The late Doris Duke’s harbor in front of her Diamond Head mansion, Shangri La, was built in 1937 for her private boating activities,
But in the decades since, it has become one of the most popular and dangerous swimming holes on Oahu, a place where young daredevils like to dive and jump off the side of the harbor into sometimes shallow water.
The diving has changed two young lives forever. In 1993, Fredman Corpuz, then 15 years old, was rendered a quadriplegic after injuries from his dive into the harbor.
In 2011, Alan Kepoʻomaikalani Machado-Avilla, who was 17 years old, broke his neck diving head first into the shallow water. Machado-Avilla was paralyzed for life.
Capt. Terry Seelig, the public information officer for the Honolulu Fire Department, says rescue units have been called to Doris Duke’s harbor seven times since 2010 for everything from swimmers suffering cuts and scrapes on the rocks to Machado-Avilla’s life-threatening neck injury.
The Doris Duke Foundation For Islamic Art & Culture, which now runs Shangri La as a museum, says it has decided to close off the length of the harbor with a 6-foot-tall aluminum fence.
Warning signs for divers.
“What we want to do is stop this dangerous behavior. We would like to prevent any future injuries,” says Deborah Pope, executive director of the foundation.
Pope made the announcement Saturday to a group of about 60 people who live in the immediate Diamond Head neighborhood surrounding Shangri La. The museum has made it a point to always inform the neighborhood first when it is going to make major changes.
Pope says the harbor can be crowded with up to 100 people on weekends and holidays. She says tourists and local residents alike are lured to the beautiful oceanfront setting by YouTube videos, Facebook and Twitter messages. And the pool is now mentioned in many tourist guidebooks.
A YouTube Video called “Pool Party in Hawaii (Cromwell’s)” shows about 40 people setting up tents to have a beer party beside the harbor pool. It also shows them repeatedly jumping and diving in as well as throwing rubber floats into the water.
Swimmers call the harbor Cromwell’s after the adjacent surfing spot named after Doris Duke’s first husband, James Cromwell.
On the day Deborah Pope made the announcement about the fence, the narrow walkway beside the harbor was jammed with about 75 people, who were barbecuing and picnicking, with many of them jumping and diving into the harbor despite seven large warning signs and a private security guard urging them to stop.
“It has become so extreme, so dangerous,” said Pope.
The Doris Duke Foundation has paid to settle two lawsuits stemming from the incidents in which Corpuz and Machado-Avilla were made quadriplegics.
The City and County Department of Planning and Permitting and the State Department of Land and Natural Resources have given the foundation permits to begin construction of the fence. Construction is expected to begin April 21 and to last a month. The fence will cost about $160,000. During the construction, the public will be allowed access to the area.
Swimmers I interviewed after the announcement were angry.
“I don’t think it is a good idea to put up a fence because this pool is part of Hawaii. It is fun. Everyone comes here to jump off the side. It is part of growing up, “ said Elijah Mataele.
Mataele says he has been jumping into Cromwell’s harbor since he was seven years old. Mataele was at the harbor with about 40 other University of Hawaii football team members. He said they had come to the harbor to jump and swim for “team bonding.”
Daredevil divers often leap from the wall into the water.
Keelan Ewaliko, another member of the UH football team, said, “they are putting fences everywhere in Hawaii. It is not fair. We use common sense at the harbor. When it’s shallow, we don’t jump in.”
The engineering firm of Moffatt and Nichol has designed the commercial-grade aluminum fence, which will stretch 270 feet from the Koko Head side of the harbor — where stone stairs are built for swimmers to enter the ocean — to the harbor’s Ewa side.
Pope says people will still be able to come to the harbor for fishing, swimming and other ocean activities. They can enter the ocean from the stone steps on the Koko Head side of the harbor and by walking out on the ocean jetty that tobacco heiress Duke had built with huge black lava stones to protect the harbor.
Pope says no one will be denied shoreline access; they will just be hindered from trying to jump and dive from the top of the harbor’s wall.
In the next few weeks, the foundation will meet with four neighborhood boards to get the word out about the new fence.
After the meeting Saturday, neighbors living near the museum were generally sympathetic but some wondered how effective the fence will be in stopping divers and jumpers.
“I like the concept but I am worried swimmers might climb over the fence to jump, making it even more dangerous,” said David Buck, a Kulamanu Street resident.
Attorney Rich Turbin said, “It might work. It might prevent jumping and diving. But now I am worried about swimmers having to enter the water from the jetty. That could be even more dangerous than the wall.”
Fred Fong, who says he swims in the harbor every day, says kids being kids, they will probably try to tear down the fence.
Pope says the fence has been designed to “withstand the natural elements, also force.”
She said if swimmers start climbing over the fence, the museum is prepared to grease the aluminum pickets with a special solution to make climbing extremely difficult.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.