Death by Drowning on Kauai: A Synopsis
In recent years the Hawaiian island of Kauai has gained the reputation of a place where you might have a good chance of drowning to death in its beautiful nearshore marine waters, especially if you are an uninformed visitor. To a great extent, that’s true, there are numerous potentially hazardous shoreline localities where one can easily get into trouble. However, knowing that, and knowing that you can arm yourself with adequate knowledge regarding specific localities, such as knowing when to enter the ocean and when to not to enter, you should have no problem experiencing safely the enticing warm tropical nearshore marine waters of the island. The intent of this synopsis is to provide you with such knowledge, to arm you with something I like to refer to as “conscious paranoia,” a state of mind that might save your life when visiting our beautiful island.
Our August 2011 publication Drowning Deaths in the Nearshore Marine Waters of Kauai, Hawaii 1970-2009 in the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, v. 5, no.3, p. 284-324, provides an in depth analysis of drowning deaths on Kauai the history of the island’s water safety and drowning prevention programs. This synopsis extends the data base and various analyses through 2012 and into the first half of 2013.
Kauai Drowning Map
Through the 43-year time span 1970-2012, 414 individuals have been documented to have drowned to death on Kauai. Over 76% of the drowning deaths, a total of 316, have occurred in the nearshore marine waters of the island. For the nearly one hundred individuals that have drowned in inland waterways (rivers and lakes) and in swimming pools and such, there is little that the county and state government can do in terms of proactive prevention. However, water safety involving beaches and other popular shoreline areas is a different matter, especially with respect to the island’s all important visitor industry.
A first step to developing an understanding of the high numbers of drowning deaths occurring at the island’s shore is acknowledgement of the patterns of these deaths. The Kauai drowning map displayed below documents the broad spatial and temporal patterns of the shoreline drowning deaths. It is significant that nearly half of the deaths have occurred along the northern shores, with the vast majority occurring during the seven “winter” months of October through April. As illustrated in the following map of the major wind and wave systems that impact the island, winter is the time of almost continuous large waves along the northern and contiguous western coasts. Such waves, generally approaching as sets of swells, result from North Pacific winter storms. With the island lacking broad offshore shelves, owing to its volcanic mountain top location, winter swells pound the coast full force.
The east and south coastal areas show slightly different drowning death patterns, to some extent related to the ease of shore access and the distribution of visitor accommodations. The more uniform distribution of drowning deaths between the winter and summer along the east coast relates to the year round presence of trade wind-generated waves. Such waves are never as large as north shore winter waves, but they are persistent. The popularity of the easily accessible beaches of the Wailua, Kapaa and Kealia beaches provides an additional significant factor contributing to the high number of drowning deaths along the central portion of the east coast. Comparatively, the south shore displays the fewest drowning deaths, also distributed somewhat uniformly throughout the year, with the vast majority concentrated in the Poipu area. The south shore sees only relatively small surf through the winter and receives its largest waves through Kauai’s summer months, a result of South Pacific winter storms. Owing to their long travel distance, by the time the swells reach Hawaii they have lost much of their punch. To a great extent the concentration of drowning deaths in the Poipu area is due to the popularity of the area’s few easily accessible beaches.
The Numbers Game: Visitors and Drowning Deaths
Considering the fact that nearly three-forth of the drowning deaths on Kauai involve island visitors, it should come as no surprise that the number of drowning deaths is closely related to the number of visitors. But, with the numerous variables involved that might lead to any one drowning death, including the highly variable naturally occurring hazards present at the island’s shore, it is surprising that the relationship between numbers of visitors and numbers of drowning deaths is so close. The following graphs display the relationship.
The plot of nearshore ocean drowning deaths on Kauai, 1970-2012 and first half of 2013, indicates that the average annual number of drowning deaths per year has increased from about 5 in the 1970s to around 10 since the beginning of the new millennium. However, in spite of the overall steady rise in the number of drowning deaths per year, there have been several noticeable dips in the annual numbers. The accompanying plot of the number of visitors per year, utilizing the statistic of the most numerous visitors – those from the U.S. mainland and Canada, helps explain the overall trend in drowning death numbers as well as its variability. The average annual number of visitors has increased from around 600,000 in the 1970s to around a million in recent years. Overall, that works out to about one drowning death on Kauai per year for every 100,000 visitors; however, of considerable interest are the details.
