“Dying For Vacation,” a Civil Beat series that examined the high rate of visitor drowning deaths in Hawaii, has been named a winner in the annual Society of American Business Editors and Writers contest.
The national competition recognizes outstanding business stories. “Dying For Vacation” won in the Airlines/Travel category for small publications.
Dozens of tourists die in Hawaii every year — about one a week on average — most of them from drowning and most of those while snorkeling. In fact, the rate of visitors drowning in Hawaii is 13 times the national average and 10 times the rate for Hawaii residents. Many others sustain serious injuries, like spinal cord damage.
The series, by Nathan Eagle and Marina Riker, focused on the inadequate actions of the state, counties and the tourism industry to educate visitors about safety. The government and Hawaii Tourism Authority spend millions of dollars on lifeguards, warning signs, informational websites, safety videos and other strategies. But the efforts fall far short of making safety a top concern, primarily because of fears that focusing too much on safety would scare away visitors.
The series looked at the toll on visitors and their families, of course, but also explored how the high death rate is affecting lifeguards, rescue personnel, tour companies and others who live with the deaths every day.
“Civil Beat made a compelling case that state efforts to post beach warnings and educate travelers were not sufficient to prevent 147 tourists in the last four years from drowning in waters that natives understand are dangerous,” the judges wrote. “The stories identified loopholes in state regulations that allow tour operators to hire incompetent workers. Consider this high-impact lede: ‘Married 32 years, Jane and Bob Jones did a lot in life together. They raised a family, served those in need and traveled when they could. They died together, too.’ The story on snorkeling as a leading cause of tourist deaths was also very informative and had an arresting video. Overall, excellent reporting, writing and photography throughout.”
Since the series was published in January 2016, government and tourism officials have stepped up their efforts, including increased signage at some popular beaches and the installation of racks of rescue tubes at some remote spots.
One local group, SeaLink, is putting up safety signs at beaches that include excerpts from the series and a barcode that links to the project. More recently, Civil Beat met with a national tech and telecom company that wants to develop an app that would link to the series and highlight common problems people may not be aware of when they arrive in the islands.
Bills introduced this legislative session would require lifeguards at unguarded beaches and other safety measures.
Additionally, the series is prompting readers to come forward with their own stories about losing loved ones or pointing out other concerns.
Rescue workers contacted Eagle, the project’s primary author, about a couple’s charitable foundation on the Big Island that has been helping with the purchase of gear and technology after their son died hiking. The Daniel M. Sayre Memorial Foundation has raised more than $1.5 million in the 20 years since Daniel’s death to benefit firefighters, rescue works and lifeguards.
More recently, Eagle told the story of Guy Cooper, whose wife died snorkeling off the Big Island. Cooper is concerned that a new type of full-face snorkel mask contributed to his wife’s death, and has succeeded in convincing county emergency responders to start tracking the equipment that was being used in drownings.