Hawaii Ocean Safety

October marks the beginning of Hawaii’s ‘Winter’ season, accompanied by large swells that affect the Island’s northern shores. Two days ago the season’s first big swell arrived with waves reaching 18ft. Unfortunately the big surf was likely responsible for at least 3 of 4 drownings in two days on Kauai.

The most dangerous swells are usually in the 6-10 ft range because the ocean doesn’t look that mean. People arrive at the beach, see 4 ft waves, and enter the water. Eventually the 10 ft set arrives and many are caught in a very dangerous situation.

One tourist drowned after entering Hanakapia beach, the deadliest beach in Hawaii, located 2 miles into the Kalalau trail. Despite the ominous sign and big waves the tourist decided to enter the water. The day before, two women were swept off the rocks at the Queen’s Bath.

Hanakapiai Beach Warning Sign
Hanakapiai Beach's Morbid Warning Sign

Were these people uniformed, irresponsible, unlucky, or lacking in judgment? The man who drowned at Hanakapia reportedly looked to be in excellent physical condition, possibly a world class swimmer? He obviously thought he could handle anything the ocean could throw at him that day. The two ladies at the Queen’s bath, one accompanied by her husband, were surely not thrill seekers. Instead, the ocean did something that they didn’t think was possible – it produced a wave that was impossibly big.

Therein lies the problem – thinking that one has an understanding of the ocean, a handle on the rules of nature that the ocean surely must observe. One doesn’t. And when the ocean gives you any hints – wet rocks that should be dry, big waves rolling over the horizon, a surf report that calls for changing conditions (swell coming or subsiding), use that information and remember that you’re entering a perilous foreign environment.

See our Health and Safety guide for more tips.