The behavior of the ocean in Hawaii is unique, complex, and unpredictable. On Oahu, lifeguards perform about 1100 rescues a year. On average, 50 people drown in the ocean annually (all islands), and approximately half are visitors. Taking into account that 7.5 million people visit the state each year, the overall risk associated with swimming in the ocean is low. Of concern is the distribution and circumstances surrounding many drownings – the majority happen at unguarded locations and often result from a lack of knowledge or poor judgement. Many beaches and tide pools are deceptively dangerous. The rate of drowning in Waikiki may be relatively low, whereas at a secluded location, the rate goes up quickly. The same standard caution signs are found at nearly every beach, so the signs lose credibility.
Of greatest importance is acknowledging that the ocean is a dangerous environment and that those dangers are very difficult to judge. It’s a mistake to assume that one can fully understand and analyze ocean conditions – they change rapidly and are greatly influenced by season, location, tides, weather, etc. It takes years of local ocean experience to gain an insight.
To properly gauge safety, seek advice from local experts, read the current surf report, and keep in mind that each swimming location has a completely unique character. Lifeguards understand the ocean better than anyone and are the preferred source of information. Residents are eager to offer advice but always err on the side of caution if you feel wary of a risk. Remember, locals drown as well. A group of teenagers swimming in a tide pool is not an endorsement of its safety. Because it takes so much experience to understand the ins and outs of each swimming location, guide books and websites can’t be counted on for thorough safety advice.
For your own safety, try to always swim in front of lifeguards.
Neck, back, shoulder and ankle injuries from boogie boarding and body surfing are very common. These injuries happen most frequently when the wave, however small, breaks abruptly on the sand. Several beaches have a reputation for having a consistent beach break, but all can exhibit the behavior depending on the ocean and tides.
Growing up in Hawaii is different from any other place in America, as it is the only state completely surrounded by water. Hawaiian children are taught early about living as one with the ocean and are well aware of the relentless nature of the mana (power) of the ocean. They develop a deep respect for the ocean and learn to be cautious in the interest of safety.
Hawaii has inhabitants on 7 islands, although Niihau is mostly inaccessible (privately owned), Molokai is very remote and has very few visitors, and Lanai only recently developed hotels to the level that will draw more visitors. The other 4 islands of Oahu, Maui, Hawaii (The Big Island), and Kauai rely heavily on tourists visiting, and this means lots of people enjoying Hawaii’s legendary and gorgeous beaches. Most visitors were not brought up with the same understanding and knowledge of the powers of the ocean. As a result, they can (and do) get into trouble in the surf, requiring the help of the Hawaiian Lifeguards.
Hawaiians often talk about the importance of ohana (family), and The Hawaiian Lifeguard Association (HLA) is like a big family of people that take seriously the responsibility of guarding the beaches for the safety of those enjoying them. The Hawaiian Lifeguard theme colors of yellow and red (the same colors of Hawaiian royalty) symbolize the line between caution and danger, and can be seen as accents on the watches.
With huge waves sometimes in excess of 50 feet (or more!), Hawaii is well known as one of a few places on the planet that hosts Big Wave surf events on some of the most famous beaches in the world. These enormous and imposing waves (and dangerous riptides) require a team of lifeguards specially trained for such extreme conditions. Much like those who pioneered the use of personal watercraft to tow big wave surfers into enormous waves previously impossible to catch, the daring men and women of the HLA were the first to use JetSkis to be able to get into huge surf to rescue people from danger, revolutionizing the capabilities of the lifeguards and making the waters of Hawaii safer in the process. They have become so well known for their skill using JetSkis to gain access to previously inaccessible conditions that they are now sought out to train others in the use of JetSkis for this purpose.