25 Jul 2023

Fiji floating bar criticised after tourist’s death

11:07 am on 25 July 2023
Seventh Heaven Fiji

Fiji police say investigation into the drowning is still ongoing. Photo: Facebook.com / Seventh Heaven Fiji

The owner of a popular 5-star floating bar and restaurant in Fiji denies claims that his staff were unprepared for emergencies after the death of a Chinese tourist following a water-based incident earlier this month.

The victim, a 23-year-old university student in Australia, was with his friends when the incident occurred at Seventh Heaven Fiji in the Mamanuca Islands and was pronounced dead at the Nadi Hospital on July 8.

Fiji police had released a statement the next day, stating that: "A foreign national allegedly drowned whilst swimming in Mamanuca waters yesterday.

"The staff tried to revive the victim and rushed him to the Nadi Hospital where he was pronounced dead. Investigations continue," it said, without providing further details.

However, two patrons who were at the scene, have told RNZ Pacific employees appeared unprepared to handle the situation.

One guest, who was on board the two-tier floating platform for a farewell gathering along with 11 other friends, said they thought somebody had only dropped their phone.

"It took very long [to retrieve the body], and the man was unconscious, and [the staff] were doing CPR [on him]," they said.

"There was so much blood and water coming out."

Another guest who was there said he was in the water when it all happened.

"There was a little bit of commotion but nothing that seemed as urgent as we would have thought if someone was drowning," he said.

"[The response] was really poorly organised. Honestly, it took them many tries to get him out of the water and a lot of repeated attempts.

"I am not an expert, but I think that it could have been done a bit quicker [to save the man's life]."

The guests claimed there was "trial and error" with the dives, where they initially attempted to retrieve the man with no fins, then with fins and then with a weight belt.

Seventh Heaven is a 5-star floating bar and restaurant in the Mamanucas in Fiji.

Seventh Heaven is a 5-star floating bar and restaurant in the Mamanucas in Fiji. Photo: Facebook.com / Seventh Heaven Fiji

'We did everything'

But the director of Seventh Heaven Fiji and New Zealand national Eddy Rotteveel said: "I was there on the day" and his staff did "everything correctly" for the "very unfortunate incident".

"It is absolutely terrible, but I can say with a hand on my heart that we did everything correctly."

Rotteveel said the person was fitted with a life jacket and went for a private snorkelling tour wearing it earlier in the day.

The person then went to swim by himself without a lifejacket and was told to put one on before entering the water, he said.

He said the man had proceeded down the steps with his mask and snorkel and stuck his head in the water still hanging on to the steps.

"This all happened within 30 seconds [and] while the lifeguard was picking up another lifejacket and walking back, the person just started descending rapidly.

"Our lifeguards can just swim down to the bottom and they quickly swam down, picked up the person, brought him back on board, found there was a faint breath and started CPR."

An incident report by Seventh Heaven, provided to Emergency Medical Services Fiji, said the guest "removed his own life jacket and entered the water at "about 11.57am and rapidly descended".

The lifeguards provided "immediate assistance" and retrieved the man at a depth of seven to nine metres within two minutes, it said.

But according to the two patrons, the response took much longer - around four to five minutes.

They also claim there were no lifeguards at the scene and "there was not any sort of safety talk when we got on board".

However, Eddy Rotteveel insisted there were four full-time lifeguards and said the bar carried "more equipment, than the local hospitals".

"I have got to give the guys credit and the team, they acted swiftly.

"They've all been first aid trained and because of that reason he actually left us alive."

Rotteveel said the man was handed over to EMS Fiji "within 20 minutes - completely breathing and with a pulse".

He said the man started breathing on his own on the boat ride back to the Denarau Port, where "they watched him for about two to three hours" before he was transferred about three hours later to Nadi Hospital where he died.

RNZ Pacific were told by EMS Fiji they were unable to provide the medical report without family approval.

Seventh Heaven Fiji

Seventh Heaven Fiji director and a New Zealand national Eddy Rotteveel said they followed all the safety protocols. Photo: seventhheavenfiji.com

Focus remains on safety, tourism office says

Tourism Fiji chief executive Brent Hill said information provided by EMS Fiji and Seventh Heaven staff did everything they could have.

Hill said from his own personal experience as a repeat guest on Seventh Heaven, safety was a priority and "guests are given instructions regarding life vest use and other mandatory safety elements".

"They go through a whole range of safety briefings there, including details around life vests, and the provision of life vests.

"They also have a number of staff who are trained [lifeguards], I have seen that myself."

"We have an absolute focus on safety in our industry, and while accidents, sometimes tragic, do happen, we will continue to do all we can to work with our industry to maintain the highest levels of safety wherever possible," Hill said.

Hill said EMS Fiji, in their statement, "outline the medical assistance, vital signs that they performed, and the process they underwent, in transferring the patient - then in a critical stable condition - to the hospital".

"Seventh Heaven has not tried to keep this a secret, they have provided written statements, as have EMS," he said in reponse to claims that the tourism operators were trying to downplay the seriousness of the incident.

Investigations ongoing

Rotteveel said he met with the man's parents to talk through what happened after they flew to Fiji from China.

A Fiji police spokesperson confirmed to RNZ Pacific on Thursday that the investigation was still ongoing.

"All elements of the circumstances surrounding the victim's death are being looked into. Once completed, the file will be reviewed by the Divisional Crime Officer West before a decision is made on the next course of action," the spokesperson added.

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