Craig Amundsen lifeguard

Craig Amundsen, 50, patrols the waters of Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver. He has been working as a lifeguard since he was 16. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Craig Amundsen is scanning Vancouver's Kitsilano Beach for signs of trouble. 

The 50-year-old head lifeguard at the beach has been doing this job since he was 16.

During the rest of the year Amundsen holds a desk job working various government relations contracts for politicians and government agencies. But the lure of the beach is too strong to keep him away for long. 

And his years of experience and training have taught him what to look for before anything gets out of hand.

"We take a pretty proactive look around the beaches for just safe beach behaviour — and we try to watch for unsavoury behaviour too," he said.  

Vancouver lifeguard

A lifeguard looks over Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Amundsen is one of the Vancouver Park Board's 180 outdoor lifeguards who guard the city's beaches and pools from May to September. 

While thousands of locals and tourists alike flock to the city's seaside to enjoy the precious golden rays of summer, lifeguards like Amundsen are there to keep them safe — and, more often, to keep the peace.

Water rescues are just a small part of their job. In his decades of experience, Amundsen has only had to rescue four or five people from the water. 

A typical day for Kitsilano lifeguards like Amundsen starts at 11:30 a.m. when they haul out equipment like rowboats and scan the beach for dangerous debris like needles and broken bottles that may have washed up on shore. 

vancouver lifeguards

Lifeguards at Vancouver's Kitsilano Beach push out rowboats closer to the water. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

He says needles are more of an issue at downtown beaches like English Bay, but they do wash up from time to time at Kits, along with a variety of items ranging from sunglasses and flip flops to used menstrual products and condoms. 

"You get gifts from the sea all the time," he said, smirking. "The beaches are popular for lots of people for lots of purposes."

Most of what Amundsen and the other lifeguards are doing is constantly scanning the area for people who look uneasy in and around the water.

A self-described people person, Amundsen isn't afraid to go up to them and offer advice or warn them about hazards like sudden drop-offs and rocks. This type of work, he says, is key to preventing drowning. 

Vancouver lifeguards

Craig Amundsen talks to people on the beach as a way to promote water safety and prevent trouble. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

"Whenever you find somebody who's done a lot of rescues they're not doing their job very well," he said. 

But his biggest source of concern is young children — and their parents.

Too often he sees parents sitting on a log, unwilling to get in the water with their toddler, who could easily topple over and get distressed. 

"You don't get to think the lifeguards are your babysitters," he said. 

water safety beach children

A mother walks into the water at Kitsilano Beach with her children. Lifeguard Craig Amundsen says parents not keeping an eye on their kids is one of his biggest concerns. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Another major part of a Vancouver outdoor lifeguard's work is watching for and dealing with unruly behaviour at the beach. 

Drinking isn't allowed on the city's beaches. Amundsen says that although lifeguards are generally lenient they will get involved if people start disrupting other beachgoers. 

This usually starts with asking anyone who has imbibed too much to leave, and can escalate to calling for backup from police officers who patrol the beaches by bike or quad. 

"A lot of the time people don't necessarily make good decisions," he said. 

"Our job is to help people sure they make better decisions and if they don't we're here to help them."

Vancouver beach drinking

Vancouver lifeguard Craig Amundsen says he and his colleagues are generally lenient towards drinking at the beach, as long as it's limited and done discreetly. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Amundsen says lifeguards once had special constable status and could make arrests but although that privilege may technically still be on the books, they no longer do.

Other times lifeguards are dealing with people experiencing mental health issues, or grappling with more serious behaviour like surreptitiously videotaping young women or children. 

"Sometimes the job is about being a social worker and talking to people about whatever is troubling them," he said. 

Water rescues do happen, though. 

Just a few weeks ago, Amundsen says, lifeguards had to help an open-water swimmer who panicked when the cold ocean inhibited her movement. 

Vancouver lifeguards beach

Vancouver lifeguard Katie Tuura keeps an eye on swimmers at Kitsilano Beach. Head lifeguard Craig Amundsen says even confident swimmers can quickly encounter problems in the water. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Even good swimmers can experience a sudden health crisis like a stroke or a heart attack. 

"People can slip under the water very, very quickly, and people don't appreciate that," he said. 

Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, Amundsen keeps coming back to work at the beach each summer. 

Vancouver beach

Beachgoers toss a volleyball at Vancouver's Kitsilano Beach. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

"I love to get my toes in the sand at the beach every year," he said.

"It's positive work. You're out interacting with the public and you're doing something promoting safety."

Last November, Amundsen travelled to Buckingham Palace, where he was recognized for his volunteer work with the Royal Life Saving Society and honoured with the Prince Michael of Kent 125th Anniversary Certificate of Merit. 

He hopes to encourage his three daughters to become lifeguards one day. 

"When you look around, this is a wonderful place to be."

vancouver lifeguard

A lifeguard scans the water at Vancouver's Kitsilano Beach. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)