Rescue personnel are constantly trying to warn the uninitiated about places like Sandy Beach. But more people are going there anyway.
Which beaches on Oahu are the most dangerous?
Honolulu lifeguards agree: All of them.
In some cases, that’s because the beaches have no lifeguards. In other cases, lifeguards can only do so much if people are willing to risk perennially treacherous conditions.
On average, about 40 people drown somewhere along the island’s 227-mile coastline each year. Others get badly injured at beloved but death-defying spots like Sandy Beach on Oahu’s eastern coast, which has seen a 63% increase in visitors in the last decade.
People are wading into jeopardy at unguarded beaches or even places that are carefully monitored by city lifeguards, such as the tourist favorite Kahe Point Beach Park — or Electric Beach — on the Leeward Shore.
“Hawaii’s beaches are beautiful and easy to access but at times they are as dangerous as any beaches in the world,” said Tom Gill, the Virginia-based vice president of the United States Lifesaving Association. Their location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean subject them to dynamic and dramatic changes in winds and waves that create constant marine instability, fast-moving riptides and rough surf.
Unlike many beaches elsewhere, Hawaii’s volcanic origins mean there is no continental shelf that allows a gradual slope to great depths. Swimmers can get swept into deep water much faster here.
Some 30,591 people were plucked from the sea by Oahu lifeguards after they showed signs of collapse or extreme distress in the last decade, according to statistics compiled by Honolulu’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division. That’s about eight people a day on average, with the most active life-saving seasons being winter on the island’s North Shore and summer on the south shore.
While the island’s total numbers of drownings and rescues have flucuated, increasing numbers of people, including tourists, are going to some of the very beaches that locals have long considered especially treacherous.
A 2016 Civil Beat series, “Dying For Vacation,” explored the hazards that face Hawaii tourists.
“They are not here to go bowling,” John Kamalei Titchen, the city’s chief of ocean safety, said of tourists. “They are here to go to the ocean.”
More Hawaii residents are out in the water these days as well, Titchen said, noting that they began swimming more and experimenting with innovative water sports during the pandemic, when many other activities were curtailed.
Novices took to the waves to go bodysurfing and bodyboarding, or learning foil surfing, which allows them to levitate over the water on a board at high speed, or using colorful, kite-shaped wings to propel themselves even higher and faster farther out to sea. They developed new skills, but also took on new risks.
In addition to its lifeguard towers and ATVs, the city fields eight jet-ski teams plying the waters around Oahu, a still relatively new development in ocean rescue technology that was pioneered in Hawaii about three decades ago.
“Hawaii lifeguards are world leaders in lifesaving and surf lifesaving, first in their development of personal watercraft rescue training,” Gill said, adding that “their knowledge and intense training” has made them legendary among lifeguard corps in beach communities internationally.
Not surprisingly, guarded beaches with jet-skis close at hand tend to be safer, even though they attract more people. There are 21 city-supervised beaches. It’s easy to identify them because they are the beaches with one or more of the city’s 42 lifeguard towers, where people are employed to watch out for swimmers.
Although almost 22 million people visit the city’s beach parks annually, fewer than one-third of the drownings occur there.
In Hawaii, all beaches are open to the public. There are five state beaches on Oahu but they are unguarded except for Keawaula at Kaena Point, on the far west side of the island, which the city guards on behalf of the state. Two-thirds of drownings occur at unguarded beaches. That’s why places like Eternity Beach and Spitting Caves regularly end up in the news.
“They are not here to go bowling. They are here to go to the ocean.”John Kamalei Titchen
In the past decade, most of the drownings occurred in the area that stretches from Ala Moana to Makapuu, according to Dan Galanis, state epidemiologist. More tourists than locals die at Waikiki, Electric Beach and the North Shore.
But even among Oahu’s beaches that are watched over by Honolulu’s 300-member lifeguard corps, there are traps for the unwary, tourists and locals alike. Even strong swimmers are at risk when the wrong set of conditions arise, and newbies are at even greater peril.
