November 30, 2012

Keep dogs safely away from powerful Pacific surf

by winecountrydog Tilin Corgi, with Mum

Heard round the world is the story of the three Kuljian family members who were drowned off the Humboldt County coast, near the Northern California community of Arcata, on 24 November 2012.

We offer this post to honor their memory and to support Olivia Kuljian's wish for "people to stay out of harm's way."

Here is a summation of reports about this tragedy:
Howard Kuljian and his wife, Mary Scott, and teen son, Gregory ("Geddie"), and teen daughter, Olivia, were out walking on an overcast morning at Big Lagoon beach. They were playing fetch with the family dog, Fran.

The family tossed a stick that took the dog down to the water's edge, and in an instant, a wave swallowed Fran the dog, setting off a nightmarish scramble.

"Everything kind of snowballed from there," said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Bernie Garrigan.

Sean Ledwin, a senior fisheries biologist with the Hoopa Valley Tribe, said he was walking along the beach at Big Lagoon with his dog and girlfriend when the tragedy struck.

"The dog was kind of getting rolled in the waves," Ledwin said.

He said the teen boy, Gregory Kuljian, went into the water and grabbed the dog's collar, but it fell off. Then Gregory got swept up in the waves.

The father, Howard, then went in after his son. But Howard got swept up.

The two became separated in the surf.

Ledwin said his girlfriend called 911, as he and the mother, Mary Scott, and the daughter, Olivia, and also a female friend of Gregory's stood on the beach, watching the water and waiting to see if there was an opportunity to grab hold of the father and son.

"They were getting rolled in the ocean, in a circular motion," Ledwin said.

Mary Scott went in to try to grab her husband and son. She made an attempt to grab her son, in shallow water, but she got pulled in too. Olivia tried to pull her mother out, but the current was so strong that a bystander had to pull Olivia to safety.

Those remaining on the beach, including Cal State Park Ranger Greg Hall, tried to track where each of the three people were in the water.

By the time first responders from the U.S. Coast Guard and fire departments arrived at the beach, it was too late to save anyone.

But Fran the dog had been able to climb out of the water shortly after Mary Scott had gone in.

In a statement released later, Olivia said that her family members were in only mid-calf deep water when they got swept in.

"The events were not a case of the family thoughtlessly rushing into the ocean after each other. Rather, they were attempts from shallow water that were overpowered by the hidden strength of the ocean."
All dogs love walkies on beautiful and wild Northern California beaches. The smells are intoxicating. But the surf is dangerous. The beaches on many stretches of the California, Oregon, and Washington coast get unexpected surges from sneaker waves and rogue waves, and also have strong undertows and rip currents that pull you in.

Mum sez, "You don't mean to throw the ball or stick into the ocean, because you know your dog will chase after it. But it's easy to misdirect your throw, or for a ball to roll down a steep sand bank into the water. And sometimes your dog doesn't hear you when you call him back.

"On beaches with rip currents and undertows, or where large waves suddenly appear without warning, playing near the water can lead to disaster. If your dog gets sucked in, you know you're going to run in and try to pull him out. It looks so easy to do in shallow surf. Besides, that rush of adrenalin catapults you into action, and you'll do whatever you can to save your dog. Then, in an instant, you're both lost.

"You just have to stay away from the water on beaches like this. You've got to believe that rip currents and big waves can take you or your dogs by surprise and wash you out to sea. And even if you're a strong swimmer, the coldness of the northern Pacific water quickly saps your energy. You can't last long out there."

Please follow these tips to stay safe when playing on the beach.
  • Never turn your back to the water when you're walking or playing with your dog on the beach.
  • Don't walk your dog near the water's edge on beaches that are unfamiliar to you or have warning signs of rip currents, sneaker waves, or strong undertow.
  • Keep off jetties, rock formations, and cliffs near the water's edge on beaches posted as dangerous.
  • Play 90 feet (27 meters) away from the water's edge on dangerous beaches. Learn to estimate distance by measuring with strides.*
  • Train your dog to come when you call. This will help you stop the dog from running after an object that's gone into the water.
  • Respect the "hidden strength of the ocean" and remember Olivia Kuljian's wish that everyone stay out of harm's way.
*You can find instructions on how to estimate distance in the out-of-doors on Brian's Backbacking Blog.

Read about beach safety issues on the Pacific coast at the California State Parks website and the U.S. National Parks website. The NOAA Weather Service website also has useful info on rip currents and how to swim out of them.

Paw-notes: Thanks for the use of photos and quotes. We do not profit by their usage. Our aim is to honor the Kuljian family and to help spread beach safety awareness.