Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Are we doing enough to make sure some of our most scenic spots are safe for tourists and residents alike?

Food For Thought 3-30-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

Saipan is once again grieving, this time over the loss of the 4 students who drowned at Forbidden Island last week. The pain from such a tragedy is almost indescribable for the families, the friends and the fellow classmates. After the initial shock wears off, then people begin asking questions about how something like this could happen, and what could have and should have been done to prevent the senseless loss of life.

I have talked about this situation with my family and many friends. One of the recurrent themes I have heard is that Forbidden Island is just too dangerous and we have lost too many people there over the years, so maybe it is time to stop all access and indeed make it a Forbidden Island. Yes, it is true that Forbidden Island can be a very dangerous place to visit; the currents there can be extremely swift and dangerous, sucking you out to sea before you know what happened. Walking on the shelf rock where the waves wash up is also extremely risky, because you just never know when a rogue wave will wash up and sweep you off your feet and suck you out into the ocean. There are also many sharp rocks and steep areas that you could easily fall and either break bones or die from the impact.

But are those inherent risks enough to determine that no one else should ever be allowed to hike down to this beautiful natural wonder? Is it enough to say that because we have lost a certain amount of people down there that we should now make it off limits and never allow anyone to relax in the cool cave pool at the bottom, or allow them to cross over and climb to the top of Forbidden Island and enjoy one of the spots that offers the most solitude on Saipan? Should we also stop people from going to the Forbidden Island lookout? After all, it is a very steep cliff that falls several hundred feet straight down, and people have been known to climb over the fence and go out on the rocks on the very edge of the cliff to have a better view of the shallow waters below. You can often see turtles down playing in the surf if you look closely. But it could be very dangerous if you lose your footing or aren’t paying attention.

If we are to seriously consider closing access to Forbidden Island because of the safety factor, then where do we stop? Should we also stop letting divers go down into the Grotto since we have lost over a dozen people in the last 10 years or so down there? Yes, the Grotto can also be a dangerous place, especially if you’re down there without someone who is very familiar with it and can help you safely navigate the hazards. We have lost several divers who went outside the Grotto into the open ocean and couldn’t find their way back in to the Grotto. The holes look very different on the outside than they do when you’re exiting the Grotto through them, and it’s easy to get turned around and confused. Yes, the simple answer would seem to be to require all divers to go with experienced divers so that you minimize the risks. But many of the divers we have lost at the Grotto were with experienced dive guides, so that’s not always a guarantee either.

Should we also stop letting fishermen take their boats out into the open ocean, since we have lost many fishermen over the years in tragic boating accidents. We all know that the ocean has very dangerous waves and strong currents, and boat motors have a bad habit of breaking down. So should we stop the fishermen from going out for their own good and safety?

Should we also make Suicide and Bonzai cliff off limits, since they are both areas that have a very high cliff line, and if you fall off either one, it will most likely be a fatal mistake?

Maybe we should also forbid people from walking next to a road, or from walking to cross a road, since there have also been many deaths from that over the years.

I think you can see that most of these examples are ridiculous, and we would never, ever consider limiting access because of the risks or because there have been deaths associated with them in the past. And I’m certainly not trying to be insensitive during this time of grieving for the families and friends of the students who were lost. But I believe we need to take a look at the situation reasonably, and see if there are any lessons that need to be learned from it, and if there is anything we could, or should be doing to try to avoid a tragedy such as this in the future.

For many years I told everyone that would sit still long enough that there weren’t adequate warnings posted at the Grotto. I saw people going down there every week who didn’t realize how dangerous the waves could be in the washing machine, and how easily they could sweep you into the rocks. And over the years I have pulled more than my fair share of them out, usually bloody and scared to death. Only after years of talking and pestering people about it, and many, many deaths, was a sign finally erected at the top of the Grotto trying to warn of the dangers in different languages. Sadly, most people seem to think the sign misses the mark, and doesn’t properly communicate where the dangers are or tell how to avoid them. And many people fought having a sign installed at the bottom of the Grotto warning that you shouldn’t go beyond that point unless you were with an experienced guide. They have claimed it would ruin the natural beauty of the Grotto and it wouldn’t be nearly as photogenic. There are also those that have fought having a bridge installed at the bottom of the Grotto crossing over to the rock for many of the same reasons.

Some people would say that if you start putting up signs warning of danger, then you’d have to put them everywhere as well, and they would become an eyesore, and require regular upkeep. I would argue that some places the danger is obvious and common sense is all that is required to avoid danger. I would put Suicide and Bonzai cliff in that category, as well as fishermen going out onto the open ocean and people walking across roads. We should all be very familiar with the dangers these areas pose and behave accordingly. Warning signs there would seem to be somewhat unnecessary and excessive.

But I believe that because some of the dangers at Grotto and Forbidden Island are not so obvious unless you’re very familiar with the area, and because of the fairly high numbers of lost lives there over the years, that warning signs in the different languages would be a very good idea. Placement of the signs is very important, they need to be in areas that you will have to see them before getting to the danger spots. The wording and pictures or diagrams also need to be very clear and easily understandable. I don’t believe we have done all we could have in the past to take care of our tourists and residents, and that is a mistake I believe we should rectify as soon as possible. I know there have been turf wars in the past over such issues, the different agencies arguing over whose responsibility it was, and who got to determine what would be said on the sign. Frankly, we can no longer afford to waste time over these kinds of petty arguments, we are needlessly losing lives all because we haven’t done a good job of warning of the dangers present in these areas.

I also came across a situation last weekend that I was quite shocked to see. There was a Japanese dive guide feeding sharks inside the Grotto and putting on quite the show for a couple of his tourist divers. He had a black bag, which contained what looked like raw meat with plenty of blood. He was wearing a chain mail glove to protect his hand as he fed the sharks. He would pull a piece of meat out of the bag and hold it for the sharks to come and grab. Then when the sharks would bite the meat, he wouldn’t let go, but would grab the shark and wrestle with him for a few moments before finally releasing him. I was doing my decompression stop on the rope when I noticed the sharks in the Grotto were behaving very aggressively. They were swimming around the Grotto much faster than usual, and were going right up to the divers, evidently looking to see if any of them were going to feed them as well. I also noticed 2 very large barracuda swimming around inside the Grotto, and this is the first time I can recall them being inside the Grotto. Several divers appeared to be a bit spooked at having sharks flying all around them inside the Grotto, and of course the swimmers who were almost directly above the shark feeding frenzy had no clue what was happening below them. And all of this was taking place only about 50 feet from the safety stop rope inside the Grotto.

Other locations that have shark feeding dives typically have them several miles out in the open ocean, so that you minimize the risk of the sharks becoming desensitized in an area where you have regular swimmers who are unaware of the situation. But this dive guide evidently thought that would be too much hassle, and he decided to take advantage of the fact that the Grotto does have several resident white tip reef sharks these days, and decided to put on his little show right there, with swimmers and other divers who had no clue what was going on. This is exceedingly dangerous and foolish, and will eventually wind up in some kind of an accident as a result. Fortunately the local authorities don’t seem anymore impressed with the whole situation than I was, and vow to stop it.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

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My commentary that airs on radio stations KZMI - 103.9 FM & KCNM - 101.1 FM