As state leaders hope for a strong summer of tourism to fuel Hawaii’s economic recovery, the challenge won’t just be getting visitors here. It also means making sure they get home safely.

Ocean rescue officials are already seeing growing numbers of people heading to the beach as arrivals surged in recent weeks. And they continue to follow an earlier trend of spreading out to more remote places.

The chief lifeguard for the City and County of Honolulu said whatever tourism’s future looks like, it needs to include keeping visitors and residents safe in and around the water.

“I see it as a kuleana of all of those who have any stake whatsoever in the economy of these islands right now if we’re going to rely almost solely on tourism,” said John Titchen, chief of Honolulu ocean safety. “We’re beseeching people — leaders and residents alike — to be aware that this has got to be part of the conversation.”

Ala Moana Beach park Lifeguard 1B.
Oahu is extending the hours when lifeguards are available to respond to emergencies. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Drowning has long been the leading cause of death for visitors to Hawaii, so it’s not surprising that when arrivals plummeted, ocean drownings did as well. In 2020, just 16 non-residents died in ocean drownings compared to 56 the previous year, according to Department of Health data. Of those 16, 11 occurred between January and March.

More than 650,000 people arrived in Hawaii in March, close to 80% of them visitors, and economists anticipate travel will pick up this summer. That translates to more people at the beach. Jeffrey Giesea, battalion chief of ocean safety at the Maui Fire Department, said since tourism has re-opened there’s definitely been a significant increase” in both beach attendance and incidents to which lifeguards have responded. Beach attendance is also up on Hawaii island, said Darwin Okinaka, Hawaii Fire Department assistant fire chief of emergency operations, although he said that hasn’t led to more calls or rescues.

Rescue officials are closely monitoring trends among the visitors to plan how to get lifeguards to where they need to be. 

Along with keeping track of the data, Titchen said the plan also involves making smart use of Ocean Safety’s mobile response units.

That mobility is going to be critical as Ocean Safety prepares to extend coverage from dawn to dusk starting July 1. While towers will continue to operate only from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., lifeguards will be around from sunup to sundown to respond to 911 calls.

Short of spending a lot more money, Titchen said increasing mobility is the only way to efficiently grow coverage in the near future. Ocean Safety currently has 16 mobile units, eight of which include personal watercraft. They plan to add eight more mobile units by July and ultimately hope to increase the number of watercraft as well.

The division has also received approval for a 15-person class of recruits, and Titchen hopes to get a second class of 15 for the next fiscal year.

While Titchen said he’s grateful for the support Ocean Safety’s received from the last and current city administrations, he noted the extended coverage hours amount to an operational increase of about a third without a corresponding increase in the budget.

“We get it. We’re in the midst of an economic crisis in many regards for both the counties and the state,” he said. “But as the chief lifeguard for the City and County of Honolulu, I’d say, How can we possibly be welcoming back visitors in a safe, constructive way if we’re not ready to ensure that they’re safe on the beaches, which is really why most of them — the majority of them — are coming to visit our islands?”

Last year as the evaporation of tourism took its toll on revenues, the state drastically cut back on funding for counties to staff lifeguards at state beach parks. The state is currently paying Honolulu’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services division to put  lifeguards at Oahu’s Keawaula Beach only on weekends and holidays, and Titchen said he’s confident that the state is “doing everything they can to renew that” for the upcoming year.

The budget bill lawmakers approved on Tuesday includes more than $1.4 million for lifeguard contracts at state beach parks for fiscal years 2022 and 2023, according to the office of Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. About half of that money will be covered by federal relief dollars, and the other half will come from county funds. Hawaii County leaders had vowed to keep lifeguards at their parks, and after state senators pushed to include the money in the budget, Okinaka said before it was finalized that he was hopeful the funding would come through.

“Our county has been great so far in supporting us, and we hope that that continues,” he said. “But also at the state level, we’re really appreciative of what our state Senate has done in reinstating those funds.”

Hawaii island and Maui aren’t yet adopting extended coverage times like Oahu’s. While Giesea said they have a long-term goal of putting lifeguards at more beaches for more of the day, the short- and medium-term focus includes filling vacant positions and improving policies and procedures. On Hawaii island, there’s been consideration of extending service, but Okinaka said it will take more discussion to explore what added coverage is warranted and feasible.

Meanwhile, both Maui County and Hawaii County are working to adopt digital incident reporting systems, which Giesea said will aid in collecting statewide data to help develop public education and injury prevention programs.

For the most part i observed most people on the beach watching and enjoying the sunset following the rules and practicing social distancing during the reopening of parks and beaches after surge in COVID-19 cases. September 13, 2020
Ocean safety officials are gathering data about beach usage to develop strategies for keeping beachgoers safe. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Kari Benes, trauma system public health educator at the Department of Health, said the state continues to share data with ocean safety experts about drownings among both residents and non-residents and to support county efforts promoting and improving ocean safety.

Rescue officials and ocean safety advocates also continue to respond to the challenge of visitors venturing into more remote places away from lifeguard supervision. Officials have attributed the trend in part to social media, which entices visitors into venturing off the beaten path.

“Unfortunately, a lot of these places are dangerous,” said Gerald Kosaki, co-chair of the Hawaii Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee. “And they only see the beauty in that area but not the perils.”

At the end of February, two visitors died after hiking to a waterfall amid flash flood conditions on Maui. The wife of one of those visitors later told KHON2 she had never seen a flash flood before and said better education about dangers in Hawaii could save lives.

Kosaki, who is also a former battalion chief in charge of special operations for Hawaii Fire Department, said the incident underscores the importance of the committee’s efforts to improve education that can keep people safe.

Hawaii isn’t the only place seeing visitors straying into danger when they venture into secluded areas. The New York Times in April reported that visitors to Wyoming’s backcountry are putting a strain on search-and-rescue volunteers.

“The problems that those rescuers are seeing, we see,” Titchen said. “We see people heading into hazardous conditions unprepared and unknowing, and I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think that’s responsible by those that are directing or guiding or leading the return of this industry.”

Kosaki said the committee he co-chairs has long worked to get information to visitors, including ocean safety clips that appear on local media and in hotel rooms, and they’re trying to get airlines to show videos on incoming flights.

Giesea, too, pointed to education, along with expanding lifeguard coverage, as a focus for policymakers. Efforts could include things like posting warnings in places where people often get into trouble away from rescue workers, as well as putting warnings in the guidebooks and websites that promote those places. Another possibility could involve closing areas when conditions become especially risky.

Those efforts aren’t important just for tourists. Over the past decade, an average of 35 Hawaii residents drown each year, and even as total drownings fell last year, the number of residents who drowned stayed about the same.

One bill proposed at the start of this year sought to set up a program to teach fourth graders at Hawaii public schools about ocean safety. Both Kosaki and Giesea cited the legislation as something they hope lawmakers pass. Although senators approved the bill in March, it has not been scheduled for a hearing before the House Education Committee.

Officials also emphasized the value of going to beaches with lifeguards, who in addition to responding in an emergency are also there to help inform beachgoers about local hazards and where it’s safe to get in the water.

Also helpful to beachgoers is a list of lifeguarded beaches and hours and real-time weather and ocean conditions.

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About the Author

  • Cameron Miculka
    Cameron Miculka is a freelance journalist. He is a former staff journalist for West Hawaii Today in Kailua-Kona, and he has previously worked as a journalist at the Pacific Daily News in Hagatna, Guam, and the Weimar Mercury in Colorado County, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and currently lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where he is pursuing a master's degree in Public and Urban Policy at the University of Glasgow.