Photo: sea.level/TikTok

PSA: Hawaii Is Not a Theme Park

Hawaii Beaches and Islands
by Noelle Alejandra Salmi Jan 30, 2023

Last week saw the famed Eddie Aikau surf competition in Hawaii, a big wave extravaganza that only takes place when waves at Oahu’s Waimea Bay are at least 40 feet tall. With so many massive rollers smashing right onto the beach, one right after the other, the event was hair-raising.

The scene on-shore was equally terrifying – so much so that TikToks documenting the chaos made their way around the world. Monster waves crashed atop onlookers, who scrambled to pick up young children, grasp at their strewn belongings, and do everything but prepare for the next one – an even more epic wave that knocked people over, dragged them seaward, and caused serious panic.

@matadornetwork Tourists in Hawaii need to respect the word of lifeguards and the power of Mother Nature on the islands. Unfortunately, too many visitors disregard this warning and wind up in trouble, needing help from lifeguards who save lives every day. Just a reminder to always listen to the professionals regarding ocean safety — it could save you from disaster! When it comes to surviving crashing waves, the safest location in water over your waist is beneath, not above, the whitewater of breaking waves. Put your head down and fingertips in the sand below as you face the approaching wave and duck rather than diving. Never turn your back on the waves while paddling, swimming, or walking back to the beach. Source: 🎥 @808_fuel 📍#waimeabay, Hawaii #crashingwaves #highsurf #oceansafety #lifeguards #hawaiitok ♬ original sound – Matador Network

”A lot of people, they want to have that front row seat. They want to be up and personal instead of being careful,” says Iko Balanga, a big wave surfer, lifeguard and ocean safety expert featured in a ocean safety film promoted by Hawaiian tourist authorities. Balanga adds, “It’s sad to see stuff like that happen where they’ve got to learn the hard way.”

Want to avoid learning the hard way? Here’s a friendly Public Service Announcement: Hawaii is not a theme park.

Hawaii is not a funfair designed for your playing pleasure. Rather, Hawaii is a stunning archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, made of ancient and still active volcanoes. Its waters teem with marine life, it houses endemic plant and bird species, and it comprises stunningly diverse ecosystems – from rainforests to deserts – often on a single island. The archipelago is also home to Indigenous Hawaiians who have a vibrant culture you should get to know when you visit.

The way many tourists treat the islands, though, you’d think it was their personal playground. It’s an attitude that gets them injured and causes damage.

“Beachgoers not heeding warning signs, nor the warnings from lifeguards at the beaches,” is unfortunately a “frequent” occurrence, according to Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) staff, in an email exchange. The email’s author had permission to state these facts, but preferred not be mentioned by name –– possibly because of their frankness.

What else do tourists do? Well, as the DLNR tell me, it’s not uncommon to have “Visitors tumbling down a steep precipice after going right by the sign that says ‘DANGER, UNSTABLE EDGE.’” Or, unbelievably, suffering severe burns because they crawled past the protective barricade at an “extraordinarily hot… geothermally-warmed natural steam vent.”

man pulled from hawaii cliff

Photo: ellai/TikTok

And then first responders have to rush into rescue reckless hikers and medical clinics fill up treating avoidable burns. What do these folks think the barricades and signage are for? They exist to keep people and the land safe. The sad reality is that tourists die in Hawaii.

Between 2009 and 2018, 392 tourists died in Hawaii, 189 of them by drowning. And most of those who drowned did so while snorkeling. Yes, snorkeling.

The reasons are various. “Some of them get cardiac arrest… People overwork their heart,” Balanga says. “You can drown from having water going in the wrong pipe,” adds Balanga, noting that many people don’t get proper “Snorkel 101” training on their equipment and how to use it.

And people can get cold, even in Hawaii’s relatively warm 75-to-80-degree water. “If you’re not kicking and relaxing and snorkeling, your body tends to get cold,” says Balanga, noting that even in Hawaii hypothermia can happen.

