How to stay safe on Hawaii’s beaches

There’s no such thing as a “private beach” in the Aloha State.

Beachgoing is probably the most popular tourist activity in the Aloha State. From the uniform sugar sand of Ka’anapali Beach on Maui to the black or sometimes green sand beaches of the Island of Hawaii to the world-famous high-rise hotel fronted Waikiki on O’ahu, the Hawaiian archipelago is known for beaches of all shapes and colors.

Despite their diversity, Hawaii beaches have two things in common: they’re all public property (no such thing as a “private beach” in Hawaii), and they all require vigilance to be enjoyed safely.

Continue reading for more information on staying safe on Hawaii beaches.

First, check the conditions.

Although Hawaii is frequently marketed as a picture-perfect paradise, beach conditions aren’t always ideal. updates beach conditions in Hawaii so visitors can check for warnings before going out. Many beaches have flags indicating hazards when you arrive. Red flags indicate dangerous conditions; two red flags indicate that the water is closed to swimmers. Purple flags indicate the presence of potentially harmful marine life such as jellyfish or sharks.

Hawaiian beaches also have signage alerting visitors to potential hazards. Always obey the No Swimming/No Diving signs. Other warning signs include Dangerous Shorebreaks (where waves break onshore), Strong Current, and High Surf. Visitors should avoid swimming when these warning signs are present unless they have local, expert knowledge of the conditions.

Many Hawaii beach parks have lifeguards on duty from sunrise to sunset. Lifeguards will announce when the stations open and close, as well as provide updates on hazardous conditions throughout the day. They also keep a close eye on specific swimmers, calling out those who exhibit risky behavior.

Lifeguards can also administer basic first aid to swimmers who have cut or scratched themselves on coral (swimmers should always avoid touching coral with body parts or snorkel equipment such as fins).

Only experienced swimmers who are intimately familiar with ocean conditions (i.e. locals) should swim outside of lifeguard hours or at unguarded beaches. Locals are experts in ocean conditions, and visitors should not follow their lead into the waters off unguarded beaches.

Use sun protection.

The ocean isn’t the only danger to beachgoers in Hawaii. Sunlight is also more intense at these latitudes than many visitors are used to. Before spending significant time in direct sunlight, visitors should liberally apply reef safe sunscreen with an SPF factor of 50 or higher. Wearing SPF-rated bathing suits and rash guards while swimming can reduce the amount of sunscreen that ends up in the ocean and provide additional protection when sunbathing.

The sun’s rays are at their most intense between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. or so, so seek shade during those hours. When sitting outside in the sun, hats are also recommended.

Be aware of your limitations.

Many swimmers who require rescue are unfamiliar with ocean conditions, have been caught off guard by sudden changes in conditions, or are attempting to swim beyond their ability. Because most visitors are unfamiliar with Hawaii beaches, it is critical to swim well within one’s abilities as a precaution.

If the surf becomes too rough, or if swimmers begin to tire, they should exit the water. If you need a lifeguard, get the attention of bathers on shore by shouting and waving your arms if possible. If beachgoers see a swimmer in distress, they should immediately notify a lifeguard and not attempt a rescue themselves.

Keep a safe distance from wildlife.

In the waters off the Hawaiian Islands and on the state’s beaches, sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, and other sea life can be found. Monk seals, in particular, can be found on Kauai and Oahu beaches. Turtles and seals are not in distress when they are “hauled out” on beaches; they are simply resting.

It’s important to remember this because well-meaning tourists have frequently assumed the animals are in trouble and attempted to coax them back into the water — not only is this harmful to the animals (they may learn that the beach is not a safe haven for them and may not return), but it also violates state and federal laws. When approached, seals, in particular, can become aggressive, causing harm to beachgoers who attempt to pet them.

If you see a monk seal, call the NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline at (888) 256-9840 so that a volunteer can rope off a perimeter around the seal. The NOAA also collects data on monk seal beach haul outs in Hawaii, which helps them study the seals’ behavior. Visitors who see any other marine life in distress can call the same hotline.

Snorkelers should also keep a safe distance from aquatic mammals. Sea turtles, monk seals, dolphins, sharks, and whales should not be pursued, chased, harassed, or otherwise interacted with, and they should be allowed to go about their daily lives as if humans were not present.

Enjoy your ‘pono’

The concept of pono is highly valued in Hawaii. Pono is a Hawaiian word that describes a sense of what is right, correct, proper, or just. It’s a fundamental concept in Hawaiian culture, and it’s a good guideline for enjoying the state’s beautiful beaches. Similarly to allowing wildlife to go about their business as if humans were not present, visitors should make as little impact as possible, taking only memories and leaving only footprints in the sand.

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