Roughly 900 people have drowned over the past 10 years in Hawaii, with the rate of visitor deaths continuing to far outpace that of local residents, according to the latest data from state and county officials.

Last year, 74 people drowned in the ocean and 18 drowned in swimming pools, freshwater caves, streams and other bodies of water. That’s a slight dip from 2015 but still above average for the past decade.

Officials had initially reported a significant decline at the annual Drowning Prevention and Ocean Safety Conference last month in Honolulu. But it turns out Maui had used different guidelines for classifying the deaths than in previous years. 

A Honolulu lifeguard warns a family visiting from Toronto as kids play in the shorebreak near a rip current on the north shore of Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State epidemiologist Dan Galanis delivered a presentation at the conference that showed the number of accidental ocean drownings plummeted last year after trending upward since 2010, dropping from 75 in 2015 to 55 in 2016.

It was welcome news to the crowd of ocean safety experts and lifeguards who have been making thousands of rescues each year while trying to educate tourists and locals on the best ways to stay safe in the water.

But after looking deeper into the data, Galanis found the drownings were actually slightly above average last year — what had looked like a dip was in large part due to the way Maui classified most of its drownings. He updated his report Friday; it’s available at the bottom of this story.

Galanis attributed what at first looked like a decrease in 2016 to 11 Maui deaths that were coded as drowning being a “contributing cause” rather than an “underlying cause of death” due to the opinion of the medical examiner(s) involved.

This chart shows the number of accidental ocean drownings in Hawaii, including those coded by coroners as “underlying cause of death” (UCD) and “contributing cause of death” (CCD). Courtesy: Health Department

Maui Ocean Safety Battalion Chief Colin Yamamoto said the county has a new coroner, Dr. Stacey Simons, but did not know the guidelines coroners use to determine cause of death. Simons could not be reached for comment. 

Drowning was found to be a “contributing cause” rather than an “underlying cause of death” in 11 of 18 drownings in 2016 in Maui County, which includes Maui, Lanai and Molokai.

Only one or two drownings a year were classified as “contributing cause” in each of the preceding seven years in Maui. And last year, only two of the drownings in Honolulu, Kauai and Hawaii counties combined were classified as “contributing cause.”

The state drowning statistics that Galanis presented at the conference only included fatal incidents in which the drowning was classified as the underlying cause of death, so this distinction effectively kept most of Maui’s drownings off the books for 2016 and skewed the statewide numbers.

“We think there needs to be some agreement among all the coroners in how they’re reporting it,” said Ralph Goto, who chairs the Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee, which includes key players from Hawaii’s various tourist and ocean safety agencies.

Visitors are drowning at roughly nine times the rate of local residents, according to Health Department data from 2007 to 2016. This chart, presented at an ocean safety conference last month, shows the number of unintentional ocean drownings. Courtesy: Health Department

Still, with visitors drowning at nearly 12 times the rate of local residents, according to the latest Health Department data, and a record number of tourists coming to the islands, even keeping the trend relatively flat suggests improvements in ocean safety, county officials said.

There were 8.9 million visitors to Hawaii in 2016, up 3 percent from the previous year, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. On any given day, there were 219,265 visitors in the state.

The 71 accidental ocean drownings last year slightly exceeded the average of 69 from 2007 to 2016, according to Health Department data. Snorkeling remained the most common activity in which a drowning occurred.

Starting this month, four new ocean safety public-service announcements will be going into 30,000 hotel rooms statewide. The videos will focus on snorkeling, the dangers of selfies, the importance of swimming at lifeguarded beaches and knowing your limits, said Shayne Enright, spokeswoman for the Honolulu Emergency Services Department.

There have been nine drownings, unofficially, so far in 2017 on Oahu, she said. Autopsies will later determine the official causes of death. There were 37 accidental ocean drownings last year in the waters surrounding the state’s most populated island.

People have taken it upon themselves to make signs like this one to warn hikers of how many people have died, in this case swimming at Hanakapiai Beach on the north shore of Kauai. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Kauai has also had seven drownings this year, county spokeswoman Kim Tamaoka said. That’s one fewer than it had for all of last year.

Big Island has had five drownings in 2017, compared to seven in all of 2016, according to Hawaii County Battalion Chief Gerald Kosaki.

Maui has logged 13 ocean drownings this year, which is about average, Yamamoto said. It remains to be seen how they end up being classified  — contributing cause or underlying cause of death. 

Over the past decade, Kauai and Maui have had a far higher percent of visitor ocean drownings than Big Island and Oahu, roughly 74 percent compared to 45 percent. Officials attribute that in part to the Big Island having fewer beaches, by comparison, and Oahu’s significantly larger local population.

The latest data continues to show middle-aged or older males are most likely to drown. The average age was 49 years, and 83 percent of the victims were male, according to Health Department data.

series of Civil Beat stories in 2016 delved into the reasons for Hawaii’s high number of drownings. Unique ocean conditions and inadequate safety warnings were among the top reasons cited by experts.

An advisory committee of stakeholders has been working the past two years to improve the visitor industry’s efforts to caution tourists of the dangers Hawaii’s waters pose, as well as help boost the safety of local residents and the military personnel who are based in the islands.

Below is updated version of the presentation Galanis gave at the ocean safety conference in July, and his August report on the drowning methodologies, which shows the breakdown between “contributing cause” and “underlying cause of death.”


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