Hawaii has killer waves (and not in a good way)

| February 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

Drowning is probably the last thing on your mind when you think about Hawaii, the tropical paradise that attracts over 8 million visitors each year. But according to these statistics, it should be among your top concerns, especially if you’re swimming off the main island.

The island of Kauai witnesses the highest drowning rate among all the islands in the archipelago, even though it only attracts 18% of Hawaii’s visitors. This number has only increased in the last two years (from four in 2012 to eleven in 2013). Reasons for the high drowning death rate include rogue waves, strong undertows, deadly shore breaks, misinformation, and poor judgment.

Waves crashing at Kauai beach

Watch out for killer waves in Kauai. Image by jaybergesen

Unrecognized currents are the biggest threat to swimmers’ safety

Dr. Monty Downs, who is an emergency room physician and an advocate of ocean safety, says that unrecognized rip currents on the islands are the biggest threat to swimmers’ safety. Currents can cast swimmers offshore to 20 or 30 yards to sea. “Even a strong swimmer may not be able to get back. If you get tired and panicky with your breathing, a wave breaks on your head and you gulp in water, drowning can happen very quickly,” he tells My Hawaii Traveler.

Unlike California waters that have a continental shelf, Hawaii swells have no buffer, and they’re emitted from thousands of miles away. The water goes from shallow to 18,000 feet deep only five miles offshore.

Lumahai Beach, also known as “Luma-die,” is one of Hawaii’s most dangerous spots. According to Yahoo!, “This unguarded beach made famous by the movie South Pacific has extremely strong currents and some of the most dangerous shore breaks on Kauai. It’s a pretty spot for ocean-viewing; a deadly place to take a dip.”

Kipu Falls in East Kauai also make the list of most deadly getaways in Hawaii; they’re now closed to tourists. One of the most dangerous spots in the state is speculated to have strong whirlpool currents that suck divers to the bottom of the pool. Queen’s Bath, a tide pool in the north shore of Kauai, is also notorious for large swells that knock swimmers out, leaving them to drown.

Queen's Bath, Kauai

Better skip Queen’s Bath. Image by Philip Miller

Deadly shorebreaks turn boogie boarding into tumbling and crashing

The year-round crushing shore break in Sandy beach in O’ahu, the third largest island in Hawaii, leaves even the most experienced of swimmers with serious injuries. Chances of traumatic injuries are so high that many tourists who’ve been there advise others to avoid swimming.

According to Beaches of Oahu, a book by John R Clark, “Sandy’s famous waves are formed by a quick change in the ocean bottom. A combination of sand patches and shallow rock ledges, the bottom at the water’s edge drops off abruptly to an average depth of eight to ten feet. This abrupt change in depth creates the steep, hard-breaking waves in Sandy’s shorebreak, which in turn generate its rip currents.”

Hazardous shorebreaks also exist at Maui’s Makena beach that locals call the “breakneck beach.”

Water safety left to a few lifeguards stationed at the island

Dr. Chuck Blay, a Kauai-based ocean scientist, says that water safety is a complicated situation for Kauai. He tells the Garden Island, “The county provides world-class lifeguards, well-equipped at 10 coastal localities…Unfortunately, they are too few to be able to monitor the many more localities at which island visitors and residents alike like to enter the ocean.”

Tourism industry provides little direct information in fear of losing business.

Rogue waves and killer sharks aren’t the only danger travelers have to face in Hawaii. Absence of complete information about hazards of some alluring destinations on the islands is another reason travelers find themselves in deep waters.

“The tourist industry promotes visitation but provides little direct information as to the hazardous nature of the alluring coastline,” Chuck Blay remarks. Guidebooks, too, entice travelers to visit off-beaten paths and remote destinations without alerting them to the risks associated with such visits.

However, state officials are proposing legislation to ensure travelers stay informed and safe over the course of their visit. Last year, the state senate asked airlines to show ocean safety videos to passengers enroute Hawaii. While some are on board with the idea, others say it is an overkill.  Rep. Tom Brower says, “You don’t want to be on a plane and see people getting eaten by sharks.” He adds that while it’s important to educate tourists, “you don’t want to beat people over the head with it.”

Skift News editor Dennis Schall says, “Airlines should go along with the state Senate’s wishes and show videos warning visitors to Hawaii about the specter of drowning. This should be a no-brainer, with safety taking precedence over lost visitor dollars.” Fortunately, the Kauai airport already shows ocean safety videos in its baggage claim areas.

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