Logout|My Dashboard
  • Subscribe

drownings Despite community efforts, drownings still occur

Font Size:
Default font size
Larger font size

Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2013 1:00 am

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.

Additional information about Kaua‘i’s ocean conditions and ocean safety can be found at the websites www.kauailifeguards.org, www.kauaiexplorer.com and www.travelsmarthawaii.com.

• Chris D’Angelo, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 241) or lifestyle@thegardenisland.com.

© 2015 Thegardenisland.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

More about

More about

Rules of Conduct

  • 1 Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
  • 2 Don't Threaten or Abuse. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated. AND PLEASE TURN OFF CAPS LOCK.
  • 3 Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
  • 4 Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
  • 5 Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
  • 6 Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Welcome to the discussion.


  • notdoug posted at 9:11 pm on Fri, Feb 22, 2013.

    notdoug Posts: 0

    Maybe they should think about what will happen if the wrong person drowns on the island.

  • notdoug posted at 9:10 pm on Fri, Feb 22, 2013.

    notdoug Posts: 0

    Again I have to agree. Make it ridiculously obvious.

  • notdoug posted at 9:09 pm on Fri, Feb 22, 2013.

    notdoug Posts: 0

    As a tourist, I agree with this idea. The death toll for drowning was not obvious until I witnessed a drowning while on vacation. I would guess that those who are invested in attracting tourists are not interested in alerting tourists to the dangers.

  • rednksurfer posted at 4:19 pm on Thu, Feb 21, 2013.

    rednksurfer Posts: 54

    A possible problem is people taking the lifesaving equipment so generously supplied at sites around Kauai. At this blog, there is a picture showing visitors removing the lifesaving float at Honopu: http://www.alohafrom808.com/2011/07/kalalau-honopu-pt-44-july-16-2011/

    At the next picture shows them using the float to swim back to Kalalau:

  • iuli posted at 4:30 am on Mon, Feb 18, 2013.

    iuli Posts: 101

    Poipu Beach, the first couple of weeks in January, 'Strong Current', 'No Swimming', 'Beach Closed' signs up everywhere... people all over snorkeling, swimming, boogie boarding. Same with the monk seal protection zones... people will walk right past the signs and put themselves and, more importantly, their children in harms way.

    A lot of visitors really think this is a controlled environment like Sea World. While I think the 'in flight presentations' are a good idea and will help a few, there will still be fatalities.

    The first time I came to Kauai, I did some pretty stupid things myself but the island was kind and let me live. I just try to share my wisdom when I am at the beach and advise newcomers to ask the lifeguards before going in the water. There is no perfect solution when the naive meet the oceans of Hawaii.

  • interesting posted at 5:13 pm on Sun, Feb 17, 2013.

    interesting Posts: 1931

    "But the KTA doesn't want anything more strongly worded for fear of scaring them off."

    -- i for one suspect this governs far more than most realize

  • Meme posted at 3:23 pm on Sun, Feb 17, 2013.

    Meme Posts: 1

    I'm all for informing, through the signage, videos on the airplane, and verbally. But the reality is, you can't cure stupid. While my comment may be perceived as rude by some, I believe it to be true.

    After verbally warning tourists a week or so ago of the dangers of Queens Bath on a high surf day, they continued on their mission. I later watched them getting splashed by the waves from the PV golf bluff. Nothing I said made a difference, because the rules don't apply to them. They would "be careful," they "know how to swim" and they "understood the danger."

    Clearly, however, they didn't. So I watched for a bit, ready to call 911 if they ran into trouble. So, we can all try our damnedest to "inform" and save a life. But, some will always fall through the cracks. Not a darn thing any of us can do about it, since we can not control the actions of others.

    BTW, I do NOT apply this to Kauai watermen. They are well-informed and understand, calculate, and accept their risk.

