Akamai Beach Essentials and Safety Tips

Even kamaaina need a refresher on beach safety.

Medically reviewed in April 2020

Kamaaina are already pretty savvy when it comes to staying safe at the beach. Endless precautions are instilled in your subconscious—remain relaxed if caught in a riptide, don’t walk on wet rocks, never turn your back to the ocean and “when in doubt, don’t go out.” Still, the promise of an epic surf session can supersede internal warnings and there are other dangers to be aware of during beach time. The following are some beach safety tips for kamaaina and malihini alike.

Stay near lifeguards
It’s not just visitors who succumb to the ocean. On the neighbor islands, residents account for nearly 25 percent of all drownings, while on Oahu, 40 percent of total drownings are locals. Monty Downs, MD, an emergency physician practicing on Kauai, says he’s not sure why the percentage is higher on Oahu but, on average, locals are more “akamai” than visitors when it comes to ocean activities. Rather than running into trouble in strong currents, kamaaina tend to encounter accidents with big waves, get knocked off rocks while opihi fishing, or suffer from heart attacks near water. That’s why Dr. Downs recommends that everyone frequent beaches with lifeguards.

If you’re in an area without lifeguards, however, make sure to spot the nearest rescue tube. These flotation devices are designed to assist people in the water by supporting their weight. Downs also voluntarily serves as president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association. This non-profit group, in close partnership with another non-profit called the Rescue Tube Foundation, has been instrumental in installing more than 200 rescue tubes around Kauai, as well as 140 on Maui, 25 on Hawaii Island, and 2 on Oahu. An estimated 150 people have used the devices over the past decade on Kauai. Downs estimates that 20 would have otherwise lost their lives.

Practice safe skincare
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. Basal and squamous cells are the two most common types of skin cancer. The least common, and most lethal, is melanoma. If cancerous cells are caught early enough and haven’t spread beyond the skin, however, there is a 98 percent five-year survival rate. Skin cancer is frequently found and treated at this stage.

Skincare also requires attention at the beach. The good news is that the death rate of melanoma, a form of skin cancer, caused by exposure to sunlight and UV radiation, is lower in Hawaii than the rest of U.S. According to a Blue Cross Blue Shield report on its members from 2018, Hawaii’s rate of skin cancer was just 1.8 percent, compared to 4.3 percent nationally.

It’s unclear why rates are so low in Hawaii but local speculation is that beachgoing savvy may extend to skincare. Everyone is at risk for skin cancer, though people with lighter skin are more susceptible. Sunburns early in life, severe sunburns or blisters and lifetime exposure are among the risks for skin cancer. JoAnn Lepke, a board-certified nurse practitioner who specializes in dermatology recommends using water resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and to reapply every 40 to 80 minutes if you’re sweating or spending time in the water and no less than every two hours.

“The sooner a skin cancer is detected, the more likely it can be treated with good results,” says Lepke, who also recommends routine screenings. “An extraordinary number of patients who I have seen for a full-body skin exam had no idea they had skin cancer that was discovered upon exam.”

Remember, effective January 1, 2021, Hawaii will ban the sale of over-the-counter sunscreen products with the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate to help mitigate their harmful impacts on coral reef.

“Try to use zinc and/or titanium (mineral-based) sunscreens which provide a physical block to the sun, rather than a chemical block,” says Lepke, who adds that wearing ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) clothing that’s tightly woven to protect skin, along with hats, helps. Don’t forget about your eyes either. Be sure to wear sunglasses that block against UVA and UVB rays to reduce the risk of developing cataracts.

Don’t swim in brown water
Stay out of the ocean any time you see a Brown Water Advisory issued by Hawaii’s Department of Health. Organizations like Surfrider Foundation also regularly report coastal water pollution, including high levels of enterococci bacteria (from feces), on their social media pages to help keep people free of illness.

As a rule of thumb, avoid swimming in the ocean after heavy rainfall when pollution run-off enters waterways or if there has been a recent burst pipe in the area. Moreover, don’t swim if you have any open wounds.

Sharks like to feed in brown, murky water, which is another reason to avoid swimming in it. That said, the odds of being bitten by a shark are rare, with only three to four bites per year, which is low, particularly when considering the number of residents and visitors who frequent our shores.

Nonetheless, there are things you can do to mitigate the chances of an encounter.

  • Don’t swim alone and keep close to lifeguards.
  • Don’t swim at dusk, dawn, or during the evening when some shark species move closer to land to feed (tiger sharks are active all times of day).
  • Don’t swim if you are bleeding.
  • Don’t splash excessively.
  • Immediately remove speared fish from the water.
  • Don’t wear shiny jewelry or high-contrast clothes.

If you do happen upon a shark, move slowly and calmly, without provoking or harassing them.

Be aware of other marine life
Box jellyfish have thin, barbed tentacles capable of inflicting a painful sting. The theory is that they move to shallow waters to spawn based upon lunar and tidal cycles, and they routinely appear 8 to 10 days after a full moon. Waikiki is a hot spot for box jellyfish. More than 900 beachgoers were stung on Memorial Day 2019.

The University of Hawaii’s Waikiki Aquarium has an online calendar indicating when you’re most likely to encounter these invertebrates. Portuguese man o’ war, akin to jellyfish, have long tentacles and can even sting while out of the water, where you will most likely find their small blue bladder bubbles dotting the shoreline.

Jellyfish can sting people who are wading or swimming in the water. Beached and dying jellyfish can still sting so keep small keiki from picking them up and don’t step on them if barefoot. If you are stung, seek a lifeguard for help. If no lifeguard is available, rinse the area in sea water, not freshwater, and do not scrub it. Once home, gently remove the stinger with tweezers, not your hands as that can lead to further stings. Stings to the eyes and mouth can be more severe so be sure to contact a doctor if anyone in your family is stung there. It's also a good idea to get a tetanus booster shot if you are stung and haven’t had a booster in the last 10 years. Contact your doctor immediately if you have severe symptoms from a jellyfish sting, such as difficulty breathing or swallowing, chest pain, extreme pain, or persistent symptoms after the sting.

There are other marine animals to avoid, such as sea urchins. They cause puncture wounds if you come into contact with them because their spines embed in your skin. Remove the spine like you would a splinter, and if the pain does not go away, see a doctor. Sometimes spines deeply bury into a person’s skin and cause various harmful reactions.

Finally, don’t forget that coral is teeming with bacteria. Be cautious near reefs and don’t walk or stand on them, especially because doing so harms the living ecosystem. If you accidentally stub your toe or cause an open wound, call your doctor, as serious complications can arise from infection.

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