Hawaii Can And Should Be The Leader In Ocean And Aquatic Safety

Hawaii is home to the best watermen and women in the world. We don’t have to wait to follow the lead of other states in policy development around aquatic safety.

March 29, 2023

The recent winner of the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, Luke Shepardson, a lifeguard with the City and County of Honolulu, has once again demonstrated the genius of Hawaii’s watermen and waterwomen as part of a living legacy. Hawaii, the birthplace of surfing and Hokule’a, has a long line of ocean and aquatic champions such as Duke Kahanamoku, Rell Sunn, Eddie Aikau, Carissa Moore, and so many more. However, despite these accomplishments, there are profound challenges and inequities in this arena as well. Hawaii has the second highest rate of drowning of residents in the country, and even more visitors drown than residents each year. Less than half of our keiki have basic swim or aquatic safety skills, and almost unbelievably, some children growing up here have little to no experience at the beach. Fortunately, several solutions to address this public health problem are emerging as well as greater collaborations among stakeholders, and we should do all we can to support these efforts.

Our lifeguards statewide have a depth of knowledge and skills that are unparalleled. With thousands of miles of shoreline to cover, they perform hundreds of preventive actions and rescues every single day in a range of conditions. Along with Shepardson, who captured his win while taking a break from the lifeguard tower, their expertise was on display at the Eddie right along with the surfers themselves. We need to continue to support and build upon the vitally important work of our lifeguards.

We need to prioritize teaching our residents and visitors ocean and aquatic safety knowledge and provide current conditions-based information so they can avoid hazardous situations in the first place, reducing the need for rescues. We can do this through a robust outreach strategy such as expanded public service announcements in airports, hotels, airplanes, TV/radio, and social media, as well as via updated ‘smart’ signage from DLNR with QR codes. Kauai and Oahu ocean lifeguards have begun working with Your Watchtower, a platform that can disseminate safety alerts and real-time hazard advisories from a lifeguard’s tablet to anyone with the app. This program should be expanded across all the islands.

Drowning is a leading cause of death and injury for our keiki, and data from the Hawaii Aquatics Foundation (HAF) reveals that less than half of our keiki have the basic skills to avoid or recover from a dangerous aquatic situation, such as breath holding, floating, and finding safe exit. In response to this need, HAF has created a scalable model with the goal of bringing these lessons to every HIDOE school in the state, and we should support these efforts at several developmental levels to provide our keiki with these lifelong skills. Let’s also expand on the culturally-rooted ocean safety & conservation clinics and curriculums from Nā Kama Kai which familiarize kids with ocean activities and give them vital risk assessment skills.

Junior Lifeguard training could be available across the state and integrated into the public school offerings. A number of entities, including our state’s own county lifeguards, have stepped up recently to stage Junior Lifeguard programs. Complemented by a county-run program and numerous other lifesaving skills offerings, this outreach is a critical first step in establishing a framework for ocean safety awareness in our island community.

Lifeguarding classes could also be offered as Career Technical Education for credit in public high schools. In the short term, these kids could fill the many vacancies of rec center lifeguards at local pools. In the long term, these programs could open up job opportunities for teens and inspire some to pursue careers in public safety. Significantly, we would also have more people with basic first responder skills at our beaches and pools, and in our communities.

Finally, let’s create a new position to lead these statewide ocean and aquatic safety initiatives and align them with the U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan currently in development at the federal level. We don’t have to wait to follow the lead of other states in policy development. Hawaii can and should be the leader in ocean and aquatic safety to properly steward its rich history and legacy.

Contributed by:

Sarah Fairchild, Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation

Jessamy Town Hornor, Hawaii Aquatics Foundation

John Titchen, Honolulu Ocean Safety

Kalani Vierra, Hawaiian Lifeguard Association

March 29, 2023

Link to full article orginally published by Civil Beat:


Back to News

blue arrow pointing to the right