Snorkeling mecca Hanauma Bay, for example, looks serene but has traditionally been deadly with 40 people drowning there from 2013 to 2022. Many of those deaths have been linked to misadventures by tourists wearing inexpensive masks and fins.
Waikiki, swamped with millions of tourists, many of them inexperienced swimmers, required the most rescues overall — 963 in 2022 or almost three a day. Lifeguards at the six towers there also render aid to victims of drug overdoses and street crime.
But for many Oahu lifeguards, the most frightening of all the coastal venues is spectacular Sandy Beach, where they risked their lives to save someone almost 2,500 times in a three-year period from 2020 to 2022.
Though Sandy Beach is considerably smaller and less crowded than Waikiki, lifeguards rescued flailing oceangoers at a rate of 2.5 times daily.
Getting hauled out of the water at Sandy Beach isn’t alway enough. It has a well-earned reputation as having the greatest risk for spinal injuries on Oahu.
Galanis said that health privacy concerns mean the state can’t cite specific numbers, but he said that more people who require rescue there end up being admitted to one of Oahu’s trauma centers — Queen’s, Kapiolani, Pali Momi or Tripler — than at any other beach.
Powerful waves crash on sand as hard as concrete at the beach, and bodysurfers are thrown to the bottom like rag dolls, catapulted onto rocks or propelled out to sea by rip currents.
Lt. Kawika Eckart, born and raised in nearby Waimanalo, has been a lifeguard for nearly 40 years. He considers Sandy Beach to be his “love,” but acknowledged it is dangerous even for savvy watermen. There’s a rocky area known as Sashimi because it leaves the scraped-up human body looking like raw seafood. Another area of churning water is called Gas Chambers.
“This is not a place to fool around,” Eckart said, on a recent overcast day as he scanned the seascape for signs of trouble. “You could get hurt easily.”
In almost every rescue they make, lifeguards at Sandy Beach assume the swimmer has a potential spinal cord injury, Eckart said. They try to quickly immobilize swimmers coming out of the water, laying them on a backboard and placing a neck brace called a “C-collar” around their neck to hold them stable.
An injured person “could go paraplegic by moving his head in the wrong way if he has a spinal injury,” Eckart said.
Despite the danger, more people are getting funneled to Sandy Beach than in the past. In 2013, lifeguards there counted 328,147 people on the beach or in the water. By 2022, that number had climbed to 533,721, a 63% increase. Tourism levels, traffic patterns and policy changes have all played a role.
Tourists exiting Waikiki typically start down Kalakaua Avenue, a one-way boulevard that takes them east past a number of inaccessible or uninviting beaches. They frequently make their first stop at Hanauma Bay, only to find it more likely to be closed than in the past. To protect marine life, Hanauma Bay is now closed two days a week and a reservation system means that only those who planned ahead gain admittance. Those who are turned away head further east, arriving next at Sandy Beach.
“They don’t see any white sand beaches till they get to Hanauma Bay,” Eckart said. “Now it’s hard to get into. This is the next white sand beach they see. They see the beauty. They don’t see the danger. They think it is too beautiful to be dangerous.”
Consequently, a steady stream of ill-prepared tourists arrives at Sandy Beach every day, some showing up in rental cars and some in Ubers. They amble down to the beach and often encounter lifeguards who try to warn them away, advising them to head down the coast to safer locations such as Waimanalo. Some families look over the beach, accept the guidance and make other plans.
Kayla Kapuamohalanalani Chang of Laie, who has been a lifeguard at Sandy Beach for three years, is often the one to make the first diplomatic approach.
“I talk to the mom directly,” she said. “‘For the safety of your kids, take them to another beach. There is permanent damage that can happen.'”
Some visitors don’t take the advice.
On a recent morning, a family of four from Washington state with two teenage sons looked on stonily as Chang explained the dangers. The two boys entered the surf while their parents watched.
Asked about their decision, the father, who declined to give his name, said his sons were experienced swimmers who had spent time in Mexico. They wouldn’t leave because “there are some pretty good waves,” he said.
