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No Ka Oi Health

Surrounded by water in our island state, we all have our own ocean stories to tell. Whether your experience is a distant memory from small kid time or a more recent humbling, it likely inspired a deep respect for the power of the ocean. Struggling to get a breath, trying not to panic, being pounded by waves or pulled by the current — Maui’s lifeguards witness this every day and take action.

Unfortunately for an average of 20 people on Maui (15 of them nonresidents) per year from 2011-2019, the ocean’s power prevailed. Ocean drowning is the leading cause of fatal injuries for visitors to Hawaii, and the sixth-leading cause for residents in Hawaii. In “pandemic year” 2020 there were 11 fatalities, three of them nonresidents. Nonfatal drowning, as reflected in Maui’s hospital admissions for this diagnosis, fell in 2020 to a fraction of that of pre-pandemic levels: nine nonresidents and six residents, down from an average of 43 per year, 31 of them nonresidents, from 2016-2019.

As we celebrate this week as Hawaii Beach Safety Week, we recognize that without our lifeguards, first responders and health care professionals working tirelessly seven days a week across the island, these numbers and tragedies would be much higher. Aside from the 600-plus Maui ocean rescues that lifeguards perform each year to save people in trouble, they accomplish multiple preventive actions, taking the time to provide valuable information and warnings to visitors and kama’aina alike. We need only look at the dramatic decrease in drownings at Makena State Beach Park after lifeguards were stationed there in 2009, to realize how lucky we are to have these amazing water men and women there to help.

According to Hawaii Department of Health records, there were seven fatal drownings at Makena in the four years (2004 through 2008) leading up to the initiation of lifeguard services at the popular beach, but there have been only three in the ensuing 12 years (2009 through 2020). This reduction is even more impressive given the annual increase in visitor arrivals to Maui and places like Makena.

A recent supplement to Maui’s shorelines is public rescue tubes, flotation devices which can be used by bystanders to toss or hand to a person struggling in the water to keep them afloat until help arrives. With the help of retired Ocean Safety Chief Colin Yamamoto and the Maui Rotary Club, 170 of these yellow tubes are stationed at shorelines across the island and are conservatively credited with more than 20 confirmed saves. They and Maui Ocean Safety, led by Operations Chief Jeff Giesea and Operations Manager Cary Kayama, were at Kahului Airport on Tuesday, and will be back again on Saturday, giving tips to incoming visitors, as well as residents, on how to safely use these flotation devices.

This is great news, because pre-pandemic, a visitor fatally drowns on average once per week in Hawaii. From 2015-2019, Maui County accounted for roughly 12 percent of the state’s population but 27 percent of the state’s fatal ocean drowning. Statewide, visitors comprise 89 percent of ocean-related spinal cord injuries, generally getting tossed by the force of the wave and pounded into the ocean floor. This can happen to local residents also, as the power of the ocean can be brutal and unpredictable.

Locals also drown way too often. In fact, a recent population survey of ocean activity among residents indicated an increased risk among free divers: Only 7 percent of residents reported free diving in the last 30 days surveyed, but free diving accounted for 13 percent of resident drownings. Other activities associated with resident drowning were swimming, snorkeling and getting swept in. Snorkeling is by far the most frequent activity associated with drowning among nonresidents, accounting for more victims than all other ocean activities combined. Certainly, most ocean-related incidents are never publicized, gratefully relived among friends or quietly written up in a lifeguard incident report. During Hawaii Beach Safety Week, we can show appreciation for our beaches and the people who protect us by modeling respect of the ocean to newcomers, heeding all lifeguard warnings, and when in doubt, don’t go out. For more information, visit HiOceanSafety.com.

* Bridget Kaumeheiwa Velasco is a planner with the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Maui District Health Office. No Ka Oi Health is published monthly by the state Department of Health.

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