Enjoying Kauai's Waters Safely

What You Need to Know Before You Hit the Beach

Ask most people the first thing they plan to do on Kauai and they’ll probably say, “Hit the beach.” With year-round warm waters and the largest proportion of sandy beach to coastline of any Hawaiian Island, it’s no surprise that swimming and water sports rank at the top of favorite Kauai activities.

And while it may seem obvious, it bears repeating that nothing is more important than enjoying Kauai’s waters safely. One simple way to do this is to take some time to learn about Kauai’s unique ocean conditions. Before taking that first dip into the ocean, spend a few minutes learning how to minimize risks so that a wonderful vacation doesn’t end as a tragic event.

Emergency Room Physician Dr. Monty Downs is a well-known advocate of ocean safety and has seen near-drowning and drowning victims on Kauai for the past 39 years. He says unrecognized rip currents are one of the biggest threats to swimmers in Hawaii. When unseen underwater (or surface) “rivers” pull people out to sea even 20 or 30 yards, swimmers can quickly find themselves in a situation in which they can’t swim back against the current. “Even a strong swimmer may not be able to get back. If you get tired and panicky with your breathing, a wave breaks on your head and you gulp in water, drowning can happen very quickly,” Dr. Downs says.

What should you do if you’re caught in an unexpected rip current? “The key thing is pretty well known.  Don’t fight your way against the current. Try to avoid the panic that comes with being pulled out to sea.  Concentrate on treading water, if you can, and wait for help.” Dr. Downs says some rip currents can be as narrow as 20 feet wide and that swimmers may be able to get out of them by swimming parallel to the beach, going with the rip current (not against it). This may allow you to hopefully swim out of the flow.

As an ER doctor, Downs also sees many people who charge or dive into the water without checking their surroundings. This results in them hitting their head on a rock or the shallow ocean floor, the cause for severe damage like quadriplegia.

One simple bit of water safety advice comes from former Kauai lifeguard and aquatic safety instructor, Pat Durkin, who says, “Visitors should vet out all beach destinations on a daily basis. That means checking ocean conditions regularly as they can change from morning to afternoon.” Durkin recommends staying informed with the Kauai Ocean Report that can be found at www.kauaiexplorer.com and is updated each morning. The report includes input from lifeguards on all 10 of Kauai’s lifeguarded beaches. 

Another piece of advice comes from respected waterman and veteran lifeguard supervisor, Kalani Vierra of the Kauai County Ocean Safety Bureau, who suggests observing the ocean for at least 20 minutes before entering. It is impossible to accurately gauge real-time ocean conditions at a glance or even in five to ten minute increments. Large waves arrive in sets that can be spaced as much as 20 or more minutes apart.  The water may look calm between a set, but after 15 minutes of swimming, you may suddenly find large waves closing in on you.

According to a 2011 report entitled Drowning Deaths in the Nearshore Marine Waters of Kauai, Hawaii 1970-2009 by earth scientist, Dr. Chuck Blay, 16 people (the highest ever for a single year) drowned on Kauai in 2008. In 2009, the total number was 14; in 2010, there were six victims and, as of last September, there were at least nine drowning incidents in 2011. Between 1970 and 2010, the total nearshore marine drowning deaths on Kauai has surpassed 300.

Dr. Blay’s report reveals that statistically, the most common drowning victim in Kauai waters is a visitor to the island (73.5%), averaging 46.2 years in age and 85% of the time a male. In other words, a middle-aged man that is not from the island.  For local (Kauai resident) drowning incidents, the average age was slightly younger at 43.8 years of age, but also overwhelmingly male. Dr. Blay suggests that people can reduce ocean risks by increasing their understanding of Kauai’s beaches and nearshore waters, becoming familiar and aware of the hazards and conditions that are known to cause drowning.


When enjoying the waters around Kauai, please consider the following:

Isolation - The Hawaiian Islands are one of the most remote archipelagos on earth. With thousands of miles between Kauai and the nearest landmass, there is nothing to block approaching ocean swells and no fringing reef around the island to slow massive waves as they slam into the island’s shoreline.


Seclusion - Many Kauai beaches are popular for their romantic seclusion yet these remote spots are also far from help and may lack cell phone reception. There are approximately 130 rescue tubes hanging from posts on remote and unguarded beaches on Kauai. These may be useful in trying to assist someone who is in need of help, but if you’re not a strong swimmer or if you use the tube incorrectly, the results could be deadly. Dr. Downs is a proponent of the rescue tubes but urges would-be rescuers to go out with caution and suggests using fins. The only thing worse than a preventable drowning is a tragic double drowning when someone attempts a rescue despite their own limited swimming abilities.


Seasons - Large swells are mostly the result of winter storms in the North and South Pacific. Generally (but not always), Kauai’s South Shore beaches see higher surf in the summer months (April-September) and very high surf on the North Shore during the winter months (October-March). Kauai’s West Side is variable and the East Side is often rough and choppy year-round. Conditions on all beaches change daily and hour-by-hour.


Hazards - With more than 50 named beaches on Kauai, there are a number of significant hazards that can occur unexpectedly. These include large surf, rip currents, longshore currents, rough waters, bayhead/river mouth rip currents and waves of any size. It’s not the days with the 30-foot monster waves that are statistically most dangerous, but the days with small to moderate surf when conditions do not appear particularly threatening.


Lifeguards – Kauai has some of the best watermen and women in the world, including as many as 45 county lifeguards stationed at 10 different beaches. While it certainly doesn’t hurt to swim at a beach with a lifeguard station, their presence is no guarantee of your safety. A lifeguard may be at his or her best when talking to beachgoers before they enter the water. As one Poipu lifeguard put it, “A dry lifeguard is a good lifeguard.”


Warning Signs - Around the island, you will see a number of posted warning signs indicating conditions like “high surf,” “strong current,” “dangerous shorebreak,” etc. Other hand-made signs are found posted near beaches known to be particularly treacherous. Warning signs do not necessarily indicate conditions to be safe or dangerous at any given time, nor does the absence of a sign mean that hazards do not exist. Pay close attention when visiting the beach as these warning signs can be easily missed if someone carelessly uses them as a place to hang their beach towel, something lifeguards report happens all the time.


Observation - Take a look at local surfers and you will often see them sitting on the shore, closely observing and assessing the water before heading into the surf. It’s a good idea to watch the water first, or better yet, speak to the locals about the ocean conditions to get more information. If you go to a beach and there’s no one in the water, stop and ask yourself why—there may be a good reason why beachgoers avoid entering the water. As the local maxim goes, “When in doubt, don’t go out.”


Knowledge - There is no substitute for knowledge and understanding, especially when it comes to the often-underestimated power of nature. No matter what you’ve heard from a “friend of a friend,” saw on a YouTube video or read on someone’s blog, website, travel guidebook or magazine, ocean safety comes down to smart decisions made by individuals in the exact moment, place and time. The sea can never be fully predicted and is always subject to sudden change. Use good common sense and judgment when enjoying Hawaii’s waters.


Kauai’s beaches are of unparalleled beauty and there’s much fun to be enjoyed in the warm and pristine waters. Always approach the ocean with respect, humility and a greater understanding of the forces at play and you’ll have an amazing experience and live to tell about it.



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