The lifeguards kept a close eye on the family. One of the boys was pummeled by a wave in an area of swirling currents. The family quietly packed up and departed about an hour later.
Sandy Beach also wields an almost narcotic appeal to local residents, thrill-seekers who say the waves there break like no place else. The beach has been a longtime teen magnet.
Reaves Dayton of Kalihi, home from college on a holiday break, said she feels drawn to Sandy Beach and tries to visit often.
“I get pounded here,” she said. “It reminds me the ocean is stronger than I will ever be.”
Liam Higgins, 17, from St. Louis Heights, called Sandy Beach “the place to be.”
“The shorebreak is fine, getting barreled,” he said. “It’s fun to hang out with friends here.”
Eckart knows at least 100 people who have gotten badly injured at Sandy beach.
“Everyone has been humbled,” Eckart said. “I get out of the water saying, ‘That was close.’ All the local guys have stories, times they were wiped out, pounded.”
Even Titchen got hurt there, suffering a burst eardrum a couple years ago that still causes him problems.
“Even on the safest day, it is experts only,” he said.
He’s not the only one who keeps coming back. Nakaiewalu Wallace, 20, who comes from four generations of Hawaii lifeguards, broke five vertebrae and developed a spinal fluid leak after an accident at Sandy Beach in 2021. It took him five months to recover.
But on a recent day, he gazed longingly out to the water. He said he has gone swimming there about 40 times since his injury, though he now tries to be more judicious.
“I don’t necessarily go after the big waves like I used to,” he said. “It’s not worth getting hurt.”
Another beach that has emerged as a major attraction and also danger zone is the site of one of the newest city lifeguard towers. Kahe Point Beach Park, also called Electric Beach, near the power plant on Farrington Highway, is known for its excellent snorkeling. Since the tower was installed in August, the beach has drawn 70,000 visitors and lifeguards have rescued about 90 people.
It’s a dramatic beach that attracts a lot of marine life. On a recent afternoon, dolphins cavorted near the shore, a sea turtle swam lazily in a tidal pool and a monk seal came ashore and began sunning in the sand — events that thrilled a pack of tourists.
But the peaceful setting can lull visitors into complacency, said lifeguard Lt. Jason Patterson, a 32-year ocean safety veteran and Leeward Coast expert who spent 25 years on a jet ski unit and has participated in dozens of rescues.
“It’s a little deceiving; the beach is so small,” Patterson said.
As the crowd milled around on the beach and prepared to enter the water, he pointed out issues that raise alarms for veteran lifeguards. Some tourists were novice snorkelers who arrived without fins and appeared to be trying on masks for the first time. Few looked out to the sea as they entered the surf. Some would-be leaders pressured companions, more cautious swimmers, to enter the water.
Lifeguards use a system they call profiling. People who show up with equipment in bags bearing the names of discount stores or walking backward into the surf when they are wearing fins are some of the most likely to get into trouble in the waves.
Lifeguards are also vigilant for signs of distress, swimmers flailing their arms, shouting or pulling off their snorkel masks and frantically gulping air after getting a mouthful of saltwater.
If someone is in trouble, they quickly run out and jump into the water, carrying a yellow flotation tube and perhaps a surfboard. They often head out with a mask and snorkel themselves to try to find a swimmer who has sunken deep under the surface of the water. Hysterical, drowning people will grab and claw at lifeguards in their terror, so lifeguards approach them cautiously, offer the flotation tube and try to offer comfort while they pull victims to safety on the beach.
Their worst fear is the person who is too arrogant or proud to accept help.
“Some people don’t say anything,” Pattterson said. “They drown silently. They don’t yell or scream. They feel shame. But we are here to help.”
“Some people don’t survive, so you have to say God had a plan for them,” Eckart said. “They got to pass away doing what they loved doing.”
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a reporter for Civil Beat. A long-time reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” “Isabella the Warrior Queen” and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. You can reach her by email at email@example.com.