LIHU‘E — Less than two months into the new year, Kaua‘i has experienced a rash of drownings that has left the community and its leaders frustrated, heartbroken and searching for answers.
In a Feb. 14 editorial, Dr. Monty Downs, president of the Kaua‘i Lifeguard Association, referenced a half-page ad the KLA printed Jan. 2 in The Garden Island, which called 2012 the “best statistical ocean safety year in recorded history.”
“Let’s do it again, maybe even better!” was the ad’s final message.
Unfortunately, 2013 is off to a tragic start. In less than two months, Kaua‘i’s waters have claimed the lives of six individuals — five of them tourists — compared to a total of four drownings, two ocean and two freshwater, in 2012.
“Even when things are going well, I’m kind of fearful of what can happen,” Downs said. “We thought we were getting somewhere and came to find out we weren’t.”
Like many others, Downs said the major issue is visitors “not being informed” about Kaua‘i’s dangerous ocean conditions.
Sue Kanoho of the Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau agreed, but said there are a wide variety of resources out there.
“Every year we try to do something better,” she said. “At some point, it needs to be everybody sharing the same information.”
Pat Durkin, a former lifeguard and an aquatic safety instructor who heads up the Water Awareness Visitor Education program, described the last two months as “a slap in the face.”
“It’s a problem that’s not going to go away right away,” he said. “We’re back in the war room here the next two weeks, and we’re looking at everything that we do … trying to figure out what happened.”
Despite the situation, Downs said the KLA’s core message is still the same.
“KLA really wants visitors to swim at lifeguarded beaches,” he said. “If you’re going to go to those (unguarded) spots, you really need to know about rip currents and the rescue tubes.”
While many aspects of ocean safety on Kaua‘i have improved over the years — including the number of lifeguards and informational resources available to the public — the drowning numbers have not, and the demographics remain the same.
“It’s the middle-aged white guy from the Mainland,” said Charles Blay, a local geologist, naturalist and educator at The Edge of Kaua‘i Investigations in Po‘ipu.
In a professional paper, Blay compiled information on every drowning on Kaua‘i from 1970 to 2009. In that time, a total of 300 people drowned in the tropical nearshore marine waters of Kaua‘i. The rate of drowning deaths increased from an average of 5.5 from 1970 to 1979 to greater than 10 from 2000 to 2009, he found.
The average age of those who died by drowning on Kaua‘i during that time was 45.5 years, with 64 percent between the age of 30 and 60, Blay wrote. Of those who drowned, 73.5 percent were visitors and 85 percent were male.
Since 1970, Blay said drowning deaths have almost tripled, while the number of lifeguards and water safety personnel have increased 10 fold, from less than 5 to almost 50. The major problem is a lack of “information transfer from the people who know to the people who don’t know,” according to Blay.
He believes the important information is being protected because of Kaua‘i’s tourist-based economy and the fear that it will drive people away.
“There’s a lot of information about how to get to remote island locations, but there’s no water safety information for that,” he said.
Blay described last year’s low number of drownings as “an anomaly” and said he is not surprised by this year’s high toll.
“This is normal, what we’re having now,” he said, referring to the six drownings so far in 2013. “For some reason, everyone thought we solved the problem.”
Blay said he hopes to see more information at the point of contact, including more signs at the shoreline, complete with maps of the area and ocean currents.
“Put drowning statistics on the sign, info on what the danger is and what to do if you get in trouble,” he said. “Let people decide for themselves. Once you provide information, that’s all you can really do.”
Blay points out that the No. 1 thing tourists look forward to when arriving on Kaua‘i is jumping in the ocean, which he says is the “most dangerous” thing they can do.
“Very few people that come from the Mainland have a clue,” he said.
And when it comes to drownings on Kaua‘i, Blay said it is the same story over and over at each specific location.
“You just change the names.”
Current resources and looking forward
The Kaua‘i Fire Department’s Ocean Safety Bureau currently operates 10 lifeguard towers around the island, along with ATVs, light trucks and three Jet Skis, one for each district.
Towers are located at Ke‘e, Ha‘ena, Hanalei Bay, Anahola, Kealia, Lydgate, Po‘ipu Beach Park, Salt Pond and Kekaha. All are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Additional resources include ocean and beach safety brochures, the rescue tube program, the WAVE program, beach safety displays and the Kaua‘i Explorer website, which provides daily ocean reports.
“I don’t know anywhere where there’s a community doing more than we are,” Durkin said. “We’re always working on new concepts of where we can step it up and educate.”
Moving forward, county and local ocean safety leaders said they have plans for additional outreach during 2013, including working with Kaua‘i guidebook authors; installing ocean safety banners at the Lihu‘e Airport; posting daily ocean reports on the county’s website; coordinating informational meetings for vacation rental owners to stress the importance of sharing safety information with guests; conducting additional WAVE training and expanding the beach safety program to Kalapaki Beach and other resort properties, as well as state and county beaches.
One huge step forward, according to Downs and Durkin, will be a new, 5-minute ocean safety video — sponsored by the Rotary Club of Kapa‘a and the KLA — which will be played on a continuous loop in the Lihu‘e Airport baggage claim areas.
Downs said the monitors are currently on a barge from Los Angeles and should be installed in approximately six weeks.
“We’re a go,” he said. “We’re literally just waiting for the equipment.”
While additional lifeguard towers would be nice, Downs said it comes down to a simple lack of funding.
“One fully-staffed lifeguard tower takes between $400,000 and $500,000 to run per year,” he said.
Durkin understands there is only so much that can be done and that stopping ocean drownings completely is unlikely. If the number could be cut in half, he said that would be making progress.
“Our goal is to see five a year, on average, spread out over time,” he said. “We’re really not getting there, but we’re turning over every stone and reevaluating our programs.”
As tragic as it is, one thing Blay said a string of drownings like this year’s does is rattle the visitor industry, which he believes is a good thing in terms of raising awareness.
“It’s an ebb and flow, like the surf,” he said. “This is when we move the mountain an inch.”
In 2008, the WAVE program did a survey of more than 100 visitors to find out where they obtain their ocean safety information. The results showed 45 percent identified resort staff and 35 percent got their information online.
“This confirms that our efforts should be focused on efforts such as WAVE, getting the daily ocean report out and getting our ocean safety brochures and other educational resources in the hands of our visitor industry partners,” wrote Beth Tokioka in an email on behalf of the County of Kaua‘i.
Durkin will conduct another similar survey this year to find out if trends have changed.
As for how local residents can lend a helping hard, the county is urging everyone to “take ownership for educating family, friends and visitors to the dangers of the ocean and referring them to the many credible information sources out there.”
For those who are interested, the Kaua‘i Water Safety Task Force will hold its next meeting Feb. 26 at 3 p.m. at the Department of Health conference room in Lihu‘e.
To view the ocean safety video, which will be shown at the Lihu‘e Airport, visit http://youtu.be/NWoMjr-3tyw.
• Chris D’Angelo, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 241) or email@example.com.