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Ocean Safety in Hawaii

More people drown in Hawaii than anywhere else in the world. In addition, powerful shorebreaks are also the cause of severe injuries like broken backs and necks. But don’t let these statistics deter you from enjoying the ocean. Instead, educate yourself on the day and area’s ocean conditions and enjoy the water responsibly.

Ask lifeguards or beach attendants about conditions and follow their advice. Common sense, good judgment, and respect for the ocean go a long way. And never turn your back on the ocean while enjoying the shoreline. Rogue waves can wash over reef, rock, and beach and pull you out into the water. Obey all warning signs posted on the beach, and if you’re swimming, surfing, or snorkeling, return to shore before you get tired. If you engage in an ocean activity by yourself, make sure you tell others in your party your planned whereabouts in the event of an emergency. If you find yourself on the beach psyching yourself up to get in the water, it’s probably better to heed the warning, “If in doubt, stay out.”

Signs warn beachgoers to be cautious of jellyfish.
Beware of jellyfish! Keep an eye out for signs warning of local conditions. Photo © Eric Chan, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Sharks, Urchins, and Coral

Sharks live in all the oceans of the world. Most mind their own business and stay away from shore. Hawaiian sharks are well fed—on fish—and don’t usually bother with unsavory humans. If you encounter a shark, don’t panic! Never thrash around because this will trigger their attack instinct.

Portuguese man-of-wars and other jellyfish put out long, floating tentacles that sting if they touch you. Jellyfish are blown into shore by winds on the 8th, 9th, and 10th days after the full moon. Don’t wash the sting off with freshwater because this will only aggravate it. Locals will use hot saltwater to take away the sting, as well as alcohol (the drinking or rubbing kind), aftershave lotion, or meat tenderizer (MSG), but lifeguards use common household vinegar. After rinsing, soak with a wet towel. An antihistamine may also bring relief. Expect to start to feel better in about a half hour.

Coral can give you a nasty cut, and it’s known for causing infections because it’s a living organism. Wash the cut immediately and apply an antiseptic. Keep it clean and covered, and watch for infection. With coral cuts, it’s best to have a professional look at it to clean it out. Most infection comes from tiny bits of coral that are left deep in the cut. Never stand on or grab coral. It damages the fragile life form and can send you to the hospital.

A Hawaaian sea urchin in a coral crevice.
Keep a lookout when entering and exiting the ocean, because sea urchins like to hide in the crevices of lava rocks and coral. Photo © bonita cheshier/123rf.

Poisonous sea urchins, like the lacquer-black wana, are found in shallow tidepools and reefs and will hurt you if you step on them. Their spines will break off, enter your foot, and severely burn. There are cures. Soaking a couple of times in vinegar for half an hour or so should stop the burning. If vinegar is not available, the local cure-all is urine.

Leave the fish, turtles, and seals alone. Fish should never be encouraged to feed from humans. Green sea turtles and seals are endangered species, and stiff fines can be levied on those who knowingly disturb them. Have a great time looking and taking pictures, but give them respect and space.

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