A record-breaking 10 million visitors are expected to vacation in Hawaii this year, driving the economy with $18 billion in spending.

But it’s the tourists who don’t make it home alive that experts focused on Friday at the state’s annual ocean safety conference in Honolulu.

Drowning has long been the leading cause of death for tourists in Hawaii, far outpacing the rate of drownings for residents and the national average. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon, especially as more people come to the islands and venture to more remote corners thanks to social media.

Sandy Beach Park lifeguard tower with signs warning visitors.
Signs warn visitors of the hazards at Sandy Beach Park on Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Just this week, a 37-year-old man died after scuba diving on the North Shore of Oahu, a 68-year-old Canadian man drowned off of Hawaii island and a search was called off for a missing local swimmer at Polihale Beach on Kauai, the same place a 53-year-old Georgia man drowned last month.

But health officials and emergency responders said they are optimistic that additional lifeguards, working expanded and reconfigured hours, along with new equipment and better public outreach will reduce ocean-related injuries and deaths. They are also hopeful that ongoing studies will help determine why snorkeling is such a perilous activity for visitors.

Of 206 snorkeling-related deaths over the past decade, 189 were non-residents, according to the latest state Department of Health data.

Be Prepared

The numbers have only increased over time. Between 1994 and 1998, only 19 people drowned while snorkeling. That soared to 103 non-residents drowning while snorkeling between 2014 and 2018. Meanwhile, the number of visitors drowning during other activities like swimming or diving has either remained flat or dropped.

Ralph Goto, who’s on the snorkeling safety steering committee and co-chairs a multi-agency drowning prevention committee, said evidence-based information needs to reach visitors in a meaningful way.

“We’re not giving them any specific advice,” Goto said, like how to use snorkeling equipment, what kind of risk factors are involved and how to avoid getting in trouble.

“It’s no longer just ‘stupid tourists,’” he said. “People need to be educated.”

Goto wants the counties to collect and supply more data to bolster the studies that in turn can be used to shape policies and public messaging on ocean safety. Researchers need more information on what type of snorkel mask the person was wearing, for instance, and where they are from. And if they survived the incident, a contact number would enable follow-up surveys.

Goto said he wants to be able to move beyond anecdotal stories, which have suggested potentially fatal flaws in new full-face snorkeling masks, and into scientifically backed reports.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority provided $131,000 to support the research study on snorkeling safety. Keith Regan, HTA chief administrative officer, said the agency funded it because of the increasing number of visitors involved in drownings and near-drownings throughout the state.

“Gaining a better understanding of the causes and risk factors related to snorkeling will help reduce and possibly prevent future incidents,” he said in a statement Friday. “This is all about saving lives through understanding and prevention. In order for us to save lives, we need the research that will guide us down the best path.”

Visitors drown while snorkeling far more often than local residents. (Source: Department of Health) 

Dan Galanis, a state epidemiologist who has spent the past two decades analyzing injury data and prevention techniques, reported that visitors are drowning at eight times the rate of locals.

There was an average of 71 drownings per year between 2009 and 2018, according to the latest data. Galanis said it is trending upward as more visitors come to Hawaii, highlighting 85 drownings in each of the past two years — more than half of which were tourists.

He broke down the data to show, for the first time, where they are visiting from. California and Japan topped the list, with 22% and 12% of the drownings respectively. Galanis said marketing efforts to attract more tourists from China and Korea may increase their rankings.

Galanis also looked at underlying and contributing causes of death. He found that heart disease was an underlying cause of death in 41% of ocean drowning victims between 2009 and 2018 for snorkelers ages 40 to 70 — virtually the same percent as other ocean drownings.

Visitors play near dangerous shore break at Sandy Beach with signs warning of the dangerous conditions.
Visitors play near a dangerous shore break at Sandy Beach even though signs warn of the dangerous conditions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Civil Beat has reported extensively on ocean safety for the past several years, including its special report “Dying For Vacation” that investigated why tourists are so much more likely to drown here.

While many questions remain unanswered, it’s clear that warning signs are routinely ignored, safety messages don’t reach visitors in an effective way, unique ocean conditions catch people off guard and snorkeling’s many hazards are often hidden.

Beyond mayors proclaiming ocean safety week to spread awareness, the state and counties have stepped up funding for lifeguards, giving them raises in recent years, extending their hours, establishing new towers and adding roving patrol units to boost coverage at unguarded beaches.

The state finally provided funding last year for lifeguards at Kua Bay on the Big Island. The beach park used to be a remote place locals hiked to visit. Now there’s a paved road and loads of tourists go every day.

Visitors drown at more than eight times the rate of locals. (Source: Department of Health) 

Hanauma Bay, which continues to record the highest number of drownings each year, is undergoing a pilot program where guards work four 10-hour days. The city is trying to determine if it helps to have them there an hour earlier and an hour later to cover more daylight hours.

Honolulu Chief of Ocean Safety John Titchen said this also gives the guards three days to rest so they come back fresh each week, noting how Hanauma Bay is particularly challenging because so many people are there floating face down in the water to begin with while snorkeling in the iconic marine reserve.

Titchen is working to ramp up the mobile response units on Oahu so lifeguards can get to “emerging hot spots” and dangerous areas faster.

“It’s the ability to deploy at a moment’s notice,” he said. “The old days of anticipating those threats based on where we know historically visitors have gone has passed.”

The Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee, which includes key players from Hawaii’s various tourism and ocean safety agencies, has produced a new snorkeling safety brochure and a website, created in April, that steers people to beaches with lifeguards and offers real-time reports on ocean conditions throughout the islands.

On the neighbor islands, Maui has been increasing its efforts to educate beachgoers about spinal cord injury prevention. Makena Beach leads the state in spinal cord injuries.

And on Kauai, lifeguards have started doing electronic reporting of incidents using iPads, which provide real-time updates.

Kalani Vierra, Kauai ocean safety chief, said the technology has been encouraging despite working through challenges, like not having cellular service everywhere and training the entire staff.

“We still have a lot of room to grow,” he said.

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