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Sharks in Lake Ontario?

August 11, 2014

Toronto- Search and Rescue (T-SAR) would like to think that its volunteers will be ready for anything, but Ken Armes and Derek Cartier on their pioneer run at teaching water safety in Toronto were startled to find that most of the school kids they met believed there were sharks in Lake Ontario.

In June of 2014, T-SAR continued it's trial of a program to teach basic water-safety to children, that was launched in the spring of 2013. Many of the children appeared to have been watching 'Shark Week' but hadn't grasped the essentials of things they really needed to know.

Ken Armes and Derek Cartier got some primary instruction to 196 children in four schools in the eastern Toronto Beaches area. Cartier was especially startled by the lack of basic knowledge about water safety compared to what he had known as a child in that same neighbourhood.

"Nobody is teaching this stuff anymore", Cartier said, "we've got a high turnover in these old neighbourhoods with a lot of new Canadians who are unfamiliar with the dangers that lake water offers." This is something that other members of T-SAR have also noticed. So has the Lifesaving Society, which released a key study in July 2010 that pointed out new Canadians (those who have lived here for five years or less) were at a far greater risk of drowning.

Older Canadians who may remember Elmer the Safety Elephant and related safety programs from their school days are often dismayed to find out how far the old standards have lapsed in today's schools. Ken Armes undertook to start to redress the problem in the Beaches area and designed a short 'Six-Rule' awareness program based on the Lifesaving Society's work and Transport Canada standards.

The 196 children from St Dennis, Balmy Beach, Blantyre and Lakeside Co-op Schools were first told not to worry about sharks. Instead, the program focused on awareness of the problems associated with boats, docks, and lakes ? cold lakes that get deep quickly and have undertow problems in particular. Kids in the Beaches area have always been drawn to the feature for which the neighbourhood takes its name, and Lake Ontario claims a toll too often.

The awareness course T-SAR offered dovetails with the Lifesaving Society's 'Swim to Survive' program and its focus on the skills needed to survive an unexpected fall into deep water.

T-SAR is striving to advance a number of programs and remains focused on providing the entire Toronto waterfront with an enhanced search and rescue capability. However, teaching awareness of basic water safety to more children remains an easy deliverable that is no less valuable than getting crewed rescue boats in the water.

With more instructors and more preparatory time, T-SAR hopes to reach 500 children in 2015 and even more every year after that -- even if the kids are disappointed to learn that Lake Ontario is totally shark free.

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