Visitors, locals cautioned about ocean safety - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Visitors, locals cautioned about ocean safety

An estimated 30 million people visit Hawai'i's beaches every year – and that's just on O'ahu.  Ocean safety experts say fewer of them are hanging out in the sand.  Statewide they say there's been a dramatic increase in the number of people participating in water activities and that is leading to more instances of rescue and recovery.

"There's a percentage of people that visit Hawai'i that don't really see the danger.  All they see is the beauty – the beautiful blue water, the white sand beach – but they don't actually see those dangers that we recognize as professionals day in and day out," said Archie Kalepa, Maui's Ocean Safety Division Operations Chief.

Water safety for tourists is such a concern on Kaua'i, an ocean safety video is now running at the Lihue airport's baggage claim area.

"We show an 8 to 10 minute safety video of our island and beaches to visit and what to look out for.  We highly recommend that they swim at life guarded beaches, talk to the life guards before getting into the water, or at least take 20 minutes of their time to observe the conditions before getting in," described Kalani Vierra, Kauai's Ocean Safety Division Operations Chief.

There have already been 16 deaths – either ocean, river or pool related – on Kaua'i this year.  Water safety officials estimate 75% of all drowning victims are visitors.  Life guards say snorkeling is one of the biggest hazards.

"They get caught in the current or they're not wearing the proper equipment.  A lot of snorkel don't use fins because it kind of gives them cramps or gives them blisters, so they don't use fins and a lot of times they venture out too far," explained Vierra.

Experts say Hawai'i Island has the highest percentage of resident drownings in the state.

"A lot of times residents that visit the shoreline have been doing so their entire lives – since they were small – it could be complacency or it could just be a freak act of nature.  Maybe a rogue wave or something that just hits them while they're either picking opihi or shoreline fishing or just walking along the shoreline," described Gerald Kosaki, a Hawaii Fire Department Battalion Chief.

The majority of the island's 260 miles of shoreline does not have life guard services, something officials say everyone should take into consideration.  It's also why they positioned rescue tubes strategically around the island about two years ago – a project officials say has proved to save lives, but they say swimmers in distress can help increase their chances of survival on their own as well.

"If you have anything that's on you that's weighing you down – just release it.  A lot of times people tend to hold on to their treasures until the last minute and then by the time they get in trouble, it's too late," explained Kosaki.

Experts say drownings often occur when people tire out or panic trying to fight the current instead of letting it carry them.

"You swim parallel to the coast, the shoreline, at a 90 degree angle and then swim out of the current and get back in.  It may feel like you're going to get pulled way out into the ocean, maybe it goes out 100 yards - 150 yards at the most – and then it will weaken and then you can swim around and back to shore," explained Mike Cantin, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service of Honolulu.

Another concern for officials is paddle boarding's growing popularity.  They say users, who may have paddle boarded in a lake or river somewhere else before, aren't always familiar with Hawai'i's wind or surf conditions and end up in distress far away from shore.

"Please take a cell phone with you.  If an emergency develops it's absolutely essential that you get that call into 9-1-1 and we can get somebody there very rapidly," warned Jim Howe, the Chief of Operations for the Ocean Safety Division on O'ahu.

"If we can get there within 5 minutes, there's a high likelihood that we can save your life, but we got to get the call from the water – that's the only way it's going to work," explained Howe.

But officials caution rescues will take much longer at beaches with no life guards, and that's happening a lot more these days thanks to guide book and social media promising "hidden gems off the beaten path".

"It reveals a lot of places where we wouldn't normally recommend for people to go, so that's probably why we've seen an increase on a state level of activities or people getting in trouble where they normally wouldn't be or things like that wouldn't happen," Kalepa explained.

Of course, there are always things officials can't control either – like the recent spike in shark attacks on Maui, which has prompted state officials to order a study to determine if the trend is migratory or territorial.  But even then, Kalepa says informing visitors about the steps they can take in those situations can make a difference.

"Never swim alone.  Never enter the water at dawn or dusk – or dirty water," Kalepa said.

Governor Neil Abercrombie has proclaimed October 21 - 25, 2013 as Hawai'i Ocean Awareness Week.

During a ceremony Friday at Ala Moana Beach Park, four ocean safety lifeguards were recognized for their outstanding service.

Joy Mills, Waika Koanui and Sean Gallagher, who are all from Hawai'i Island, rescued and revived a 55-year-old visitor from Minnesota, who was found face down at Magic Sands beach, last March. 

Charlie Oliveri was honored as Honolulu Emergency Services Department's employee of the year.  Oliveri has more than 15 years experience as an Ocean Safety lifeguard and he is currently stationed on the O'ahu's eastside.


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