Tamarindo lifeguard program saves lives despite lack of funding

Michael Krumholtz | October 16, 2015

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste — When a 7-year-old girl was drowning off the coast of Tamarindo recently, Sergio Pérez didn’t have long to cover the half-mile stretch from the lifeguard stand on the beach’s north end. He also didn’t have a functioning ATV, which the guards usually use to make rescues on the far-off southern points of the beach.

While the Costa Rican girl was brought to shore on the beach’s southern end by a local woman who sells bikinis in town, Pérez quickly jumped on his motorcycle and made it to the girl within a minute of being alerted. “She was completely white and her lips were purple,” Pérez said. “It was pretty obvious she was about to die.”

The 20-year-old Pérez, who is one of just two full-time Tamarindo lifeguards on the beach, resuscitated her and saved the little girl’s life. But for a relatively new lifeguard program that is trying (and largely succeeding) to combat the high volume of drownings that occur on one of Costa Rica’s best-known beaches, consistent funding is noticeably absent. Lifeguards have had to borrow jet skis from local rental companies and race out on paddleboards to save swimmers in distress.

Via Tamarindo Lifeguards Facebook
Though there are just two full-time lifeguards on staff at the Tamarindo station, they can rely on a large pool of locals who are lifeguard certified. (Via Tamarindo Lifeguards Facebook)

“We at least need two more guys looking over that side of the beach, but we do what we can,” the 20-year-old lifeguard said from his lookout spot on the wooden shack on a sunny, 90-degree afternoon.

Currently, financial support comes from donations and proceeds from the beers brewed by the Witch’s Rock Surf Camp microbrewery, located right behind the lifeguard stand. Joe Walsh, the longtime Tamarindo figure who founded the country’s most well-known surf camp and its many offset projects, like the brewery, said the government won’t help fund the program despite its invaluable worth to locals and tourists alike.

“But you get tired about it and you can complain, or you can do something about it,” he said. “I think that having a successful business model, with a focus on its community and where it’s at, is the best model we have for making investments and improvements.”

Walsh’s Witch’s Rock brand has long had success in attracting tourists and selling beers, including the two-month old IPA tentatively named Hasselhopp, in homage of everyone’s favorite Baywatch star. But now through his business and the Tamarindo’s Development Association (ADIT), Walsh is overseeing a project that he says should be replicated throughout Costa Rica’s unprotected shores.


Michael Krumholtz /The Tico Times
Witch's Rock IPA is the third installment of the microbrewery's beers, the profits of which go towards funding the lifeguard program. Michael Krumholtz / The Tico Times

Walsh, who has lived in Tamarindo since 2001, said he began putting lifeguards on the beach so that he wouldn’t have to carry any more bodies out from the water.

“From years and years of us living right here on the beach and being the first contact to the beach, we’ve rescued dozens and dozens of people,” Walsh said. “I’ve had dead people where I had to recover a body personally here out of the water. A wife ran in, ‘Oh my husband got pulled out.’ By the time I got to him… It haunts me to this day.”

Because Tamarindo’s shoreline is located right next to an estuary to the north, the high tides and low tides are more extreme than on other beaches. The strong currents combine with the lack of warning signs and inexperienced swimmers to form a deadly confluence in one of Costa Rica’s most noted tourist destinations.

Michael Krumholtz/The Tico Times
A sign on the back of the Tamarindo lifeguard stand urges for people to donate. Michael Krumholtz/The Tico Times

An average of up to 60 drowning-related deaths are reported each year in Costa Rica. According to a Tico Times report from June, despite Costa Rica having just 6.5 percent of the coastline of the United States, both countries report a similar amount of drownings each year.

That’s why for Walsh and those overseeing the lifeguard program, it shouldn’t be considered a luxury to have guards patrolling the country’s most popular beaches.

Pat McNulty, who worked as a police officer for 25 years in Rhode Island, works with the lifeguard program and Witch’s Rock Surf Camp. Even in his 60s, the crew-cut, muscle-strapped McNulty can regularly be seen on the beach helping with the lifeguards and making sure everything is in order. After going through the mandatory 40-hour training with the Costa Rican Lifeguard Association, the retiree sometimes volunteers his own time on the stand when one of the full-time guards or volunteers can’t work.

