Search for missing Ponte Vedra Beach swimmer turns to recovery effort

Friend alerts deputy after man goes into water alone in dark, doesn't return

By Alicia Booth - Reporter/anchor, Erik Avanier - Reporter, Ashley Harding - Reporter

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - The search for a swimmer who disappeared Thursday night off South Ponte Vedra Beach turned into a recovery effort Friday, authorities said.

Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan, with the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, said that a deputy was called to the beach around sunset because of a report of a fight between two men. But, Mulligan said, the men told the deputy that they had been "horsing around" and there was no issue.

The deputy headed back to the parking lot, and not long after, one of the men he had talked to came up and said his buddy, later identified as Dale Kopf, 47, had gone into the water but couldn't be seen anymore.

Mulligan said the conditions were rough, and efforts were made to try to find Kopf in the water, but now the chances of finding him alive are low.

Kopf disappeared about 6 miles north of the Vilano Bridge and about 11 miles south of Mickler.

Mulligan said if the conditions continue, it's likely Kopf's body will wash up on shore sometime Friday.

According to St. Johns County Fire Rescue, the recovery effort was scaled back Friday night and crews will periodically check the beach Saturday. 

Mulligan said investigators were also holding out hope that Kopf got out of the water somewhere along the beach in the dark and doesn't know searchers are looking for him.

Mulligan said Kopf lived in St. Johns County and had recently moved to the area from New Jersey.

Firefighters said newcomers to the beach can be the most vulnerable.

"People who have grown up here, have been in the ocean their whole lives, typically understand a little bit better what the ocean's going to do," said Capt. Jeremy Robshaw, with St. Johns County Fire Rescue. "In the same breath, we say the ocean is so  dynamic, even an experienced person could find themselves in a difficult situation."

Mulligan encouraged beachgoers to avoid the water in the rough conditions caused by recent storms.

“Swimming alone or without a support system is not something we would recommend,” he said.

Because it's the offseason, there are no lifeguards patrolling the beaches and no flags warning of the conditions in the surf.

But firefighters said the most valuable barometer of danger is your own eyes.

"Any time we have a strong onshore wind, like we have today, the surf looks very washy. It's not clean," Robshaw said. "Those are times that we need to use extra caution."

And beachgoers should still be on the lookout for debris.

Hurricane Irma and the nor'easters have changed the coastline, starting with what's under the water.

"You end up with a bottom that is completely changed," Robshaw said. "So what we're seeing now is where it might have been a very easily swimmable beach before, the bottom contours have changed. There may be a rip current that is in a location that it may have never been in before." 

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