HONOLULU – Hawaii boasts about 750 miles of coastline, from pounding shore breaks to dramatic lava rock cliffs and of course, the gentle, picturesque beaches of Waikiki (usually gentle, at least.) Experiencing these shores and waters can be magical, but it can also be dangerous. This past week, at least two incidents reminded people to keep ocean safety at top of mind.
On Sunday, a woman was hospitalized after she was charged by Rocky, a famous monk seal mother who recently gave birth to a pup on the beach, while swimming off Kaimana Beach on the eastern edge of Waikiki.
The next evening, first responders went to Ala Moana Beach Park, a popular beach park on Oahu’s south shore that is protected by a shallow offshore reef, shortly after 7 pm for reports of two apparent drownings.
“I think that’s a testament that you can get into trouble anywhere. … It doesn’t need to be Waimea Bay at 30 feet,” John Titchen, Chief of Ocean Safety for the City & County of Honolulu told USA TODAY. “It can happen at any moment, anywhere.”
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While a monk seal attack is rare (and the animals are protective), many people swim in Hawaii’s waters safely each day. But the Honolulu Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division says it is seeing new, riskier beachgoers as travel to Hawaii continues to surge. As a result, the group is increasing lifeguard presence on Oahu and asking visitors to be vigilant.
“By and large, we see visitors wanting to do more aggressive or athletic pursuits in the ocean, and that’s been very different for us,” said Titchen. “We’re seeing lots of people take chances.”
More people seeking out “off-the-beaten path” places to explore that may put them in harm’s way, he said, such as Spitting Caves, a dangerous 70-foot-tall cliff jump where people have died.
Lifeguards have also noticed more people swimming at all hours of the day, not just when lifeguard towers are open.
“There is a rapidly increasing demand for our services at places where we don’t have a tower,” he said. Currently, there are 272 lifeguard towers around Oahu and 24 mobile units that operate from 9 am to 5:30 pm and 8 am to 6:30 pm, respectively.
Here are some ocean safety tips from Titchen:
- Don’t turn your back on the ocean, ever, whether you are on a cliff or at the shoreline. “Constantly be aware of what the water is doing in the area where you are,” he said. “(The ocean) is very dynamic.” Wet rocks mean the water was just there. Sand piled in one place and not another means there’s probably a current to watch out for.
- Know your limits, especially if you’re inexperienced with the ocean. If you venture out, go in pairs. “We see a lot of visitors get into trouble when they go off by themselves and no one sees what happens when they go in the water.”
- Pay attention to the warning signs that are posted. Some beaches will have signs warning you about jellyfish in the water or strong currents. (You can also see when box jellyfish are out for their monthly appearance on this calendar.)
- Alcohol can impair your judgment and motor skills in the water, which can be dangerous.
- Keep children within arm’s reach and always watch where they are in the water. “It may seem shallow as you wade out, but there are drop-offs and currents, any number of issues that could happen,” said Titchen.
- Keep an eye out for sharp coral or sea urchins.
Entering the water in Hawaii also means entering the homes of many marine creatures. Many people get excited over the chance to encounter marine wilderness in Hawaii’s waters, but there are requirements to follow that will keep both you and the creatures safe.
The laws protecting marine animals can be confusing and complex for some, Jon D. Gelman from the Hawaii Marine Animal Response told USA TODAY, but they are designed to minimize stress on the animals, which can negatively impact their behavior, health, and development. Much of the wildlife in Hawaii is highly endangered, like monk seals and sea turtles, so always view them from a safe distance.
Below are distance figure guidelines that apply on both land and water:
- Sea turtles: 10-foot guideline
- Seabirds: 35-foot guideline
- Hawaiian monk seals (without pups): 50-foot guideline
- Hawaiian monk seals (with pups): 150-foot guideline
- All dolphins (except spinner dolphins): 150-foot guideline
- Spinner dolphins: 150-foot by law
- All whales (except humpback whales): 300-foot guideline
- Humpback whales: 300-foot by law
You can also always ask a lifeguard for advice on where to swim if you’re unsure.
“We also urge respect for these animals because they are important to the people that call Hawaii home, are culturally relevant to many, and have a significant role in maintaining a healthy ocean ecosystem,” said Gelman.