Shortly after the death of a 25-year-old man who was swept into the ocean at Peggys Cove in 2015, an eclectic group assembled to discuss how safety could be improved at the landmark southwest of Halifax.
One idea brought forward was to close the iconic site that attracts over 700,000 people a year and features a much-photographed lighthouse on a large outcrop of granite, one with tantalizing but slippery “black rocks” that descend to the water’s edge.
The idea was quickly rejected.
“People are still going to venture to find a way to get to the shore, to the ocean’s edge, to the black rocks beyond the lighthouse to have that experience,” said Mark Furey, a retired Liberal cabinet minister who served as tourism minister at the time and led the safety discussions.
“That was always the challenge, and it will remain the challenge for the foreseeable future.”
While official statistics aren’t kept, Peggys Cove has for decades been among the sites with the highest number of drownings in Nova Scotia. There have been four reported deaths in Peggys Cove in the last 20 years alone. The latest one was in April.
Each time a life is lost, discussions on safety ramp up, with people questioning why there can’t be life rings on hand, fencing to keep people off the rocks near the water, or even lifeguards on scene.
“You can’t really make rescues there. That’s the problem,” said Paul D’Eon, a special projects director with the Lifesaving Society of Nova Scotia who has been in various discussions involving safety in the area.
He explained that in the 1990s, the society ran studies where highly qualified lifeguards tossed ring buoys into the water on a medium-wave day, only to find they were quickly swept away from their target.
“I asked them, ‘Would you go in the water?’ The lifeguards said, ‘No. No way we will even go in there,'” said D’Eon. Once a person is in the water, he said, the waves can slam them against the rocks, leaving them wounded and incapable of swimming.
The Peggys Cove patrol program, started in 1995, had rock patrollers blow a whistle during peak season if visitors got close to the water. The program was cut in 2000.
The problem, D’Eon said, is that some people assumed the patrollers were there to save lives, when in fact their role was only to discourage people from walking in dangerous areas.
When Furey led the multi-agency safety initiative in 2015 following the death of Jamie Quattrocchi of Ontario, he discussed fencing with the Peggy’s Cove Commission, Lifesaving Society of Nova Scotia, the Red Cross, the families of those who died at the site, first responders, local residents and fishermen with boats, who are typically the first on scene.
The local community was “offended” by the idea of a fence, he said, as were other Nova Scotians.
“The discussions and feedback that I had heard in the past were the optics of a fence on such a pristine piece of land, an iconic piece of land with a lighthouse, and just all of those elements of that space,” he said.
Apart from the visual component, Furey said a challenge would be finding two endpoints.
“So where does the fence end? That’s the first question when you consider the landscape of bedrock, granite,” said Furey. The other question was how high would the fence even be?
Even if there was fencing, how would it work?
Alison Mark, a mechanical engineer based in Halifax who specializes in material science, said a fence at Peggys Cove would be possible, but it would be a challenging and expensive endeavour requiring a careful design process.
“It wouldn’t be as simple as simply digging a hole and putting a concrete foundation in most cases, I would think,” Mark said.
She said the high-corrosion environment — with salt water, wind and waves — would likely need specialized material that’s probably more expensive than typical fencing. The rocks would also need to be prepared as a proper foundation, which would require drilling and, potentially, blasting.
The line of ownership in and around Peggys Cove is blurry. With the federal government owning the actual lighthouse, the provincial government in charge of the area around it, and residents on private land in the community, enforcing safety becomes a challenge.
After Quattrocchi’s death in 2015, the province installed additional signs warning of “sudden high waves,” the risk of drowning and urging people to stay off the black rocks.
It launched the Safe On Shore campaign in 2016, promoting coastal safety throughout Nova Scotia, specifically at Peggys Cove. The campaign included printed media, a website and social media messages.
In addition to over 40 safety signs in Peggys Cove, Nova Scotia is adding three more. The province said new signage warning of the danger of the black rocks and wave action are currently under production and will be installed as soon as possible.
A viewing platform that lights up at night was installed last year. It offers a picturesque view of the lighthouse from a safe distance and is part of Crown corporation Develop Nova Scotia’s master plan to make Peggys Cove safer. The project cost the provincial and federal government $3.1 million.
But in early April, two brothers slipped on the rocks and fell into the water, with one, Harshil Barot, losing his life. His brother, Zarin Barot, said the two didn’t see the signs in the dark.
John Campbell, the owner of Sou’Wester Restaurant and Gift Shop at Peggys Cove, has seen his fair share of accidents while living in the community since 1967.
“There are a lot of times when somebody slips on the rocks, we’re the first phone call,” said Campbell.
In the summer, he said there are times when people go for a swim during low tides and come out unharmed, but accidents, where visitors slip on a rock and fall in the water, happen over 10 times a year.
He said accidents often occur when a person is hit by a rogue wave two to three times higher than an average one.
“Sometimes you don’t just have to be on black rocks,” said Campbell. “But how do you control that moving line? Because that line moves. Like in a hurricane, you shouldn’t be on the rocks at all.”
He said many times when discussing safety at Peggys Cove, it comes down to signage. There will be a one-off to put the signs up, but a few years later some have disappeared, either struck by a wave or stolen.
For him, anytime there’s a death, there’s a feeling of helplessness.
Campbell used his boat to save Zarin from the water. Later, he met the Barot family, who travelled from India to Nova Scotia after Harshil’s death.
“It was just such sadness, and I hate, hate, hate reading people with bad comments. The way I look at it is, at least in my life, I know I’ve used bad judgment before. I’m sure most people have used bad judgment, and we don’t expect to lose our life,” said Campbell.