The overarching reason is lack of education about the risks, Balanga says.

“I’ve been out there with guests that have never ever seen the ocean or have been in the ocean. And some of them are like, ‘I did it in the swimming pool or the river so I got it,’” Balanga says, who adds that educating visitors is critical.

While he says he has met many “amazing” travelers throughout the years, Balanga says there are still those who think they know everything and don’t want more information. Or there are those who just want to snap the perfect Insta shot.

“Everybody wants to stand by the edge of the rocks and let the water splash the air and get a big awesome picture. And then you get sucked away. And you know, I’ve saved a lot of people,” Balanga says. Sometimes that has been when he’s been out surfing with his wife and she’s spotted people in trouble.

big wave surfing in hawaii

Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

That’s right. Those folks taking photos get saved by Hawaiian surfers. Those surfers would rather be catching waves.

Just remember: Hawaii’s natural environment is wild. Treat is at such. It is also fragile. That’s one reason that Hawaiian travel authorities are now emphasizing mālama, the idea of caring for the land. It’s a better way to be a visitor –– better for you and better for Hawaii.

How to visit Hawaii while respecting the natural environment

@ruderocaloha Lifeguard warned them! Wiamea Bay. #wiameabay #theeddie #hawaii #lifeguard ♬ original sound – RudeRocAloha

Hawaii is getting there, but there are some travelers who still need the PSA.

“A lot of visitors are mindful of the environment but unfortunately some are not. It doesn’t take very many people acting disrespectfully to make bad situations happen,” says Susan Frett, Conservation Manager at the Pacific Whale Foundation via email.

Frett says travelers should use their zoom lenses to capture wildlife and should heed regulations about how close they can get to wildlife. For example, you need to stay 100 yards from humpback whales.

Likewise, Frett urges people not to stand on coral, which breaks easily. It’s an important habitat for marine animals and protects coasts from erosion, she says. That keeps Hawaii safe for the natural world and for the people who live in it and enjoy it.

In short, don’t trash the place. Like, literally. “Bring or purchase a reusable water bottle. Hawaii’s water is good to drink and many places offer free refills for your water bottle,” Frett says. “We have limited recycling facilities so many of the plastic bottles end up in the trash or as litter at the beach.”

The DNLR staff agrees with all of this, including using reusable bottles. They note that, while in the past, tourists in Hawaii were not at all mindful of the environment, this is gradually changing.

“I am finding that [travelers ignoring the environment] to be less and less the case. Which is encouraging. I have engaged with mindful, respectful, caring visitors.. [who] ask great questions,” wrote the staffer. They said these kinds of travelers “genuinely appreciate any and all advice and counsel.”

@cburkefilms Hiker twists knee hafway through the Kalalau Trail #hawaii #kalalautrail #kauai ♬ Bad Habit – Steve Lacy

Which brings us full circle: It’s about knowing and listening to local regulations and advice. And it’s about educating yourself, as Balanga says. He recommends only going to beaches where there’s a lifeguard and introducing yourself to them.

“Go to the lifeguard and just introduce yourself,” Balanga says. “You can just tell them, ‘This is my level of ocean experience.’ That’s their job and they love people coming up and introducing themselves and they’re gonna watch over you as well.”

You can also talk to locals and ask them where the safest place to get into the water is, Balanga says. Also, you should always have a partner. If you go to the beach on your own without that buddy, Balanga says, “Don’t be shy, go and talk to somebody and make friends. Everybody wants to take care of each other.”

Balanga is covered in tattoos, as are many native Hawaiians. He says that although he looks scary, he’s actually a friendly guy. You might see another person like him and think, “You don’t want to talk to him because he looks scary, but those are the people you want to talk to because they have a lot of knowledge,” Balanga says.

“Local people and Hawaiian people, they have plenty love,” and they don’t want to see you or anybody else getting hurt, he says.

So be grateful for that, and do your part to not get hurt and to take care of the place they call home.

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