Comparison of the smoothing curves (statistical moving-average Spline Fit curves) of the number of drowning deaths annually and the number of visitors displays an interesting relationship. Four specific events affecting Kauai – 1) Hurricane Iwa (November 23, 1982), 2) Hurricane Iniki (September 11, 1992), 3) the combination of the terrorist attack on New York’s Trade Center buildings (September 11, 2001) and the SARS pandemic scare in 2003, and 4) the economic downturn of 2008-2012 – each resulted in significant reduction of island visitors. Those dips in the number of visitors line up in general with significant reductions in the number of Kauai shoreline drowning deaths. To some extent it might be said that these “disasters” may have saved lives – fewer visitors led to fewer drowning deaths.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the increasing number of drowning deaths over the past 43 years is the paradox between the number of deaths and the number of Kauai water safety personnel, the lifeguards. In the 1970s, with less than a handful of full-time lifeguards and two permanent lifeguard stations, at Salt Pond and Poipu beach parks, the average annual number of nearshore marine drowning deaths was less than 5. Since the beginning of the new millennium, with the number of water safety personnel near 50 and with 10 permanent lifeguard stations around the island, the average annual number of drowning deaths has exceeded 10. So, even with the number of lifeguards increasing by a factor of 10, from 5 to 50, and the number of permanent lifeguard stations increasing by a factor of 5, from 2 to 10, the annual number of drowning deaths has more than doubled as the number of island visitors has increased by less than a factor of two. Such numbers suggest that the “lifeguard approach” to providing safety to those entering the nearshore marine waters of the island of Kauai has been relatively ineffective – more on this topic further along below.
More Numbers Relating to Activities, Demographics and Locations
The following charts provide additional information on the uniqueness and complexity of nearshore marine drowning deaths on Kauai. Regarding the various activities in which the drowning victims, both island residents and visitors, were involved, the vast majority (80%) of the visitors died while swimming or snorkeling, one of their most common activities. A few visitors died while scuba diving or surfing while a rather high number, at least 20 individuals, were pulled into the ocean while merely standing or walking near the surf. Only about a third of the island resident victims died while swimming/snorkeling, another third died while fishing and/or gathering shellfish at the shoreline, and a significant number also died while scuba diving or surfing.
Overall the average age of all drowning victims drowning during the 43 years for which data is available, 1907-2012, is 46 years with 62% falling within the age range 30-60 years of age. This may be related to general level of affluence necessary to be able to be a visitor; however, it must also be noticed that the difference in age between visitors (46.1 years) and island residents (45.2 years) does not different significantly. In comparison, the age of U.S. mainland drowning victims is much much younger owing the more common incidents of the drowning deaths of young children. Surprisingly, the ratio of men to women drowning victims for Kauai is 8.5 to 1, considerably higher than the ratio of about 3 or 4 men to 1 woman for mainland U.S. drowning victims. In summary, the middle aged male visitor from the U.S. mainland has the highest potential of becoming a Kauai drowning death victim – take note you guys.
The following charts and the list of Kauai shore localities where at least 5 drowning deaths have occurred during the period 1970-2012 provides information on the numerous places that need special consideration when one is contemplating entering the ocean at the island’s edge. Most of Kauai’s potentially hazardous shore is easily accessible and unguarded by water safety personnel – the Kauai County lifeguards. Nearly 70% of the drowning deaths have occurred at easily accessible beaches; two-thirds have occurred at the numerous localities unguarded by water safety personnel.
Such information emphasizes that both island visitors and residents need to inform themselves of the specific nature of the potential hazards present at each locality where they decide to insert themselves into the beautiful inviting ocean.
NOTE: In the near future maps detailing the potential hazards of most of Kauai’s accessible shoreline localities will be added to this presentation – stay tuned.