Oahu beaches
are perilous

Sandy and Makapuu are the most
dangerous, but many rescues are at
areas freqented by unwitting tourists

Two East Shore beaches are the most dangerous on Oahu, according to a five-year study done by the state Department of Health.

Makapuu had an average annual rate of 91 rescues for every 100,000 people in the water -- the highest among Oahu's 19 beaches -- while Sandy Beach had the second-highest with an average of 82 rescues.

But the largest total number of rescues are at beaches, such as Hanauma Bay and Waikiki Beach, frequented by inexperienced tourists unfamiliar with the conditions.

"A lot of it has to do with ocean conditions," said Capt. Kevin Allen, of the Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division.

The findings were recently presented by the state Department of Health's Injury Prevention and Control Program at the annual state conference on drowning prevention and ocean safety, held at the Ala Moana Hotel.


The data from lifeguards' log sheets and incident reports show the trends of drowning and rescues on Oahu during a five-year-period from 1998 through 2002.

Variable conditions, water activity and demographics are factors that contribute to the danger of a beach, said Ralph Goto, administrator for the Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division.

Both Makapuu and Sandy Beach do not have a protecting reef to lessen the energy of the wave break, said Allen, who is charge of beaches from Hanauma Bay to Kailua Beach Park.

"The swells come in and break with full force in shallow water," he added. "We have a lot of broken backs, broken necks and dislocated shoulders. It's basically from the force of the water throwing a person into the sand."

Allen noted that those beaches are geared toward experienced bodyboarders and surfers, but "even the most experienced can get out there and get into trouble."

Lifeguards post multiple signs warning residents and tourists of the strong current and dangerous shorebreak at both beaches.


Tourists who plan to go to Hanauma Bay but are turned away because the beach is closed on Tuesdays often wind up at Sandy Beach or Makapuu because they are nearby.

But the highest number of drownings last year occurred at one of Hawaii's most popular and tranquil snorkeling spots, according to data collected by Oahu's lifeguards.

Ten drownings occurred at Hanauma Bay last year, compared with seven at Oahu's 18 other lifeguarded beaches.

Based on the data, 94 percent of those rescued at Hanauma were tourists, 5 percent were residents and 2 percent were military personnel. (Rounding results in a total of more than 100 percent.)

Hanauma Bay had an annual average number of 285 rescues, making up 25 percent of the total rescues at Oahu's lifeguarded beaches. Sandy Beach was second with 196 rescues, while Waikiki was third with 128 rescues.

But according to Dan Galanis, epidemiologist of the Injury Prevention and Control Program, the number of rescues at Waikiki reflect the large crowds of people there. An estimated 2.2 million people go to Waikiki each year. Galanis said Waikiki is almost the safest beach on the island, with six rescues for every 100,000 people in the water.

Tourists are more prone to getting in trouble due to inexperience and unfamiliarity with isle beaches, said Goto.

Two months ago, a supervisor and a lifeguard were added to Hanauma Bay in response to the number of rescues and drownings. There are currently six lifeguards at Hanauma.

A 90-second presentation on water safety will be added to the orientation video that visitors are required to watch before entering the beach. The revised video presentation is expected to be completed shortly, Goto said. A third lifeguard tower also will be installed.

"People think it's tranquil and beautiful and that nothing can happen here. ... That's not true," said manager Alan Hong. "People who have never snorkeled before give it a try not understanding what their abilities are to be a snorkeler."

Eighty-eight percent of those rescued at Hanauma were snorkeling, based on the data.

About a million people visit Hanauma Bay annually, with approximately 3,000 people visiting the beach daily. However, the number of visitors fluctuates to 2,000 during slow periods and more than 5,000 during busy periods such as summer, spring break and the holiday season.

Allen said tourists need to be aware of their abilities in the water.

"They don't know what they're getting themselves into," said Allen. "It's very important for people to know their limitations because this is Mother Nature. You never know what it's going to throw at you."

Allen noted that there have been "countless cases" when lifeguards have told people not to go in the water because they are ill-prepared. Those who believe they are in good shape may encounter a situation that goes beyond their physical level.

"They go in there anyway. They have something to prove to themselves."

Allen recommended that people talk to lifeguards first before entering the water to find out about the conditions and whether their desired activity is best suited for that beach.

He also encouraged beachgoers to use the buddy system.

"In general, ocean recreation sports are taking off with all the attention that the media has been giving," said Allen, adding that the box-office movie hit "Blue Crush" had drawn more people to learn how to surf.

"Summer is coming up. Most of the kids are getting out of school. We just want people to have a positive experience out there," Goto said.

State Health Department


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