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Officials working to get a handle on spate of ocean-related deaths

Ocean safety urged as deaths spike: Over about 2 weeks last month, 9 men died in the waters off Maui

One way to be safer while snorkeling is to use the buddy system as this couple is doing off Kaanapali’s Black Rock in 2013. Nine Maui ocean-related deaths of men in a two-week period beginning Jan. 14 has public health and safety officials looking for answers. Another death occurred Saturday, the first fatality in February. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

More visitors to Maui and tourists engaging in more demanding ocean activities while at unguarded beaches could be reasons for the high number of ocean-related deaths last month, officials said.

In January, there were nine ocean-related deaths in Maui waters, surpassing the high number of five in a month in January and June 2017, said Fire Services Chief Edward Taomoto.

Another death, the first in February, was reported Saturday morning at Ulua Beach, Taomoto said.

That brought the total, since Jan. 14, to 10 deaths. The nine fatalities in January occurred over a two-week period.

“All the incidents appear to be random accidents,” he said. The victims were all men who were 50 and older, he added. The oldest victim in January was 71. The victim on Saturday was reportedly an 80-year-old man from Homer, Alaska.

A man adjusts a one-piece, full-faced mask while snorkeling last month at Kamaole Beach Park III in Kihei. The full-faced masks were used by two of nine men who died in ocean-related incidents last month. The single-piece design has raised safety questions because such masks reportedly fog easily and can be difficult to remove. Another man died Saturday, the first fatality in February, while snorkeling with a traditional two-piece snorkel and mask off of Ulua Beach. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Eight of the nine January incidents occurred in calm waters, so rough ocean conditions were not a factor in the spike of deaths, Taomoto said. (There was heavy surf during the incident Saturday.)

Of the nine ocean deaths in January, seven were visitors and two were Maui residents. Of the seven visitors, five were snorkeling and two were scuba diving. Two of the snorkelers were wearing the new one-piece face snorkel masks that some water experts say may be in poor design. (Saturday’s victim was snorkeling with a traditional two-piece set.)

As for the Maui residents, one was swimming and the other was shoreline fishing, Taomoto said.

Daniel Galanis, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health, said that nine deaths over a two-week period in January “is an extreme total for a short period.”

Galanis, with the Emergency Medical Services & Injury Prevention System Branch, said he hopes to do a more formal analysis on the spike in deaths. But, looking at state tourism data on visitor days on island, he said Maui has had the most consistent year-to-year increases of any island over the last five years or so up to 2016.

Preliminary statistics released by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority on Wednesday show that visitor arrivals in Maui were up 4.1 percent in 2017, to 2.7 million, a new record for visitor arrivals in a year.

“So a simple explanation for the increasing number of (ocean deaths) is there are more visitors,” Galanis said. “It may also be visitors are engaging in more demanding activities.”

Snorkeling could qualify as a strenuous activity, he said.

Cary Kayama, Maui County’s Ocean Safety operations manager, said lifeguards have been seeing more visitors as well at the 12 beaches staffed by lifeguards.

“On a daily basis, lifeguards take an estimate of how many people visit the beach each day,” he said. “Our statistics have been showing an increase in beach attendance every year.”

The busiest months are December and January with beach attendance rising again in June through August, he said.

According to data provided by the Fire Department, seven of the deaths occurred at beaches with no lifeguard protection. Several of the beaches were near hotels. Two deaths occurred at Kamaole Beach Park III, where there are lifeguards, although one fatality occurred after lifeguards finished their shift.

Galanis speculated that visitors may be going to more remote locations for ocean activities, where medical first response may take longer to arrive, and more time is needed to get the patient to advanced medical care.

Looking at the ages of the nonresident victims in January, the average age was about 57 years, so Galanis said it is pretty safe to say that older visitors are at higher risk.

Another factor could be underlying health conditions, such as heart disease, that are more common in middle-aged and elderly people, he said.

Ocean-related deaths affect lifeguards’ morale, Kayama said. Some have trouble sleeping and may feel some anxiety while at work, he said.

There is a debriefing after each incident to minimize the risk of post-traumatic stress. Ocean safety personnel also follow up with the staff in a few weeks.

“Most guards really appreciate the debriefing and follow-up discussions,” Kayama said.

The fatal Maui ocean incidents have made headlines locally and in Northern California, where several of the victims are from, but lifeguards have taken questions about the incidents from only a couple of people at Makena State Park, he said.

Sherry Duong, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau, said last week that bureau officials had not received any inquiries about the ocean deaths.

The bureau has been active in educating visitors and those in the visitor industry about ocean safety. It held safety seminars in November and December in South and West Maui to educate tourism workers with direct contact with visitors. Speakers included Colin Yamamoto, who recently retired as the battalion chief of Ocean Safety for Maui County.

With funds provided by the Hawai’i Tourism Authority through the Visitor Aloha Society Hawaii program, the Maui Visitors Bureau created an ocean safety and general safety brochure that is available for guests at all hotel and activity centers, Duong said.

She added that when people see the Hawai’i Tourism Authority’s website, www.gohawaii.com, there is a video highlighting safety awareness. Hawaiian Airlines plays a short video about ocean safety from footage provided by the HTA.

There is also a variety of other ways the HTA tries to promote ocean safety, this includes sponsoring an annual Ocean Safety Conference and funds all the islands with a Jr. Lifeguard program.

Duong and Maui Fire Chief Jeff Murray said that the bureau and the department have worked together to create a safety video for visitors in Maui County.

The video addresses ocean safety, and it discusses keeping safe while hiking in or near mountain streams.

Firefighters most often see visitors get in trouble in ocean and mountain areas, Murray said, so those were areas officials decided needed the most attention and emphasis for accident prevention.

The video plays at the Kahului Airport baggage claim area and on certain hotel visitor information television channels. The Maui Visitor Channel shows the safety video.

“We always encourage visitors to swim or snorkel at lifeguarded beaches,” Murray said. “But we know that is oftentimes hard to do, since Maui has many miles of shoreline and a lot of those areas that tourists visit don’t have any lifeguards,” he said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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