By Margie Plunkett
A tsunami of visitors has boosted attendance at Delray Beach’s beach to record highs.
The surging number of beach-goers grew by more than 200,000 last year alone, a “phenomenal” performance that brought the total to 1.7 million in 2011, according to Ocean Rescue Superintendent James Scala. Three quarters into fiscal year 2012, attendance has reached 1.4 million.
A count is done twice per day at lifeguard stands along the city beach.
“Our beach attendance has been growing exponentially,” Scala said.
The onslaught of sunbathers has nearly doubled in the last decade. In 2001, a total 973,651 people frequented the beach, dipping from about 1.1 million in 1999. Delray Beach Parks and Recreation staff estimates the total will reach 1.9 million in 2012 and 2.1 million by 2013.
New hotels that have sprung up in Delray Beach have aided some of the swell. And the city’s overall gains in popularity in recent years have contributed to the beach crowds as well, Scala said.
The fallen economy and tepid recovery get some credit, too, in Scala’s estimation. As residents and tourists tightened their financial belts, they sought more free and inexpensive pastimes, like going to the beach, he said.
The sprawl of sun worshippers also poses challenges for the city, with a growing number spilling into unguarded sand space. In 2011, about 45,172 people spent their beach time in areas without lifeguard supervision, compared to 18,001 people a decade earlier.
Ocean Rescue would like to start guarding those areas, but supervising the new areas would involve more expenses than adding a couple of new lifeguards, Scala pointed out, noting that rescue stands and other equipment also would be necessary.
An expansion into unguarded space would stand more of a chance “in better economic times”, said Linda Karch, Parks and Recreation Director. “We’re lucky we’re not losing lifeguards.”
Booming beach attendance also means a growing number of rescues and public assists. So far this fiscal year, Delray Beach already counts 36 rescues, compared with 40 for the full year of 2011. It has responded to 23 medical emergencies, compared with 25 for all of 2011.
Public assistance in 2012-to-date — 59,815 — has already surpassed the 59,531 for the full 2011.
Parks and Recreation is requesting $1.4 million for Ocean Rescue this year, an increase of $70,000 over last year. The only change to staff is to bring back part-time hours that were formerly cut.
Delray Beach currently has about 21 ocean rescue staffers.
Despite the beach’s growing attraction, “staffing has pretty much stayed the same,” Scala said.