Hawai‘i Beach Safety Week Puts Ocean Goers on Alert

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PC: Crystal Richard

In recognition of drowning prevention efforts across the state, Governor David Ige proclaimed the week of Sept. 20–26 Hawai‘i Beach Safety Week. This week is dedicated to Hawai‘i Drowning and Aquatic Injury Committee Advisory member and long-time water safety advocate Ray Sanborn, who passed away unexpectedly last week.

“Ocean Safety Amidst a Pandemic: Keeping your ‘Ohana Safe,” showcases radio spots and other safety messaging from water safety officials in each county. Due to the COVID pandemic, on-scene beach safety events, the annual State Ocean Safety Conference, and Jr. Lifeguard Championships have been canceled.

According to the Hawai‘i Department of Health, state residents comprised all but one of the nine fatal ocean drownings in Hawai‘i since April, compared to only four of the 14 fatal drownings from January through March, the pre-lockdown period. Fatal ocean drownings in Hawai‘i are projected to be about 50% lower than the annual average of 82 over the last five years. Freediving continues to be one of the most common activities among resident drowning victims, accounting for nearly half (five) of the 12 fatal incidents between January and July 2020.


Due to COVID-related travel restrictions, the number of visitors at local beaches is drastically reduced, but all counties have seen an increase in residents going fishing and participating in other shoreline and beach activities. Counties are highlighting various efforts to keep people safe in and around the ocean.

The Big Island, which has historically had the highest proportion of resident drownings, notes ocean safety and rescue services were involved in assisting several residents who were fishing or diving and went missing during various incidents in the early part of the year. Assistant Fire Chief Darwin Okinaka encourages divers and opihi pickers to use a tight buddy system and asks adults to keep a close eye on children, especially around coastal areas.

“Shoreline activities, such as fishing and picking opihi, account for more than one-third of fatal ocean drownings among Big Island residents,” Okinaka said. “We stress the importance of being aware of the current ocean conditions and don’t take chances if they’re unfavorable.”


For Hawai‘i Beach Safety week this year, the City and County of Honolulu is highlighting Ocean Safety Division’s increased mobile presence. Division jet skis, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), utility terrain vehicles (UTVs), and trucks patrol O‘ahu’s beaches, coastline, and nearshore waters. According to C & C of Honolulu Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Chief John Titchen, in response to COVID-19 from mid-March through the end of April, Ocean Safety was entirely mobile and on-duty from dawn to dusk. Even with fewer people out during the early days of the pandemic, Ocean Safety personnel response stats did not decrease, and outreach via vehicle patrols, communications over mounted public address systems, and increased water safety presence islandwide likely prevented many more injuries around the ocean.

Kaua‘i County has been able to keep its beach parks open and accessible during the pandemic, yet Ocean Safety Bureau Operations Chief Kalani Vierra notes locals are increasingly seeking out “hidden gems” in remote locations that may prevent quick access to emergency assistance if they get into trouble.

“We will be emphasizing one ocean safety tip a day to compliment the COVID safety messages already out there,” Vierra said. “Our county is doing well keeping COVID at bay, and we have had fewer drownings because we have way fewer tourists, but we don’t want to let our guard down.”


Maui is emphasizing the public’s role in the 911 system, including during ocean-related emergencies.

“As the first on scene, community members play a critical role in our emergency response system,” said Jeff Giesea, Ocean Safety Battalion Chief on Maui. “Early notification and provision of accurate and useful information lay the groundwork for a successful rescue. The more we know and the sooner we know it, the better our chances of getting those in trouble back safely to their families.”

The counties and the Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee thanked Archie Kalepa and Olukai for sponsoring its communication efforts during Hawai‘i Beach Safety Week and said they would like to honor Ray Sanborn, who was a founding member of the Advisory and enthusiastic contributor to drowning prevention efforts for decades. Sanborn was president and CEO of Kama’aina Kids.

The Hawai‘i Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee is coordinated by the Department of Health and is a coalition of organizations working to prevent water-related tragedies in Hawai‘i. The Advisory brings together organizations from all four counties, as well as state and non-profit groups.

For more information on the Hawai‘i Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee or drowning prevention efforts statewide, contact advisory co-chair Gerald Kosaki at [email protected] or the Department of Health’s Janice Okubo at [email protected].

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