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Risky N.L. adventures ignite debate over who should pay for search and rescue

Perched on the edge of North America, Newfoundland and Labrador has long been an irresistible temptation for adventurers, both professionals and thrill-seeking amateurs. 

But the sheer number of high-profile misadventures in recent months is breathing fresh oxygen into an age-old debate over who should bear the cost when high-risk exploits go awry.

Dag Friis, a marine consultant and retired professor of ocean and marine engineering at Memorial University, says the answer is quite clear.

“The responsible thing would be for these people to posts significant bonds to cover at least a good portion of the costs, said Friis.

However, in Canada, the federal government pays for search and rescue operations, regardless of how dangerous the activity is.

The entire world watched in real time last month as the Canadian and U.S. coast guards were deployed to find the five people aboard OceanGate’s Titan submersible in its failed mission to the wreck of the Titanic.

In May, Andrew Bedwell of Lancashire, England, set out to break the record for crossing the Atlantic in the smallest boat ever, a one-metre fibreglass yacht, equivalent in size to a small bathtub. Just hours later, the Canadian Coast Guard rescued him when the craft began to take on water.

A man in a small boat floats beside a number of people on the deck of a larger boat.
Andrew Bedwell left St. John’s in May in an attempt to cross to Cornwall, England, in a metre-long boat. (Andrew Bedwell/Instagram)

Also in May, residents near Twillingate became concerned after a local person posted a photo of two men camping on the top of a nearby iceberg. Icebergs are known to flip suddenly, and people worried they were putting themselves in extreme danger.

Last week, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax came to the rescue of a British couple, Deborah and Mike Scholes, balloonists who were forced to make an emergency land in central Newfoundland because of technical problems. The pair were attempting to make a transatlantic hot-air balloon crossing.

‘Remarkably clueless’

When CBC News tracked down the iceberg campers, Ethan Harold and Ammar Alkassm of Rochester, N.Y., they were surprised at the negative reaction their escapade had attracted.

“A lot of things in life are dangerous that we encourage. For example, UFC, boxing.… People that climb Everest — you lose a lot of people a year — but they do it because they’re pursuing something they truly love,” said Harold.

Some critics questioned whether they considered the risk to search and rescue personnel if the iceberg had split or overturned and they were called to respond. 

Harold said they don’t recommend others repeat their stunt, but he insisted they were well prepared and chose an iceberg close to shore that hadn’t moved for several days.

Will Gadd, an extreme athlete and professional ice climber from Canmore, Alta., has climbed glaciers in Greenland and Kilimanjaro.

After watching Harold and and Alkassm’s YouTube video documenting their iceberg adventure, Gadd said the pair was incredibly unaware of the risks.

“Camping on an iceberg is, bluntly, stupid.” said Gadd, “They were remarkably clueless.”

“They’re inherently unstable. They’re melting on the bottom, they’re melting on the top. And they’re going to flip. it’s just a matter of when.”

Gadd has scaled icebergs off Newfoundland and Greenland himself. He admits it was very risky, and not a feat he plans to repeat.

But Gadd said he had a team with a dinghy and a main boast standing by at a distance in case something went wrong, and that they were wearing dry suits and survival equipment the whole time. 

Risk management is an issue mountaineer TA Loeffler has studied for decades. She teaches outdoor education and recreation in the school of human kinetics and recreation at Memorial University and has climbed the top peaks in 20 countries.

These activities come with tremendous risks and rewards, and deciding which risks are acceptable and which are not is  management is complex, said Loeffler.

“For me, climbing Everest was a culmination of decades’ worth of skill and practice.”

But she holds no expectation of being rescued on any of her expeditions if the need were to arise.

“I do pay a permit fee to be there. If I do need to be rescued, I have to pay for that rescue or the insurance that I carry pays for that,” she said. “If I go to climb on some of the peaks in the United States, again, there is the expectation through the permitting process that either carrying insurance or I placed a rescue bond.”

As a retired search and rescue co-ordinator with the Canadian Coast Guard, Merv Wiseman has seen the perils of mounting rescues in an inhospitable climate.

Balancing an individual’s right to take risks with the cost of search and rescue operations has not been easy, Wiseman said. 

“Unless there’s some level of enforcement … that would say, ‘Look, if you’re going to undertake this, you have to cover the cost or … demonstrate clearly that you’re capable of undertaking the activity within reason and that safety precautions are taken.”

WATCH | Should thrill-seekers pay costs of their rescue? 

Some in Newfoundland want thrill-seekers to pay for their own rescue

A series of high-profile misadventures by thrill-seekers in Newfoundland has ignited a debate over who pays for the rescue when things go wrong.

There are two factors at play that have long been debated, said Wiseman: the cost to the public purse in mounting these rescues and the risk to the responders in dangerous conditions.

The resources are oftentimes stretched to their endurance levels and, in fact. the the human component of that is often stretched to their level of of endurance, said Wiseman.

“One of the biggest concerns for me personally, is trying to minimize the amount of risk I would put a rescuer in,” said Gadd

But he argues the bill for rescuing adventurers pales in comparison to to the heavy cost of lifestyle risks such as smoking, unhealthy eating and lack of exercise.

“It’s like heart disease and depression. All of that is very expensive,” Gadd said. “So I don’t really buy that argument on a cost basis.”

As adventure tourism gains popularity in Newfoundland and Labrador, Loeffler said perhaps the time has come for the province to educate people on the inherent risks of certain activities.

“We’re used to people having being under risk through their occupations,” said Loeffler. “We now have more folks coming from away who may not be as familiar with how challenging of an adventure environment we have.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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