We play on waves in Hawaii: surfing, paddling and sailing. Listening to the waves crash in on themselves is relaxing while they sound like nature’s flute when they spout through blow holes. And yet, waves take lives. In just the past few weeks, two Hawaii visitors have died in Hawaii waters. They did not drown in high surf, they were swept from land into the sea by waves.

In each case, a couple of basic tips might have made a difference. First, never turn your back on the ocean. Even if you think you are safely beyond the reach of the surf, random waves reach farther with more intensity than you might imagine. Not only do those waves surprise with a h3 slap of water, they drag you back with just as much force into the undertow. By the time ocean waves reach the islands of Hawaii, they have traveled far across the ocean, picking up energy as they go. Ocean waves are mesmerizing to watch but best from a distance.

Second, it is tempting to venture to the edge of the rocky shore along Hawaii’s coast for a climb or a hike. That’s where the blow holes are, because they have been worn by the action of the water. But the rocks can be both sharp and slippery. It makes for a dangerous combination. The water keeps the area slick, so that it is easy to slip and hard to maintain a hand-hold if you fall. The sharp edges cut feet and, again, are hard to hold onto. Although many guide books list the locations of blow holes or “hidden” outlooks, there is no special benefit to standing directly beside them. Stay at a safe distance for photos.

It seems like a special tragedy for people on a Hawaii vacation to experience difficulty. It pains locals to have anyone injured in the islands – local or visitor. It is especially painful when the injury could have been prevented by prudence. Hawaii may look like a movie back drop but it is a complex ecosystem that can be deadly without malice. It is up to the humans to protect themselves while they enjoy the view. Stay safe and use the camera zoom to get the close shots.


  1. Aloha Cindy! Great article!
    Yup! I gotta say that ke kai (the sea) discriminates against no one. Local or visitor, young and old, newby or experienced swimmer, hawaiian or not, all types of people fall victim to ke kai.
    I grew up a few years as a child across Makua Valley on a beach back in the 70's in a shack (called Squatters Camp, some of you may remember this place) where ke kai was everything to us and dolphins passed off-shore like clock-work. Dad would body surf and drag us screaming into ke kai for our daily baptism in nature's fury (2-3 ft. surf break were hew-mungous to me at the time).
    Many years later at the age of 14 I did something really dumb. I went to a beach called "Pipeline" all by myself and watched the white wash roll in. "ONLY WHITE WASH" I thought "ON THE SAND BAR" I noticed. So I swam out.
    Just as soon as I entered ke kai, I immediately struggled through deep water to the sand-bar. Surfers call this the "trough." Walked across the sand bar to the other end where the white wash rolled in and started swimming out.
    Found myself in a whirlpool before I knew it and started swimming Northward heading nowhere. I found out later I was in between "Off the Walls" and "Pipeline" stuck where these two breaks meet. 
    Soon, one of God's Angels by the name of MARK CUNNINGHAM (Legendary Surfer) came to my aid on a boogey-board and askolded (ask-scolded?) me "What are you doing out here in 6-8 foot surf without fins!?"
    Honestly! I never panicked until he said 6 to 8. That was 12-16 foot faces at PIPELINE! I was too terrified to use the boogey-board to ride in but I had no choice, I finally got back to shore unscathed. He then told me to go to the lifeguard station to fill out a report and to mention his name. I said OK but my pride directed me straight to the bus stop to get home. Later, I realized the white wash I watched rolled in was because the waves were so big they were breaking out at 2nd reef. 
    I eventually bought a pair of fins (Church-hills and later Vipers) and practiced a lot at Waimea Bay High School, barely graduating from Leilehua High school with a "D" in English. In my fun years at Waimea Bay, I managed to help many people stuck in high surf which, surprisingly, were mostly buff, military grunts who were in top shape on land. It was ironic.
    Mahalo Mark C.! You da bomb!
    The point is: Ke Kai takes who 'eva, when 'eva! Ho 'ihi ke kai kakou! We must respect the sea!

  2. Great post Cindy…thanks for the important reminder and safety tips! Kalani…mahalo for sharing your interesting story!

  3. Just wanna follow up to my last posting. I was thinking, what does it mean to "Respect the Sea?" How does one from middle Iowa or Nebraska know to respect ke kai (the sea) when many of them never seen it before?
    Few tips:
    1 – Ask a lifeguard if there's one available. They are the professionals when it comes to Ocean safety and activity. They'll be able to advise you of dangerous areas and equipment you may need to enter the water, etc.
    2 – If a lifeguard is not available, DO NOT rush into the water right away. Watch the ocean for at least 20-30 minutes. Take your time and take notice of the shoreline activity first. Waves come into shore in sets of 1-10 or more every so many minutes. Count the number of waves in each set and time the calmness of the water between wave sets. This calmness should be your safe time to swim. This is what most locals do unless they're already familiar with the area. Also, observe current direction by watching the top of the water and the direction it is pulling to. Stand at the shore and observe if the water is flowing right or left. The faster the flow, the stronger the current. However, don't be fooled by still water, there may still be an under-toll which can be just as deadly. If you see surfers, observe their actions. They tend to be at a certain location before waves roll in and swim back out in a specific area after catching a wave. TAKE MENTAL NOTES.   
    3 –  Blowholes? Again, watch the blowhole for a while and try to notice a pattern. Blow holes tend to become active and "BLOW" according to incoming wave action. Try to notice what happens to the blow hole when waves roll in. It may not be obvious, a wave rolling in 20-30 feet away from the blowhole may not seem to affect the blowhole but don't be fooled. WATCH FOR A PATTERN.
    4 – ALWAYS ASSUME WET ROCKS ARE SLIPPERY. It may not always be but it would be better to err on the side of safety and act accordingly. BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL ON WET ROCKS. If you see wet rocks that are green or brown, the green (or brown) is algae and is definitely slippery, STAY AWAY!
    5 – Never face your back toward the ocean. You will not see an incoming wave that is about to knock you into the sea. Although locals know this rule, we may do so because we may be familiar with the ocean but we are taking the risk and assume full responsibility when doing so. Even locals who know the ocean like the back of their hands fall victim when facing their back to ke kai.
    7 – Use common sense. If you're not familiar the ocean, just enjoy it from a safe distance and live the rest of your vacation.
    I don't claim to have all the answers to this issue but I hope someone reading this benefits from it and avoids Hawaii Taxpayers from paying Attorney fees when the next person falls victim for a lack of observance capabilities or common sense.

  4. Great advice Kalani,this could & probably should be a whole blog post. I don't think books like Oahu revealed is helping the situation with uninformed visitors either by telling people to go to places that are deadly if you don't know what you're doing.

  5. Kalani – thanks so much for your advice. Your comments also remind me how important it is to look out for one another in and near the water.

  6. Excellent post Cindy and BIG Mahalos to you Kalani for posting your story, anecdotes and great information!!!!
    A good friend mine lost her adult son a few years back. He was an expert swimmer and fisherman and one day while fishing and picking opihi he was swept out to sea by a rogue wave off Maui. You never think it can happen to you and that is the point I always try to stress to my son… he's an excellent swimmer and surfs so therefore thinks he's invincible.

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