Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Friday, July 26, 2002

Hanauma Bay drownings
bring sadness

It is with great sadness I write about Hanauma Bay this week, but I have thoughts to share about last week's tragic drownings.

One reader echoed some of my feelings in an e-mail: "I was really shocked to read of the Hanauma Bay drownings just after reading your column. How truly spooky, and how truly important your message about safety, even though it didn't reach those who passed on."

It was also truly heartbreaking. Writing about safety at Hanauma Bay on Friday, and then seeing that awful headline of two men drowning there on Saturday, left me in tears.

The tragedy hit especially hard because I am researching a project at Hanauma Bay and have been asking managers and lifeguards there what they think people visiting the bay should know.

"Safety," each said immediately. And then they told me stories about how little some visitors know about the ocean.

Some of the stories seemed exaggerated. But then I remembered the first time my mother entered the ocean. I sat on the beach as she waded out to thigh-deep water. She turned to wave at me and BAM! the surf knocked her flat. As my friends and I helped her, sputtering and panting, from the water, she said to me accusingly, "You didn't tell me the waves would push me down!"

No, the workers are not exaggerating. Some people know absolutely nothing about the ocean.

Last week's drownings also touched me deeply, because I experienced a rare moment of panic at Hanauma Bay recently.

I had been snorkeling outside the reef in rough water for about two hours when my friends and I headed in. Together, we swam for the opening in the reef called "the telephone cable channel," or "slot." A current almost always runs seaward from that spot and that day it ran as strong as I ever remember it.

As I began to swim down the side of the channel, where the current is always weakest. Smack! Two people drifting rapidly seaward plowed right into me, pushing both my mask and me sideways. I swam on, but the plankton drag I trailed behind me that day was ... well, a drag. I kicked like crazy. My snorkel filled up water. And then, winded and unable to draw a full breath, I panicked.

My friends heard me call out and helped me in, but the incident reminded me how quickly things can go wrong, and how uncontrollable panic can be.

Because of my scary experience at Hanauma Bay, the recent tragedies and my current research there, I offer these following thoughts:

>> People worry about jellyfish, sharks, moray eels, sea snakes, sea urchins and countless other marine animals. Don't. Worry about drowning, and learn how to prevent it.

>> Since no one panics on purpose, don't tell people not to do it. Instead, teach friends, relatives and children what to do in specific situations, such as swimming in current, walking along ledges or climbing out on rocks. If you don't know or have doubts about these things, ask a lifeguard.

>> The ocean is as real a wilderness as a towering mountain range and requires the same kind of consideration.

This week, my heart aches not only for the Hanauma Bay drowning victims and their families, but also for the park's managers and rescue workers who try so hard. How truly valid are their messages of safety.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears weekly in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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