(Via Tamarindo Lifeguards Facebook)
The Tamarindo Lifeguard program is run through Witch's Rock Surf Camp and the Tamarindo Development Association (ADIT). (Via Tamarindo Lifeguards Facebook)

He said the locals like Pérez that he works with on the stand are some of the community’s most important protectors. When 17 swimmers got sucked out to sea in the low tide near the estuary, Pérez and two other lifeguards on duty swam out with three paddleboards and put up to six people on each board.

“There’s guys that I work with on the tower that I know if I get in trouble they’re coming,” McNulty said. “They’ll give their life up to try and save someone.”

He added that its more than just a job for the locals who work on the patrol and take pride in their position. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the week, the guards help in a variety of rescues while also coordinating with other agencies like the Red Cross and the police if they witness crime on the beach.

Michael Krumholtz/The Tico TImes
Walsh said he hopes the government and municipality of Santa Cruz will notice the important effect the program has on the community by saving lives and keeping bad press away from tourism. Michael Krumholtz/The Tico TImes

“It’s really warming to see how much it means to them and how much they want to help,” he said. “But we’re struggling financially all the time and we have no support whatsoever from the government and the municipality.”

Though the municipality of Santa Cruz, which oversees Tamarindo, may not have much money to contribute to the local program, McNulty says it’s up to businesses in the community to step up with donations. Pacifico Bar donated a backboard and neck brace, he said, while a local doctor gave some medical equipment. But the lifeguard program can’t survive on sparse donations alone, as Walsh has to pay many expenses out of pocket.

“Hopefully in a year from now we have money in the bank saved up and we can make it a model for other communities,” he said. “Then hopefully at some point the government says, ‘Oh that was a good idea.'”

(Via Tamarindo Lifeguards Facebook)
Lifeguard volunteers participate in a training drill. More than 50 people in Tamarindo have been lifeguard certified. (Via Tamarindo Lifeguards Facebook)


  1. Joe Walsh, I commend you! I am businessman in NYC and OBX-NC but working my way to Costa Rica to split my time. i was in Manuel Antonio with my kids. My 5 and 7 year old got caught in a rip tide. I had no idea (my fault) that there were such aggressive currents there and the signs were minimal at best. It was a very close call and with the help of a local, we saved the kids but it still haunts me to this day that I assumed that signage and life guards would be on a beach and they were not. I am not careless but I think I just acted stupidly by assuming CR has similar procedures as other tourist areas. Now I have read more than 20 articles about this and so glad to see someone paying attention. I will be back in a few months and when I get back up North to Tamarindo, I hope to meet you as I would like to participate at some point in some way to this cause as it was seconds from changing my life and I want to make sure no one has to go through what I almost had to experience.

    Robert Pair
    Harlem Lofts Inc.

    Comment by robert pair — October 19, 2015 @ 3:44 pm

  2. Thanks for your article. Witch´s Rock Surf Camp is an excellent example of a responsible and committed member of our community. We would like to have the support of the Alcalde de Santa Cruz, Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT) and the Government of Costa Rica.

