Hawaii Water Dangers

Approximately 7 million people per year visit our Hawaiian islands. I wish all of them could read this list of cautions – because it would save them some trouble, sometimes without much effort.

Hawaii is different from where you grew up, wherever that is. The ocean and other weather events can be dangerous at times. An atmosphere of free-for-all fun might exist during your first couple trips to Hawaii – or first few months living here and you might not be aware of dangers.

Here is a list of what I think is important for everyone to know when visiting or living in Hawaii.

Water Dangers

I mentioned Flash floods and big waves already and won’t cover them again here.

Hawaii Tsunamis

Recently Thailand and much of southeast Asia experienced a devastating tsunami caused by an underwater earthquake in Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands of people died in that event – and it gave us all something to think about. I had left Patong Beach, Thailand just 2 days before the tsunami struck. Having lived in Hawaii for years I knew what receding waters meant –and maybe  could have warned a lot of people to get to higher ground.

If you live in Hawaii you will see tsunami cautions mentioned frequently in the newspapers, and on television. When the water recedes far out from what it typically does – and you see fish, octopus, or other sea life stuck in the sand wondering what happened – you’ll know that a tsunami is about to take place. Get to as high a place as you possibly can. If there is nothing near you – climb a strong coconut tree – sure it’s difficult, but not more difficult than staying alive when the tsunami rushes in.


Blowholes are holes in the cliff face near the ocean that spray water when waves come in and go under the lava cliffs and up and out the hole in front of tourists. They are great fun, but also can be quite dangerous. The force of the water coming through the hole can pick you up and drop you head first down the hole – where you drown. This has happened numerous times in the past. Some blowholes are closed for this reason.


I was snorkeling in cloudy water in Maui when I came in and was sitting in 1 foot of water, removing my mask and fins. I felt a burning on the inside of my thigh. It became absolutely unbearable – fast. I jumped out of the water, trying to get the jellyfish off me – and I couldn’t see it at all. It sure found me though. It left a roadmap – like a map of roads all over the inside of my thigh. The pain was excruciating and my heart started beating crazily and I thought I was going to go into shock. I focused on remaining calm in spite of the pain and eventually, after soaking it in urine – the pain eased up just slightly. For a couple hours it burned intensely.

I’m hard-pressed to choose which hurt worse… that, or the venom injected in my foot from the barb of a stingray in Florida while fishing one time. Both were chemical burns – and there’s nothing quite like a chemical burn to shake you up – trust me on that!

The jellyfish invasion is on a pretty regular schedule. Nine to twelve days after a full moon you can find the jellyfish – and especially during windy days on the windward sides of the islands.

Lifeguards display signs warning if jellyfish are present.

Another treatment for jellyfish (or man-o-war) stings is to rinse the affected area with vinegar, or If you have it – some isopropyl rubbing alcohol.

Once you do that – apply the “Safe Sea Jellyfish After Sting” gel.

Don’t rinse with freshwater as the nematocysts of the jellyfish will continue to release toxins into your skin. Do not use ice or hot water either. Remove any jellyfish tissue from your skin with a stick or tweezers – not your fingers.

Eye stings are especially sensitive and require lots of rinsing, and a visit to the doctor or emergency room.

Box jellyfish are deadly and can cause death within minutes of a sting, their toxins are highly toxic to the human body. If you hear that box jellyfish are in the water – don’t plan on getting in the water at all.

Portuguese Man-O-War

These are quite common on the windward side of the island. I bodyboarded frequently at Waimanalo and Bellows Air Force Station. It seemed there were these fiends every time I went. They stung a little bit and caused discomfort, but many times I could continue to bodyboard for hours before coming in. However, a few times I had to stop just from the sheer abundance of these things in the water. They look like floating purple balloons. Very small – smaller than your hand. They have very long tentacles that can stretch for meters in length. They are virtually invisible in the water – and you won’t know until you get stung by them.

If you are allergic to the venom (I wasn’t), you can have very severe reactions to these beasts. The first time you are stung you should get out of the water and see what symptoms develop. Probably you’ll not have anything more than burning – but it pays to be safe and find out by getting out and studying the effects. Again, urine helps the pain.

