The body of a 34-year-old Atlanta, Georgia, man was recovered by Whatcom County Search and Rescue divers from Mountain Lake in Moran State Park on Aug. 6.
The previous evening, at approximately 6:30 p.m., a call came into the San Juan County sheriff’s office about a man who fell off his stand-up paddleboard. Cresundo Dupri Whitaker was last seen struggling 150 feet offshore for around 15 minutes before rescuers arrived on the scene. Friends of the victim attempted to locate him while crews were en route.
After an extensive interagency search, including Orcas Island Fire and Rescue, Moran State Park Rangers, the Sheriff’s Office, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and a diving team, the search was suspended on Aug. 5 when it became too dark to continue, and resumed in daylight until Whitaker’s body was discovered at 1:12 p.m.
At its deepest, Mountain Lake is 100 feet. Whitaker, who could not swim, was not wearing a life vest. His body was found in 65 feet of water. According to San Juan County Coroner Randy Gaylord, this is the first drowning in the lake.
Whitaker came to Orcas to visit his friend Leesa Ellis, who lives on the island in the summer. The two became close in 2018 after working together on a project in Florida for the marketing company Henry V. Whitaker took a Kenmore flight to the island — his first time on a small aircraft — and arrived Sunday, Aug. 4, just in time to watch the sun set on North Beach.
“He had made friends with everyone on the plane,” Ellis said.
The following day, he explored Eastsound and “did all the things you are supposed to do when on Orcas,” according to Ellis. That included a visit to Moran State Park. Whitaker, Ellis and another friend arrived at Mountain Lake in the midafternoon. They walked down to the rope swing and set out for a small island, which is about 200 feet from the shore. Ellis hopped on an inflatable that she’d attached to the paddleboard, which was powered by Whitaker. It was his first time on one. Her other friend swam. They spent a few hours on the island, where Whitaker acclimated himself to using a paddleboard.
“The first time, he circled around the island while sitting down. The next time around he was on his knees. The third time he was on his feet. I joked with him, ‘The next time are you going to come back in a head stand?’ I had so much faith in his abilities,” Ellis said. “He said to me, ‘I never would have experienced this if it wasn’t for you. I wonder what my life would have been like if I grew up on the water.’”
They headed back to shore with Whitaker on the paddleboard again, towing Ellis behind him. When they got to the rope swing, it was decided that he would paddle back from there to the boat launch, which is about half a mile. Ellis and her friend started to walk back on the trail. After a few minutes, they looked for Whitaker on the lake and discovered he had fallen in and was struggling to keep his head above water. Ellis started yelling instructions on how to float, and that the paddleboard was close to him. Her friend jumped in to swim toward him, but he was too far and she turned back. After that, chaos set in. While emergency services was on its way, multiple people, including Ellis, who is not a strong swimmer, tried to get to Whitaker but he had sunk beneath the water. Local divers were called in but they were unable to locate him.
“Everyone who was there gave it their all to help,” she said. “I thought of the paddleboard as a PFD (personal flotation device). I am devastated that I didn’t know you need a life jacket.”
Ellis says she is selling her paddleboard and kayak and will donate the proceeds to the Make A Splash organization, which aims to prevent drownings by teaching every child in the United States how to swim.
According to a July 28 story by the Seattle Times, paddleboard fatalities are on the rise. There had been three drowning deaths in Washington state this year involving people who were not wearing a life jacket while paddleboarding, a pastime that has gained marked popularity within the past five years. On Aug. 2, a woman in New York, who was experienced in the sport, drowned during a paddleboard yoga class while trying to assist someone who was having trouble maneuvering against a strong current.
The activity can be first traced back to Polynesia in the late 1700s. Participants are propelled forward using a paddle while standing up on a board designed to glide through the water. In 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard classified paddleboards as a vessel and issued regulations regarding life jacket requirements. According to the World Paddle Association, adult stand-up paddlers are required to have a USCG-approved life jacket (also known as personal floatation device) for each person, a sound signaling device such as a whistle, a visual distress signal and flashlight. Wearing a PFD isn’t required unless the occupant is 12 years or younger. For more information on the requirements, visit https://worldpaddleassociation.com/pfd-laws-sup-or-paddleboards-now-classified-as-vessels/.
Ellis and Whitaker bonded immediately when they met as field marketers assigned to drive face-to-face brand awareness for dairy company Tillamook nearly a year ago in Florida. The two traveled to Cuba together on vacation, where Whitaker received the first stamp on his passport. Whitaker spent time with Ellis’ family, and the two stayed in touch between projects. Their next job with each other began this past spring in Southern California, leading up a marketing tour for Tillamook. It was Whitaker’s first time on the West Coast.
“We were hired back together as the ‘dream team,’” Ellis remembered. “He was the face of Tillamook because of his encompassing attitude and ability to relate to anyone. He was beautiful, outgoing, kind and an excellent listener and learner. He was such a supportive person in my life.”