    Comment by teresa — October 20, 2015 @ 3:00 pm

  3. Hello again Michael, this is the ex-Tico Times contributor, E. Ted Gladue and really enjoyed this important story. I was in Tamarindo in August 2008 to promote 3 of my novels at a small bookstore there and meet so many interesting gringos, one of which I believe was Joe Walsh of whom you write and God bless the guy for promoting such an important project, for I spent nearly two years swimming and diving in waters off Honduras’ Atlantic waters and Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, mostly in and around Domincal from my last home in the hills above San Isidro general, truly horrified at the unspoken and most often unreported cases of bodies washing up on so many beaches, at one point an owner of a surf shop on the beach told me in saw 20 bodies washed up just on the beach in front of his business. In 2009 one lifeguard stand was set up on Dominical beach after a young professional lifeguard was brought in from California who trained several local lifeguards (I believe Andrew was his name) and we had some deep conversations, for I had spend two years as a lifeguard on one of the most dangerous beaches on the U.S East coast, North Wildwood NJ, particularly that part of the beach closest to Anglesea inlet, each year, we saved about 200 lives a summer, it was serious business. I nearly drowned twice during tough rescues with multiple people being sucked out to sea in a “rip.” In 2009, I first met Andrew after he warned me that my swimming as far north as I did where the river empties into the sea was dangerous: “salt water Crocs come out into the ocean to feed at that point.” I never swam there again. Back in Wildwood one drowning would have ruined the summer, my discovery of the epidemic of drownings would put Costa Rica in a different light for tourist if more become aware of this truth. Solution: Every foreigner who flies into Costa Rico should be required to give at least a dollar’s worth of of a fee that would go to support a national system of professional lifeguards on every major beach in the country. Once put in place, Costa Rica could use its guarded beaches as a tourist attraction, so that no one has to suffer the horror of a drowned child or loved one. At the airports; call it a tax for life, or at least push for voluntary donations backed by smiling staffers… the image of those 20 bodies in front of just one surf shop, on one beach, stays with me, like the poor guy who almost lost his five and seven year old children. And the world will love Costa Rica even more.

    Comment by E. Ted Gladue — October 22, 2015 @ 11:44 am

  4. Very well said, Ted! Wish you were still writing for us.

    Comment by Karl Kahler — October 22, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

  5. Karl, such kind words, for the calling that hooks us writers can leave us out there, in isolated places where the written word and storytelling seem to only matter to ourselves, but I suppose all artists fell that way at some point in their mission.
    And this lifeguard mission for Costa Rican that you wrote about stuck in my mind, for since reading your story last week I left Key Largo and went north to Hollywood where I once spent a half year as a lifeguard on the beach and met a fellow guard who was 18 at that time, and I was 34. We were both surprised but happy to meet again, since the decades have taken a lot of pals, but as the cobbwebs of time opened our conversation would only have been fully understood by fellow lifeguards, for it is not unlike the bonds developed in the military, for it is about life and death, and men and women experiencing this together get to know each other in more depth than even a sibling, and the names began popping out; yea, Big John, “Hell, what lungs, on a free-dive you’d have to come up for air and he’d still me peekin around the coral,” Al said laughing, my memory returning of the deep philosophical conversations about life, women, the meaning of it all, for all those who work or toil by water are more philosophical than people who work on land, and John’s dream. Montana. He made it there and later died there Al said, but I still remember Big John’s discussions for lifeguards learn to listen more than most, for eyes are never taken off the water, a hard lesson one learns the first time seeing just a hand disappear beneath the surface, but you got to them, and saved them. I came through Montana in 1996 driving from Seattle to Pennsylvania, and at 3AM looked through a bunch of telephone books to find is long Polish name, but no luck. But today he remains alive in our minds, for something happens out there when you look into the eyes of a drowning person, a look you will not see from shore, and a lifeguard must have that look of a responder in their eyes, and that is not easy to come by. Few have that much confidence naturally, and unless you can develop that, you will not be a lifeguard. Like some great athletes I knew in Philadelphia, some champion swimmers, who could not work the Jersey beaches because they froze, maybe with fear, when seeing someone in the water who may drown unless you get to them. Al brought a smile to my face when he me how fast and long an applicant had to swim in the then salt water olympic pool in Hollywood behind the lifeguard headquarters, for I as I said I was 34 at the time, and it was just one test, as back in Wildwood years before, it was a mile swim race in the cold Atlantic ocean, and a simulated rescue to show you could power your way through the waves and get to the downing lifeguard, rescue him, and pull him back through the waves onto the beach. Point: these are physical hurdles; but the most important quality a lifeguard my have is in their head; the trust, integrity, selfless spirit willing to give your own life to save others. That is something only professional lifeguards develop, and they know and respect each other as do vets, and that is what Costa Rica needs to understand to keep tourists and locals safe in the ocean. Cost Rica did an amazingly brave choice but disbanding its Army in the l940s, perhaps it is time to make another important decision, and you need brave professionals to in this case, lifeguards.

    Comment by E. Ted Gladue — October 27, 2015 @ 9:45 am

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