DESTIN — In the wake of the fourth apparent drowning this summer at popular boating spot Crab Island, questions are arising about safety issues at the bustling sand bar.
As attendance soars at Crab Island — which was once a sleepy sand bar but has now grown into one of the top destinations for tourists and locals alike — so, too, have the tragedies.
Destin City Coucilman Parker Destin said the drownings were “absolutely tragic.” He said he believed the deaths were an unfortunate side effect of the ever-expanding population at the party spot.
“I don’t believe the conditions have necessarily changed; they’ve always been hazardous, especially for those with less experience,” Destin said. “What has changed exponentially over the last couple of years is that every year we’re getting more and more rental crafts and more people coming to visit, and when you roll the dice on more occasions, statistically you’re going to have more negative outcomes.”
On July 22, 18-year-old Zion Foster of Pensacola became Crab Island’s fourth victim of 2018 when he was swept away in a strong current and was unable to get back to his pontoon boat. The incident almost claimed the lives of two bystanders who tried to help Foster but were unsuccessful and had to receive medical treatment, according to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office.
Foster’s body was found by Sheriff’s Office divers the next day.
Less than a week before Foster’s death, a 28-year-old Texas man died after trying to swim to Crab Island from the Marler Bridge. And two weeks before that on the morning of July 5, the body of a 20-year-old Destin man was found by divers after friends told deputies he was last seen wading in waist-high water the night before near the west side of the bridge.
A man from Mobile, Alabama. was the sand bar’s first victim of the year. He died May 26 in an apparent drowning after he went down a boat slide and was then found floating face down.
While some have speculated that the dredging around Norriego Point may have influenced the currents in the Crab Island and Marler Bridge area, officials say there doesn’t appear to be anything different about the currents or tides that could explain the increase in drownings.
The problem, they say, is simply statistical: Soaring attendance at Crab Island means more people are likely to drown.
“I don’t think the currents have anything to do with it,” Destin Beach Safety Director Joe D’Agostino said. “I think it’s just when you have so many people in such a tight space — and that number is increasing every year — it’s inevitable that there will be more drownings.”
Attendance at Crab Island isn’t measured by any agency, but response requests by the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office have soared in recent years. According to spokeswoman Michele Nicholson, there was an approximate increase of 300 percent in marine-related calls between 2016 and 2017. Reportable boating accidents increased 143 percent in the same time frame, she said.
In response to more people and requests for service, the city of Destin allocated funds for the Sheriff’s Office in February 2017 to pay for operational expenses for a Destin marine unit. That was also part of the city’s contract with the Sheriff’s Office this year.
Boat Capt. Mike Dates, who runs the charter boat First Shot that frequently goes in and around Crab Island and Marler Bridge, said the problem with the drownings isn’t so much the currents, but the people.
“(The current) might be stronger around Norriego Point, but at Crab Island it’s not any stronger,” Dates said. “It’s just that people can’t swim. They get in over their heads.”
Another boat captain, J.T. Tenore of charter boat Dawn Patrol, said the restoration of Norriego Point had created a “pinch point” near the bridge that made currents swifter, but not necessarily stronger.
“The biggest thing with the drownings, I think, is people underestimate the current and how strong it is,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe they should put ‘no swimming’ signs around the Destin bridge area.”
Parker Destin said he wasn’t sure what could be done to prevent more drownings, but said he encouraged people to call city leaders and “ask when is enough, enough?
“We’ve continued to dedicate more resources to public safety ... it’s just the volume of visitors mixed with unsafe conditions. We’ve got to work to make these things less frequent and we’ve got to dedicate ourselves to public safety.”