The terrible beauty of Peggy’s Cove

Every summer, we invite people from around the world to come visit Nova Scotia. Hell, we practically beg them. Our economy, particularly our rural economy, depends on them. We entice them with photos of the rugged coast, the mighty Atlantic breaking over ageless rocks. Tall lighthouses stand sentinel. It’s all very captivating.
We can talk about world-class dining experiences, art galleries, and all the rest of the tourism “package,” but it’s the primal lure of the sea that brings visitors here. They want to see the ocean in its heaving majesty. They come from places where the only major water is a barely rippled lake, or a tepid bay that slops an inch or two onto a muddy shore. The roaring sea, physically battering the coastline, is a new experience.
They want to feel the exhilaration of the waves breaking at their feet, as they’ve seen in so many depictions of our home. So they go to Peggy’s Cove and race out onto the rocks. Sure, they see the warning signs. But they also see signs cautioning them that coffee is hot, peanut butter contains peanuts, knives are sharp, and jaywalking is best avoided. Such warnings are the wallpaper of our lives.
Absent firsthand experience, they don’t realize how serious those warnings are. And every year, a few visitors die at Peggy’s Cove. They get too close, and the waves dash them into the surf. Pulling them out in time is near impossible. This year’s first casualty was a woman from Quebec, claimed by the waves on Victoria Day weekend.
And every year, a few smug folks blame the victims. “What are you supposed to do, fence off the whole coast?” they say. “There will always be some morons who break the rules. It’s natural selection.”
Their position has the sound of folksy wisdom but is, at its heart, mean-spirited nonsense. Locals don’t routinely die at Peggy’s Cove. Only visitors do. People we have gone to tremendous expense and effort to attract to our province. Natural selection isn’t killing them; ignorance is. They don’t understand the risks they take.
Short of fencing off the whole coast, what is the solution? I don’t know if there is a perfect one. Warning signs were recently upgraded, but perhaps we didn’t go far enough.
Should the signs be bigger, more explicit? Would signs saying how many people die there have more impact? During busy periods and particularly dangerous times, would it make sense to have security guards patrolling the rocks, constantly warning people of the danger, shepherding them back from the edge?
I don’t know what the solution is, but I know it’s shameful for us to invite people to our province, steer them directly to a place where visitors routinely die, and then blame them for dying there. What sort of hospitality is that?

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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