Residents Comprised Eight of Nine Fatal Ocean Drownings in Hawai‘i Since April

September 21, 2020, 8:53 AM HST · Updated September 21, 8:55 AM
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The Hawai‘i Department of Health is recognizing drowning prevention efforts across our islands as the state observes Hawai‘i Beach Safety Week, Sept. 20-26.

With 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.

Maui is emphasizing the public’s critical role in the 911 emergency call system, especially during ocean-related emergencies.

According to Maui Ocean Safety Battalion Chief Jeff Giesea, “As the first on scene, community members play a critical role in our emergency response system. Early notification and provision of accurate and useful information lay the groundwork for a successful lifesaving 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.”

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According to the Hawai‘i Department of Health, residents comprised eight of 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 in Hawai‘i). Fatal ocean drownings in the state are projected to be about 50% lower than the annual average of 82 over the last five years. Free diving continues to be one of the most common activities among resident drowning victims, accounting for nearly half (5) of the 12 fatal incidents between January and July 2020.

While the annual on-scene beach safety events such as State Ocean Safety Conference and Jr. Lifeguard Championships have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a statewide campaign, “Ocean Safety Amidst a Pandemic: Keeping your Ohana Safe,” will showcase radio spots and other safety messaging from water safety officials in each county.

The Hawai‘i Beach Safety Week efforts are sponsored by Maui waterman Archie Kalepa and OluKai.

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

State officials say Hawai‘i Island has historically had the highest proportion of resident drownings. 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. He notes, “Shoreline activities, such as fishing and picking ‘opihi, account for more than one-third of fatal ocean drownings among Big Island residents. We stress the importance of being aware of the current ocean conditions and don’t take chances if they’re unfavorable.”

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