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  Straits Times 2 Feb 06
Danger lurks in waters off Sentosa
by Tanya Fong

SENTOSA'S beaches harbour hidden dangers that can trap weak or unsuspecting swimmers, according to two coastal experts.

Associate Professor Tan Soon Keat, who was commissioned to study Sentosa's beaches in 1988, has warned that a sudden deep drop just offshore can catch swimmers off guard, while another expert has raised concerns about strong underwater currents.

On Monday, a 17-year-old boy drowned while swimming off Palawan Beach, re-igniting the debate over the safety of Sentosa's beaches sparked last year by the deaths of five people off Siloso Beach.

In December, after recording a verdict of misadventure on the September death of 17-year-old Steven Sim, the state coroner noted that Sentosa had seen significantly more drownings and urged beach operators to step up safety measures.

While statistics do not seem to support this - in 2004, only two of the 46 drownings in Singapore occurred at Sentosa - there are significant concerns.

Approached by The Straits Times after Monday's tragedy, Prof Tan, director of the Singapore Maritime Research Centre, said the steep drop off the beach could pose a hazard.

This feature is particular to Sentosa because the man-made beach sits on top of a coral reef. Said Prof Tan: 'Coral reefs have steep sides. Imagine sand being poured on top of the coral table to form a beach. At one end is the shore, and it ends steeply in what we call 'the ledge' on the other. It's like an unexpected drop-off that will catch new or weak swimmers off guard.' Depending on the strength of the currents, the sudden drop can be between 20m and 50m from the shoreline, and the waters off the ledge can be as deep as 3m.

Prof Tan said the gradient of the sea bed at East Coast and Pasir Ris is more gradual than that at Sentosa.

A coastal expert at a local university, who declined to be named, told The Straits Times that the man-made islets that protect Sentosa's beaches can also create problems. The islets were built in 1997 to prevent currents from washing the sand out to sea, but the obstructions can also cause the water to be channelled into smaller, stronger currents, also called eddies.

Said the professor: 'The man-made offshore islets help to stabilise the beach, but it is also possible that they act as a physical obstruction to the main water flow from the sea, which could create eddies.'

Neither of the experts would comment on whether the structures directly caused the drownings last year, or why all five happened off Siloso Beach, but both said that Sentosa authorities should commission a detailed study to find this out.

A water safety campaign was launched in Sentosa last March. Its beach patrol staff now hand out brochures with safety tips, while posters are put up around its beaches. Beach patrol officers also monitor the water conditions throughout the day, check tide tables and test the waters by swimming in them.

In the past few months, Sentosa management has also been narrowing the roped-in area during high tide at weekends.

Singapore Life Saving Society spokesman Richard Tan offered a more direct solution. He said people should not go swimming in the sea alone, and that weak swimmers should not swim in the sea at all.

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