshore I would not be here now telling the story.
And telling this scary story to as many people as possible, I promised to myself, is the tribute I should pay for my salvation. It is unbelievable that there is no alert sign at the beach and resorts of Lalomano. Especially considering that, as I have learned after the accident, during the past 4 years at least another two persons drowned in that very spot of the coast caught by the same rip: a tourist from New Zealand and a Japanese UN officer--whose body was never found although extensively searched by helicopter.
Just some awareness could save the lives of many other people visiting Samoa in the future. More vulnerable are those visitors, like myself, coming from the temperate regions of the world where coral reefs and very strong rip currents do not exist (Europe, Japan etc.). I will do my best to raise the awareness on this issue here in Samoa--and on the need to place alert signs. Especially at those beaches were fatal accidents have already occurred and that are known to have dangerous rip currents.