  • billybobjoe posted at 1:25 pm on Sun, Feb 17, 2013.

    billybobjoe Posts: 0

    On a recent hike down to Queens Bath I was amazed at all the warning signs, the plaque with the number of recorded deaths. Yet, right there 75 feet in front of me were 3 middle-aged people, 2 women posing for the camera, backs to the ocean. It was a stormy day with VERY high surf and way too close to the edge. I don't even think a fence would have stopped them. Yes, information film on plane, the rest is up to the individual to use some common sense.

  • Andy Parx posted at 12:12 pm on Sun, Feb 17, 2013.

    Andy Parx Posts: 207

    We are NOT doing all we can to stop people from drowning, as this article tries to claim. We need to be stark in what we tell tourists. "Please try to be safe" doesn't cut it. But the KTA doesn't want anything more strongly worded for fear of scaring them off.

    How about big banners as you're leaving the airport baggage claim and above all the check-in desks at all the hotels and on placards on the desks next to all the TV in all hotel rooms saying something along the lines of:

    "DEATH awaits you in the ocean. People in the water DIE ALL THE TIME, sometimes even in waist deep water. Sometimes THEY DIE JUST STANDING ON THE SHORE NEAR BREAKING WAVES.

    Do not think you are special- you could DIE too if you leave your brain behind when you come here and go to the beach. You are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Swimming ONLY at beaches with lifeguards is the ONLY way to increase you chances of NOT DYING."

  • Stormy posted at 11:31 am on Sun, Feb 17, 2013.

    Stormy Posts: 3

    As an informed tourist, frequent visiter, lover of Kauai, I have to comment how disgusted I am when I see drownings, injuries, rescues of lost tourists, etc.! I'm embarrassed by and for them but think I have a diagnosis. Many people who are able to ever get to HI view it as a lifetime achievement, bucket list item. A point of pride. More than likely the person is affluent with no shortage of ego and self-importance which puts them (& others) at risk. These are the same guys who won't ask directions and drive 2 hours the wrong way! Going to a totally different area of the planet w/different ocean, terrain and not informed or taking time to find out conditions, dangers, warnings (high surf warnings for months now on N and E sides? yah?) is just ignorant. One only needs to look at the water, talk to a shopkeeper or locals, fisher or surfer to find out where/what is safe and going on at the time! Hawaiians are very happy to help, ask and when in doubt, DON'T go out!

    Mahalo Kauai peeps!

  • Mistajohn posted at 11:09 am on Sun, Feb 17, 2013.

    Mistajohn Posts: 0

    Instead of all the hand-wringing, why not do the obvious? MAKE AN INFLIGHT PRESENTATION ON WATER SAFETY. I've seen this suggestion mentioned dozens of times - why doesn't HTA step up and actually DO IT?

    The airlines have the long safety presentation on what to do in the event of a water landing - well, the odds of surviving a water landing 2000 miles from land are essentially zero, but we COULD save some lives by having a similar video presentation on how to be safe in Hawaiian waters. Why isn't this done?

    HTA needs to realize that if Hawaii becomes known as "the drowning capital of the US," it will hurt our visitor industry more than a slightly-scary video will. Between the infamous guidebook that sends people to die at Queen's Bath and the complete lack of action by HTA, it's no wonder there's so many drownings. Again it's the same thing we all see so often here on Kauai - a lack of leadership by the people in charge. Monty Downs can't do it alone - nor should he have to.

  • LTE Reader posted at 9:51 am on Sun, Feb 17, 2013.

    LTE Reader Posts: 3

    Mahalo to all that put this video together, and everyone that works diligently to educate our visitors about ocean safety, especially Dr. Downs!
    I book vacation rentals on all Islands, and warn everyone about the ocean. Most are very grateful for these warnings and I've encouraged my Associates to do the same.
    I just watched the video and although it's informative, IMO it's not shocking enough. I think the video is a great idea, I just don't think it's powerful enough to get the point across to some of our hard headed visitors. Perhaps a plaque listing the names of all those that have drown here would hit home harder? And I hope they've considered running this in a few different languages or at least a translation at the bottom of the screen.


Online poll


Most Popular

Follow us on Facebook

Travel / Las Vegas