A Shangri La museum official says the fence it erected a year ago to prevent young daredevils from diving into shallow water in front of Doris Duke’s Diamond Head mansion has failed to stop the risky behavior.
So now the foundation that owns Shangri La is seeking permits to take down the massive lava rock breakwater that created the harbor basin near Cromwell’s Beach in 1937.
Its shallow water is so dangerously alluring that young people call their leaps “suicide dives” or “suicides.”
Two young men have been rendered quadriplegic after diving headfirst into the harbor.
Deborah Pope, the executive director of Shangri La, says the fence initially deterred divers, but now they are jumping from the top of the fence, climbing around it or walking out on the lava rock breakwater to take their plunges.
Pope says security cameras have recorded 900 jumping incidents in the last three months.
“The whole social media thing has spiked the out-of-control numbers we see today.” — Deborah Pope, Shangri La executive director
“When security guards warn the people of the risks of jumping into the basin, they either ignore them or flip them off,” says Pope. “It has gotten very antagonistic. It is not a happy situation.”
The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art owns the Shangri La property, which it runs as a museum.
Pope says the foundation has hired the planning firm of Helber, Hastert and Fee to begin what it expects will be a long permitting process to dismantle the lava rock breakwater.
“Our goal is public safety,” says Pope. “Safety is our only goal.”
Once the breakwater is removed, the foundation plans to restore the shoreline in front of Shangri La to a more natural state as a rocky coastline with tide pools. Rocks removed from the breakwater would be placed in the water as part of the restored shoreline.
Pope says access to the shoreline would remain open to the public. The other breakwater on the Koko Head side of the harbor would remain, as well as its adjoining stairs that descend into the ocean.
Ninety people who live in the immediate Diamond Head neighborhood surrounding Shangri La were the first to be informed by letter of the proposed changes.
The museum has made it a point to always inform the neighborhood first when it is planning any major alteration, says Pope.
“It took me by surprise,” says David Buck, a neighbor who received one of the letters. “I think it is a little extreme. It will be removing a lot of history by taking down the breakwater. I just wonder if people then will go around to the other seawall that’s going to be left standing and jump off that.”
Stan Cadwallader, another neighbor who received the letter, says, “If the breakwater must be removed, I like the idea of restoring the coastline to its natural state.”
“It took me by surprise. I think it is a little extreme.” — David Buck, neighbor of Shangri La
The foundation has already paid to settle two lawsuits filed after swimmers were paralyzed from injuries suffered at the harbor.
The first lawsuit came after 15-year-old Fredman Corpuz was rendered a quadriplegic from his dive in 1993.
The second lawsuit was filed by the family of Alan Kepoomaikalani Machado-Avilla, who became quadriplegic in 2011 after he broke his neck diving headfirst in what the lawsuit contends were “suicide dives” into the harbor basin. He was 17 at the time.
A YouTube video called “Suicide at Cromwells” is still on line, which could be one of the factors that is encouraging swimmers to continue to make the risky dives.
Swimmers named the harbor Cromwell’s after the adjacent surfing spot named for Doris Duke’s first husband, James Cromwell.
Pope said there is no record of what Doris Duke thought about people coming to her harbor to swim, but the permit she received to build the harbor guaranteed public access.
“I don’t imagine there were that many swimmers at the harbor in her day,” says Pope. “The whole social media thing has spiked the out-of-control numbers we see today.”
By strict shoreline protection standards, construction of Doris Duke’s harbor extending out into the ocean probably would never be allowed today.
Duke’s initial application in August 1936 to the Territorial Board of Harbor Commissioners was for a permit to build a swimming pool and cabana-like buildings at sea level.
After that application was denied, Duke revised her plans to move her planned swimming pool up to the level of her Playhouse building and instead she developed a plan for the current boat basin with two breakwaters.
In 1937, Duke received permission to build the two breakwaters from the Territorial Board of Harbor Commissioners and the U.S. Engineer Office, War Department (predecessor to the Army Corps of Engineers).
A key part of Duke’s quest for permission was President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order in June 1938 to transfer two underwater parcels of land fronting Shangri La to the Territory of Hawaii “for the public purpose of providing for the construction of a causeway to give the citizens of the Territory a safe way of passage along the coast line at the point where said lands are located.”
Pope says records show the Territorial Land Board then gave Duke/Cromwell the two parcels of submerged land in exchange for a 7,818-square-foot lot Duke owned on Kawailoa Road in Kailua which then was added to the City and County’s Kailua Beach Park.
“Our goal is to have no adverse impact on the sea life surrounding the harbor, no erosion, and no effect on the surf.” — Deborah Pope
Pope says in the next two weeks, the foundation will be meeting with four different Neighborhood Boards to discuss and answer questions about the proposed removal of the Shangri La breakwater.
The community meetings are part of the formal process to begin the environmental assessment stage of the project.
“Our goal is to have no adverse impact on the sea life surrounding the harbor, no erosion, and no effect on the surf,” says Pope. “The initial assessment by our experts is the project will have no adverse impact. But we are just beginning and will continue to assess and, of course, so will the government agencies regulating the project.
Pope says removing the breakwater will likely be expensive, but there are no cost estimates yet.
A key benefit of the project will be restoring the coastline to its natural state, but at the same time she recognizes everyone’s enjoyment and attachment to the harbor, a swimming hole that has been cherished by many people as they’ve grown up on Oahu.
“But we now see the cost in human life and that is not OK. As long as we are the owner we are doing what we must do to prevent further injury.”