Remote Beaches

Though picturesque, and maybe you cannot believe your luck – swimming at secluded beaches where you are the only one or ones in the water – is not a good idea for a couple of reasons.

The best reason for swimming where there are lifeguards is the rip current that is sometimes present. Many people have died in Hawaii after being sucked out away from the beach in a rip current that exhausted them as they tried to swim against it – or tread water until help arrived.

Rip Currents

What to do if you’re caught in a rip current that is pulling you away from the beach and you’re helpless to swim back to the beach where you want to be?

Don’t fight it directly – it’s a losing battle. The strongest swimmers in the world cannot fight the strength of a rip current.

You can start by swimming parallel to the beach – which might take you out of the current, and then you can swim back to the beach.

Or, if that isn’t working – you can try just going with the current until it weakens and releases you – so you can swim back to the beach.

Anyone can get caught in a rip current. I was caught in a very bad one at Sand Island one time as I bodyboarded with a friend. Good thing I had bodyboarding fins on and a board to float on. I had to use all my strength for 25 minutes to fight the rip current – finally winning, but I was completely exhausted and had to sit on the beach for the rest of the day.

I didn’t do the smart thing – and swim parallel to the beach – I swam straight at it. Learn from my mistake!

Sandy Beach and Other Beaches with Shore-Breaking Waves

A special mention goes to Sand Beach because the place is treacherous for those playing in the surf. There are more broken, strained, and sprained necks, knees, elbows, and ankles at this beach than at any of the other beaches.


The culprit is the wicked shore-break. This is where the waves break right at the beach – and into the hard packed sand. Every time there are waves at Sandy’s you’ll find people in the dangerous surf. Stay all day and you’ll probably see someone hurt by it.

I’ve been thrown into the sand very hard at Sandy’s and I just don’t even enjoy the place anymore. Couple that with the strong localism of the teenage crowd – and it’s just not a fun place for too many people but the teens themselves!

Coral Reef Cuts

The coral reef in Hawaii is razor sharp, and also holds urchins, called “Vana” by locals, that can leave strong and sharp spines in your foot or leg if you inadvertently step on a reef.

Reef cuts don’t tend to heal quickly. The reason is because coral contains a living animal filled with proteinaceous matter – toxic to the human body. The body fights against it, but it takes considerable time to win the battle. Couple that with the fact that the water of Waikiki is filled with staphylococci bacteria – as well as other nasty things. If you get cut, you can almost count on an infection. You’ll want to have it treated properly immediately.


Friends of mine have had sea urchin spines imbedded (broken off) inside their feet. They hurt like you couldn’t imagine. Eventually they dissolve – but it will take months.

If you’re not sure where the reefs are in the area you’re swimming – ask the lifeguard. Proceed with caution!

Territorial Surfers

Not just locals, but primarily the locals, can be unwelcoming to put it mildly. If you don’t understand the common courtesy that takes place as you vie for position to catch a wave – you are best to learn it before putting your board or “okole” in the water.

Local surfers will let you know when you’re not playing by the accepted rules. Sometimes there are no rules and the locals will gripe no matter what you do – just because you’re there at their spot – and in the way.

Up to you how you handle that, I’ve fought for a spot on a couple of occasions, because I’m equally as passionate about catching waves as they are! Other times, I’m way outnumbered and take my board and go to a less crowded spot.

Once I had a teenage duck his surfboard down in front of me – and it popped up and hit me as I rode my bodyboard down a wave. The next time he caught a wave I grabbed his board and threw him off it. It shouldn’t get to this point – but it sometimes does. In a perfect world these situations don’t exist… Hawaii is NOT a perfect world, so take off your rose-colored glasses before you arrive!


In recent memory, and since Hawaii became one of the United States, there were a couple of hurricanes that tore through Hawaii. There was a lot of devastation and some people even died as a result. The hurricanes were Hurricane Iwa on 11/23/1982 which hit Oahu, Kauai, and Ni’ihau. This was not a giant hurricane, it ranked Category 1.

