Three visitors died last month while swimming in waters off Maui, prompting county and fire officials to look for ways "to save lives" by possibly posting more warning signs at beaches and having safety videos shown in hotel rooms and at Kahului Airport.
"It will save lives," said Colin Yamamoto, battalion chief of the Maui Fire Department's new Ocean Safety division, Thursday. "We're not going to scare anyone from coming to Maui."
The island has seen at least seven reported ocean deaths this year - four occurring at Kaanapali Beach or nearby Black Rock. The visitors ranged in age from their 50s to 70s.
Yamamoto, a 27-year-veteran of the Fire Department, wants to bring attention to the dangers of the West Maui beach, as well as Honokowai Point, where strong rip currents have swept many visitors out to sea. Last month, he met with medics, hospital workers, state officials and Kaanapali Beach Club members to "try to figure out a way to make those places safe and warn tourists."
"There is a well-known rip current fronting the hotel, and there have been numerous rescues that have been going on there for a long, long time," he said Thursday. "Kaanapali Beach Club has been right on it, though, and saying, 'We just want to decrease injuries and death.' ''
Information on the causes of death and the total number of ocean-related fatalities this year was not available Thursday from police, fire or American Medical Response officials.
Yamamoto said that one of June's fatalities was due to a heart attack in calm water and most likely was not caused by stress from strong currents. Other incidents that also appeared to be heart attacks "could have been triggered when they panic and overexert themselves," he said.
A sign posted at the beach access area and sidewalk of the beach club warns of the strong current but cannot be seen from the beach, Yamamoto said. He said placing a sign on the beach is "not so simple" and requires approval from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources on wording and placement.
"We're trying to come up with a solution where we can warn tourists that whenever there is a north or east or northwest swell, this current will pull you out, because it happens hundreds of times every winter," he said.
Yamamoto said the summertime also can be dangerous with occasional southwest swells - which may have factored into last month's deaths.
The "hot spot" for strong currents, though, is Honokowai Point, where so many visitors have been swept out that residents have placed buoys for people to hold on to and to call for help, Yamamoto said.
"This has been going on for more than a decade," he said. "It's unbelievable how many people get caught in that rip current, but it's not a county beach, so we can't put a lifeguard stand there."
Kaanapali Beach and Honokowai Point are controlled by the state and do not have lifeguard stations.
While Yamamoto would like to add a lifeguard station at the two areas, he said the department is struggling with staffing shortages throughout the county. He added that isolated beaches in Ukumehame and Launiupoko on the west side might be better served with lifeguards, considering the closest fire and lifeguard stations are near Hanakao'o (Canoe) Beach Park on the edge of Kaanapali.
"They have to drive all the way down to Launiupoko and beyond for people," he said, adding that most of the calls are for kayakers who paddle too far from shore. "When they're inside or nearshore, there's minimal wind, but once they go out, they get swept out."
Yamamoto suggested additional buoys be placed at Kaanapali Beach and Honokowai Point, with a sign and picture saying no swimming beyond this point, as well as a warning about dangerous rip currents.
"It also has saved many, many people because they grab onto it when they get swept out," he said of buoys.
DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward said Thursday that buoys in state waters must be approved by her agency, possibly by the boating and aquatic resources divisions, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - depending on their purpose.
She added that the DLNR does consult with "emergency responder agencies and may seek community input as well on plans for buoy installation" at the West Maui beaches.
In terms of educating visitors before they reach the beach, Mayor Alan Arakawa's office is looking to purchase an ocean and mountain safety video produced by award-winning Maui filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton. Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said that administration officials are looking to buy the rights to the 12-minute video that could possibly greet visitors at the airport or in their hotel rooms.
"It's very well produced with a lot of good information, and I think visitors would do very well with seeing it," Antone said.
Yamamoto said the video could make visitors think twice before participating in strenuous and dangerous activities.
"I'm not necessarily worried about them watching the whole video. They can watch two to three minutes and get the message," he said. "It's just bringing awareness."
Terryl Vencl, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau, said Thursday that she also is working on a video to be shown at Kahului Airport in conjunction with the state Department of Transportation. She said a question posed by a citizen in the Ask the Mayor column published in The Maui News on July 7 prompted her to look into the video.
"The letter that came to the mayor certainly brought it front and center for me," Vencl said. "But it's really time to move this and begin to see what we can do to better educate our visitors."
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.