PRINCEVILLE, Kauai — When Yayun Cheng, a 23-year-old woman from Los Angeles, was swept off the rocks to her death at the famed Queen’s Bath tide pool early last month — as her horrified boyfriend watched — she became only its latest casualty.
Queen’s Bath, a tide pool on a lava shelf, is at once one of Kauai’s most alluring attractions and one of its deadliest. And the punishing, steep trail to the tide pool is the scene of frequent sprains, fractures, heart attacks and other medical crises, according to Dr. Monty Downs, who also spearheads Kauai’s rescue tube program.
It has also become the subject of a security arms race. The Princeville at Hanalei Community Association, which controls the parking area and entrance areas to Queen’s Bath, is continuously adding fencing, security and parking enforcement to enhance safety. Visitors, meanwhile, are quick to defeat any barriers put up to protect them.
To get to the trail, for example, visitors must walk past signage that warns: “DANGER: MANY PEOPLE HAVE DROWNED HERE,” and “Violators may be cited, prosecuted and charged for rescue and recovery expenses.”
In fact, county spokeswoman Kim Tamaoka said, at least one person who required rescue at Queen’s Bath in 2016 was sent a bill — a practice that may become more common.
A padlocked pedestrian gate and about 75 feet of chain link fence stand ready to deter visitors. None of these precautions has shut down the regular arrivals of tourists who fill all 13 legal parking spaces at Queen’s Bath.
Even when the spot is at its most deadly — October through March — demand for parking is intense. One recent day, cars backed up six to eight deep on the street waiting for spaces and an argument broke out between two drivers over who got there first.
Cheng’s death was the fifth at Queen’s Bath in the last decade and there have been countless rescues of people swept off rocks by waves — often requiring lifeguards to risk their lives on jet skis dispatched from nearby Hanalei. Rescue calls to Queen’s Bath also require firefighters to rush from Hanalei and often venture onto the dangerous lava that encircles the tide pools to try to search for missing people.
Rory Enright, general manager of the community association, said it is largely powerless to control Queen’s Bath. The land the attraction sits on is privately owned, but the county has an easement for the trail and to provide visitor access to the tide pools.
The parking lot is county-owned, Enright said. But since the Kauai Police Department lacks the resources to pay much attention to parking violations and citing or arresting people who go through the pedestrian gate that is chained when Queen’s Bath is too dangerous to visit, much of the enforcement responsibility falls to Princeville’s single security patrol car.
Queen’s Bath, Enright estimated, accounts for half of the activity of the community patrol on many days, even though the patrol lacks legal authority to intervene in many dangerous situations that arise.
Kauai County lifeguards and Mayor Derek Kawakami provided these safety tips for Queen’s Bath:
• Don’t go there at all from October to March due to extremely dangerous surf conditions.
• While at Queen’s Bath, do not turn your back on the ocean and expect extreme surf conditions at any time.
• Pay close attention to surf conditions. Assume large waves may sweep the area without warning. Do not venture onto wet rocks.
• Take extreme caution on the trail, especially at the stream that intersects it about halfway down. People have fallen down the stream bed and been severely injured.
• In general, never go in the water at beaches unprotected by lifeguards. Queen’s Bath has no lifeguard station.
• If you do get swept into the ocean, do not attempt to swim back to the rocks. Do not panic. Swim out to deeper water and await arrival of lifeguards. Wave your arms to attract attention of arriving rescuers.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami, born and raised on the island, recalls that as a child he was forbidden to go to Queen’s Bath because it was too dangerous.
“I never went down there,” the mayor said. “We were taught from an early age to avoid trouble.”
Kawakami said he thinks the time may have come for the county to take a more aggressive approach to barring visitors during the dangerous wet season months. He said a case can be made for simply barring tourists from going to Queen’s Bath at any time, though some accommodation would need to be made for local people who fish from the rocks when the water is calm.
Kawakami said he also favors reviewing county policies to impose charges for rescuing people who ignore warning and closure signs and hike to Queen’s Bath anyway. He did not identify specific changes in ordinances or procedures he may propose to the County Council.
“Queen’s Bath is depicted as sort of the forbidden fruit by the internet sites and the guidebooks,” he said. “I don’t know what more we can do when people are willing to take risks they shouldn’t take.”
Trying to tamp down the hype about Queen’s Bath this time of year, Kawakami said, “is everybody’s kuleana at this point.”
The county already has billing authority, but records show only three rescues — all of them in 2016 — have resulted in people who should have known better being billed when they got in trouble and needed county safety personnel to get them out of it. One of the incidents involved Queen’s Bath, two others were in Wailua, including one at Wailua Falls — another dangerous local attraction to which visitors gravitate despite clear warnings of unsafe conditions, according to the county’s Tamaoka.
She was unsure whether the bills were ever paid.
Enright, who spends more time than he would like preoccupied with problems at Queen’s Bath, cited “sheer obstinacy” on the part of visitors as one of the core problems.
Civil Beat interviewed a dozen tourist parties — of two to four people each — as they made their way to or from Queen’s Bath on the trail last month.
Many had been attracted by tourist guidebooks that describe Queen’s Bath in such glowing terms that, Enright said, “it’s like if you don’t visit Queen’s Bath, you haven’t experienced Kauai.”
“It’s an adventure and life’s an adventure,” said Robby Anne Deblanc of Seattle.
Scott Quinn and his daughter, Megan, who recently completed college studies, were on a family vacation from Cincinnati. They’d left three other family members who were too nervous to go on the hike in the car.
Did they take the plunge?
“Yeah, we did,” said Megan Quinn. “It’s really beautiful.”
The Kauai Visitor and Convention Bureau maintains a “do not promote” list of places on Kauai that are most dangerous to tourists — and Queen’s Bath is prominent among them. The bureau even contacts people who post material that makes Queen’s Bath sound enticing and safe and ask that it be removed or modified.
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