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OPINION

More investment in swimming supervision would save lives

Perhaps some of this year’s record-breaking drownings could have been prevented if only there had been more safety policies in place.

After a June 24 drowning at Turtle Pond in Hyde Park, new "No Swimming" signs have been posted. But people continue to go in the water.
After a June 24 drowning at Turtle Pond in Hyde Park, new "No Swimming" signs have been posted. But people continue to go in the water.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The signs say “No Swimming.”

But people have been swimming at Turtle Pond anyway, especially during this week’s heat wave. Wednesday’s 100-degree scorcher drew escapees from Boston’s sweltering core to this secluded oasis on the city’s fringes in Hyde Park. Just days before, Jason Peri Bonilla, 19, drowned in the pond. But you wouldn’t know it — except that the old “No Swimming” signs, previously discarded in the woods, have been replaced with new ones.

Turtle Pond is in Stony Brook Reservation, which is state property. No signage directs you to the pond, and there is no official parking. Visitors typically park along Enneking Parkway or enter by foot or bike through one of the reservation’s trails. To some, the pond is their little secret, an unsupervised and seemingly unregulated patch of urban serenity.

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Indeed, Turtle Pond is an example of benign neglect where, clearly, things can go terribly wrong. Because swimming is banned, there are no lifeguards and there is no beach — just several acres of water with two docks, one on each end of the pond. Naturally, people come in droves anyway. And many like the pond just the way it is.

Paloma Dugan and Alex LeBlanc were on one of the docks with their two dogs on Tuesday. “It’s kind of ‘be and let be’ here, it’s a really nice vibe that you can’t get in a lot of places,” said Dugan, who lives in Jamaica Plain. “This is free, and it’s beautiful.”

Isn’t there a happy medium? Open the pond for swimming and add a little more safety in the form of, say, ring buoys tied to the dock? This dilemma feels eerily similar to the discussion around harm-reduction approaches to address opioid addiction: needle exchanges and safe injection sites save lives, but critics say those policies may encourage more opioid use. Ring buoys — the round flotation devices that lifeguards carry to rescue people in distress in the water — may or may not have saved Bonilla. But perhaps some of this year’s record-breaking drownings could have been prevented if only there had been more safety policies in place.

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Because swimming is banned at Turtle Pond, there are no lifeguards. “No Swimming” signs are posted around the pond, but visitors continue to go in the water.
Because swimming is banned at Turtle Pond, there are no lifeguards. “No Swimming” signs are posted around the pond, but visitors continue to go in the water.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

That wasn’t the case on Thursday, when there was yet another tragic drowning: a teenager who had been swimming with his brother off Castle Island. Police say lifeguards had warned the two brothers earlier that they had swum too far into the bay. Governor Charlie Baker’s office issued a press release Thursday that said the governor was filing a bill to raise the fine to $500 for swimming in waters not allowed by state or local authorities. But I doubt that enhancing enforcement and penalties would work. How are officials going to police every single unsafe body of water in the state? Plus, given the record-breaking heat, people will ignore the fines.

At Turtle Pond, other solutions have been suggested: Should the state remove the docks? They’re there for fishing, which is allowed. How about a lifeguard?

“They shouldn’t do anything,” Dugan told me.

“Hire a lifeguard?! No, no, no,” added LeBlanc, who lives in Somerville. “Then they’d have to charge because somebody has to pay for that lifeguard,” she said.

Bonilla was an immigrant from Honduras. He lived in Roxbury and worked in carpentry. He had dreams of becoming an urban music singer, according to what friends and family told Telemundo Boston. On June 24, at around 3:30 p.m., Bonilla went to Turtle Pond with friends. He began to struggle in the water while trying to swim across the pond. A friend tried to help him but Bonilla went underwater. Hours later, a team of divers found his body.

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In May alone, there were 18 drownings — more than the previous three Mays combined. In total, there have been roughly 50 drownings in the state so far this year.

To compound water safety problems, there’s currently a lifeguard shortage, and the peril falls heavily on those in lower-income brackets. As the Globe reported a day before Bonilla drowned, nearly 80 percent of children in families with household income less than $50,000 have little or no swimming ability.

Visitors continue to ignore "No Swimming" signs at Turtle Pond, which were put up following a recent drowning. Authorities shouldn’t let those signs be substitutes for lifeguards.
Visitors continue to ignore "No Swimming" signs at Turtle Pond, which were put up following a recent drowning. Authorities shouldn’t let those signs be substitutes for lifeguards.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“We need to have an immediate conversation about Turtle Pond and what’s happening there, to keep people safe,” said state Representative Rob Consalvo, whose district includes Stony Brook Reservation. “Any and all options should be discussed. We do need to educate the public about the three cooling amenities we have in Hyde Park.”

The state finds itself lacking recreational staffing at a time when it doesn’t know where to spend its excess money. After Bonilla’s drowning, the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation said it’s bumping lifeguard pay in its swimmable waters from an hourly rate of $17-$18 to $20 -$21, plus $500 bonuses for guards who stay through the end of the season.

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But authorities shouldn’t let “No Swimming” signs be substitutes for lifeguards. Swimming demand is booming in a broiling summer, underscoring the point that more investment in swimming access and supervision would save lives. Meanwhile, family and friends of Bonilla are holding a barbecue in Roxbury Saturday at noon to raise funds for his funeral expenses. I can’t help but think that his death might have been prevented had a lifeguard been posted at Turtle Pond.


Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.