The next hurricane, Iniki, was a more powerful Category 4 storm, and hit Kauai straight on during 9/11/1992. Hurricane Iniki caused 6 deaths and nearly $2 billion dollars in damage.

In addition to the strong winds – the storm surge caused significant flooding.


One natural weather phenomenon that has the most potentially devastating effect, is a tsunami. In terms of death, a tsunami could wreak havoc on Honolulu – which remains, largely – at a meter or so above sea level.

On average a tsunami hits the Hawaiian islands about once each year. There is not damage with each tsunami, it could amount to little more than a ripple. Damaging tsunamis hit about once every seven years.

Tsunamis almost always occur after an earthquake near the ocean – or actually under the ocean.

The worst tsunami in recent times occurred in 1946, April Fool’s Day, when a large tsunami hit Hawaii and killed nearly 160 people. There was no warning system in place, and many died exploring the sea life flopping around on the beach after the water pulled away from the beach.

How high was the tsunami surge? On the Big Island it hit 55 feet high. Some of the waves (surges) made it over a half-mile inland from where it usually hit.

Tsunamis travel across the open ocean at 400-500 miles per hour, though they slow down a lot by the time they reach the shallows bordering the beaches.

The biggest wave of a tsunami?

It’s never the same numbered wave, but it’s somewhere in the middle of the set of waves. So, knowing that, if you see the first wave come in – and it hits the parking area where your car is – get out fast because the next one, or the next one after the next one – may be 55 feet high.

Get to higher ground immediately.

Many people surviving the Boxing Day Tsunami in southeast Asia survived by climbing up 2-3 stories of sturdy (concrete) hotels on the beach. They were able to watch the devastation with front row seats. There is no telling how big the waves will get – so, 2-3 stories may not be enough. If you can – go higher.

Don’t forget – once the waves come in, they have to go back out… when they do – a whole lot more destruction takes place as the wave carries wood, trees, boats, cars, people, and everything lighter than the rushing water itself. Even though the water may seem shallow – 1-2 feet high once the waves come in – DO NOT get in it – because the rip currents will be incredibly strong and might sweep you off your feet and to your death.

Yes, it’s that serious.

Other Cautions

Hiking Ridge Trails

There are some amazing hikes on the islands that result in being at the peak of a very high ridge. On Oahu the Ku’ulao mountain ridge is the summit of many hiking trails – and well worth the hike to reach it.

The ridge of Hawaii mountains is steep, treacherous, and loose lava, dirt, plants that hide holes and steep drops – is the norm.

Do not go off the trail, you might regret it!

Falling Rocks

Rocks falling off high mountains can happen at any time. I remember hearing about some that fell and ripped right through a home in that was not far from where I was staying!

There was once a wonderful hike on Oahu, Sacred Falls, that was very popular with locals mostly – but, some tourists found out about it as well. Over 50,000 visited the attraction each year. It was a beautiful walk down a forest trail – under overhanging limbs and vines… and the reward was a cool (and I mean COOL, as in FRIGID) dip in the pool of water at the base of the Sacred Falls waterfall. It was one of my favorite places to visit and I had been there almost a dozen times over the years. In 1999, on Mother’s Day, there was a rock slide and 8 people at the falls lost their lives. Another group of 50 was injured, some severely.


We won’t cover volcano dangers here – except to say that you need to follow the cautions laid out by your guide, signs, and other officials that explain what proper and safe behavior is as you walk around active parts of a volcano.


Hawaii does have earthquakes, but most are not noticeable. There are literally thousands per year on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The most destructive earthquake on Hawaii occurred in 1868 and killed 81 people with a magnitude of 7.9 on the Richter scale.

Skin Cancer

A big risk because the sun is closer to you than in other parts of the world, and because it is so warm and so few clothes are worn. Use a 30+ rated sun block if you’ll be in the sun for more than an hour. For children – it’s more important to lather them up with sun block or keep them out of the sun for extended periods.