Hawaii leaders grapple with Kauai drownings spike
HONOLULU (AP) — During the summer, a shorefront area called Queen’s Bath on the Hawaiian island of Kauai is calm and picturesque. It’s a rock shelf on Kauai’s northern shore, where sea turtles can be seen wandering peacefully amid tide pools filled with clear water.
But when the weather changes and waves rise, the beach can quickly become deadly. A sign with skull and crossbones at the entrance to the beach keeps a tally of the number of people who have drowned there — 29. The area is so dangerous that Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau, says she refuses to give directions to it. Some state lawmakers are even proposing that arriving flights show ocean safety videos as a way to educate tourists, something the Kauai airport is already doing, but others are concerned that might scare visitors away.
Drownings are the leading cause of death for visitors to Hawaii and have long been a problem in the state, which is an archipelago with hundreds of miles of coastline and countless places for people to swim. But the numbers have recently spiked: In less than four months this year, Kauai is already close to tripling the four drowning deaths seen on the island in all of 2012.
“Eleven at this stage of the year is a huge concern,” Kanoho said. “One is one too many.”
The rate has become so problematic that Hawaii’s state Senate is asking airlines to show a video on flights into Hawaii cautioning people about ocean safety.
“If there’s even just one life we can save with the videos, it’s well worth it,” said Sen. Michelle Kidani, who introduced the resolution. It asks the Hawaii Tourism Authority to work with airlines and hotels to promote the video.
The proposal passed the state Senate this month but is no more than a non-binding statement. It’s not clear whether airlines would participate, and even some state lawmakers worry the videos could frighten tourists away.
Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Keoni Wagner says the Honolulu-based company included ocean safety videos on flights several years ago, and the company is open to doing so again. But Hawaii may have more trouble getting national and international airlines on board.
“Airlines make individual decisions about what content they provide on their in-flight entertainment systems,” said Katie Connell, spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade association made up of leading U.S. airlines.
A spokesman for Delta Airlines had no comment on the issue other than to say Delta complies with all government regulations.
Even Hawaii’s House lawmakers aren’t sold on the idea. A companion resolution failed to pass the House earlier this week after the committees on tourism and transportation chose not to hear the proposal. Some legislators think the proposed video might unnecessarily raise fears or hurt the state’s idyllic reputation among tourists.
“You don’t want to be on a plane and see people getting eaten by sharks,” said Rep. Tom Brower. He added that ocean safety education is important but “you don’t want to beat people over the head with it.”
Kauai County is responding to the spike in deaths by trying to improve education and social media outreach. An ocean safety video recently started playing on a loop in the baggage claim area at Kauai’s Lihue Airport, Kauai County spokeswoman Sarah Blane said.
Patrick Durkin of the Kauai Lifeguard Association said the county just approved funding for kiosks in beaches and parks that would teach people about important precautions. The 18-year lifeguarding veteran says the county could make an even bigger difference by extending lifeguards’ hours and having them roam different beaches on jet skis.
But all of that costs money. Durkin says Kauai already spends the national average for a municipality of its size on ocean safety efforts. And none of it makes a difference if people are exploring remote beaches when there are high surf warnings and no lifeguards, which was the case for some of the deaths this year.
While community leaders debate the best responses to the drowning increase, some Kauai residents have already taken measures into their own hands. Kanoho says a new warning sign has popped up at a secluded lava rock beach close to Queen’s Bath where three people drowned earlier this year.
Two California men died in January a few miles west of Queen’s Bath when a wave knocked down one and dragged him out to sea, and his best friend jumped in to save him and also drowned. Less than two months later in March, a Singapore man was walking along the same rocky, remote coastline of Kalihiwai Point and was swept into the water.
Two people drowned in Kauai rivers in February, including a Canadian man in the Wainiha River and a New York woman in Hanakapiai stream, who tried to cross the stream in high waters while among more than 50 hikers who became stranded in bad weather.
Meanwhile, a federal wrongful death case in ongoing in Honolulu after 15-year-old Tyler Madoff of White Plains, N.Y., was swept to sea from a tide pool on the Big Island last year. His family is suing the companies that arranged and guided the excursion.
The Kauai tourism director says it will take a combination of initiatives to get visitors and residents to understand the precautions they should take before exploring the island’s oceans and mountains. She has made an effort to reach out to guidebooks and others whom she thinks are promoting dangerous areas to unsuspecting tourists. But Kanoho says sometimes it’s less about cautionary efforts and more about common sense.
“If you’re drunk and you’re jumping off a cliff, I can’t be putting up signs for that,” she said. “Everybody needs to take responsibility.”