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Water safety: Shallow water can be dangerous

by Kalamalama staff

At least 20 million people visit the shores of O‘ahu every year, and beach and ocean recreation play a major role in the lives of both visitors and residents as well.

On O‘ahu, however, ocean beaches can often be dangerous due to weather-generated surf, currents, and wind. Over the past 10 years, statistics show three or more drownings and two hundred or more accidents requiring ambulance assistance each year.

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According to lifeguards, many of these accidents are neck, back, and spine injuries experienced by body surfers and body boarders in the shore break. Amazingly, about 90 percent of these injuries occur when the surf is three feet or less. The common assumption, that small waves are too weak to be harmful, is wrong. These waves can toss one “over the falls” and headfirst into hard-packed sand, causing severe injury and sometimes even death.

Surfing accidents also claim lives in Hawai‘i, even though surfers generally are better trained than body boarders and more knowledgeable of ocean dangers. The shore break is not an issue for surfers because they generally ride waves in deeper water further from shore. Nonetheless, there are also great dangers, especially in large surf.

Surfers should be aware of location and direction of swells and ocean currents. “The bigger and more frequent the waves, the stronger the currents”—is a very important rule to remember. Surfers should be exceptionally strong swimmers and capable of taking care of themselves if they are carried seaward by ocean currents.

Every individual who enters the ocean in Hawai‘i or anywhere else should be aware of the ocean’s unpredictability and power.

Things to do before you go into the water

  • Check with lifeguards about the specific beach and dangers.
  • Pay attention to signs. These convey warnings of risks and how to avoid them.
  • Do not enter closed beaches during high surf advisories.
  • Pay attention to weather news bulletins and warnings of hazards.
  • Always swim with a partner.
  • When in doubt, don’t go out.
  • Don’t exhaust yourself.
  • Never turn your back on the surf.
  • Go with someone who knows CPR.
  • Don’t fight a current. Swim with it and diagonally across it until it releases you.
  • Keep this handy and review it with your friends before you go to the beach.

Water safety rules

Hawai‘i means the beach and fun in the sun. But Hawai‘i’s oceans can be dangerous and turn fun into tragedy. Use care and caution for all water activities, including swimming pools, and always read and obey safety signs. They could save your life!

  1. Never go swimming alone, even if you are an exceptional swimmer. Never go to the beach alone.
  2. Be aware of high surf warnings, strong currents.
  3. Large waves can sweep over you and sweep you off the beach and into the surf. Watch for breaking waves. Avoid wet, rocky areas. Never turn your back to the ocean.
  4. Most beaches post signs about the conditions of the ocean. Read and obey them. Strong currents may not be noticeable on the surface but can be dangerous beneath.
  5. Know the various beaches on the islands and the prevailing conditions at each. Select beaches with conditions that match your skills and comfort level.
  6. Swimming pools are deceptively designed, shallow at one end and dropping, sometimes rapidly, toward the deeper end. Never go into a pool alone, unless you are a strong swimmer.
  7. The sun’s ultraviolet radiation can cause skin cancer. Whenver you swim, use protective sun screen, preferably SPF 15 or above. Some skin experts advise you to use sun screen at all times.


If you would like to learn how to swim, call the following places for more information: YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) 536-3556, or YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) 538-7061. Learn how to swim, it might save your life.


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