A Push To Prevent Isle Drownings

Lifeguard Kainoa McGee at Ke Iki Beach on Oahu’s North Shore warns a beachgoer of the potential danger | Photo courtesy Vince Cavataio

Hawaii’s lifesavers have seen enough and they want the negative trend to come to a screeching halt.

“We’re losing too many people in our waters,” says Ralph Goto, city Ocean Safety Services director and Hawaii Lifeguard Association adviser. “We have some of the best lifeguards in the world in Hawaii, and it’s time we listen to them.”

This year has been an extremely dangerous one for beachgoers across the state, especially on Kauai. In the first three months of 2013, eight people have drowned in the ocean on the Garden Island, and two others in fresh water at Hanakapiai Stream and Wainiha River. Seven of the victims were visitors and three were Kauai residents, including 35-year-old Eleele resident John-Eric Parinas, who drowned while spearfishing with friends in waters off Glass Beach.

Goto says the issue will be top of mind Oct. 17-18 when officials from across the state meet for the annual Ocean Safety and Drowning Prevention Conference at Hawaii Convention Center. And for the first time, the event will be co-sponsored by Hawaii Lifeguard Association and Hawaii Tourism Authority.

“Besides some of the best lifeguards from our Neighbor Islands, we’re excited to have the visitor industry involved in this event,” says Goto. “There have been a number of drownings this year, especially on Kauai, and we need to come together and get things done. This will get the dialogue started.”

The topic is all too familiar for state officials. According to the state Department of Health, from 2008 to 2012, a total of 333 people drowned in Hawaii, including 267 in the ocean, 36 in pools, 20 in rivers or streams and eight in bathtubs. The health department says two other drownings happened in “other environments.” Of the 267 people who died, 139 were visitors to Hawaii.

Goto says the ocean safety community and the members of the visitor industry, including Hawaii Tourism Authority and Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, as well as hotel executives and tour vendors and operators, must discuss different strategies and address the scope of the problem in order to reduce the numbers and reverse the trend.

“We must work together and come up with consistent safety messaging for websites and videos, and we must address if there need to be changes at some of these beaches that are currently unguarded,” says Goto. “We need to establish relationships and create advocacy because this isn’t happening in a vacuum. It affects all of us. The bottom line is to make a safer experience for the visitors.”

HTA president and CEO Mike McCartney is scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers, as will another familiar face in the community and a strong voice in the visitor industry, Keith Vieira, Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ senior vice president of operations for Hawaii and French Polynesia.

The controversial subject of visitor guide books and tour websites also will be discussed. And while Kauai’s visitor industry has been proactive, providing a video message for passengers arriving at Lihue Airport, as well as material at hotel front desks, Goto says more needs to be done – statewide.

“We need to ask the tough questions: ‘What more can we do, and do we need more lifeguards?'” says Goto. “We’re going to have several presentations from different people, professionals like Brian Keaulana and George Kam. Hawaii has some of the greatest minds in lifesaving, and we all share the same goal: to educate our visitors and hopefully provide a safe environment when they come to Hawaii.”