DANGERS LURK BENEATH SURFACE OF THOSE PICTURE-POSTCARD COVES.
HANALEI, Hawaii - To many visitors to Hawaii, the beaches of Kauai appear serene, unthreatening, inviting - paradise come to life. When the sun begins beating down on the sand, it might seem an innocent enough thing to take a plunge into the sapphire waters, or stroll on a rock shelf at the water's edge.
But appearances can be deceiving. Increasingly in recent years, these enchanting beaches have proven to be fatal temptresses.
Over the past three decades, there have been more than 200 drownings off this island's shores, and about 75 percent of the victims have been visitors to the islands - the highest such percentage in the islands, according to research.
Kauai is the westernmost island of consequence in the eight-island Hawaiian chain, and it is considerably offset from the main cluster. It doesn't benefit from proximity to its neighbor islands; neither does it have expanses of protective reefs. Think of it as a speck in the middle of a vast Pacific Ocean.
With water to match. Treacherous ocean currents sweep along its shores - particularly along the north side in winter, the south in summer. Although there are many spots on the island where it is perfectly safe to swim or wade, there are other locations at which unwary tourists have paid a dear price for wandering into or near dangerous stretches of beach.
All along, island authorities have had to wrestle with a quandary: Will informational campaigns about these perils chase off the tourism that is the island's lifeblood?
But now exasperation has begun to set in. ``It's getting to the point where we have to start scaring people,'' said Myles Emura, a water safety officer for Kauai County, ``because other things aren't working.''
The concern is based on a recent and sudden upswing in beach tragedies. From 1970 through 1998, the island averaged about seven drowning deaths a year. But in the last two years, there have been 25 such deaths.
Charles Blay, a naturalist who walked the entire circumference of the island in 1986, conducted a study on Kauai beach dangers as part of his work for TEOK Investigations. He and partner Robert Siemers reached one unmistakable conclusion: The number of drownings directly correlates to the number of tourists on the island.
Really. You can chart it. Drownings, for example, fell dramatically just after 1982 and 1992. Why? Because hurricanes Iwa and Iniki ravaged the island in those years, wiping out lodging and sharply curtailing the number of visitors.
``The last two years, we have had tremendous tourism, way up over a million a year,'' Blay said. (Figures confirmed by Hawaii tourism officials.) And unsuspecting visitors cause the tragedy statistics to soar.
``Basically, it is ignorance - not stupidity, ignorance (of the dangers),'' Blay said. ``People don't understand that there are strong currents generated by the waves, and you can't see those things. You end up getting pulled in one direction or the other and you don't know what's going on. There's no (offshore) shelf here. We're basically the top of a mountain. It (the shore) drops right off. Most of the currents are wave-generated, not tidal, and they just have tremendous energy.''
Hanalei-based firefighter Albert Kaui, whose station assists in rescues, said the seclusion of Kauai's beaches is another factor. Some of the island's most treacherous beaches are some of its most remote ones.
Also, according to the county's office of economic development, only six of the island's 45 named beaches are manned by lifeguards. That places much of the safety burden on tourists themselves.
One way to maintain care is to confine your activities to one of the guarded beaches: Anahola, Wailua River and Lydgate Park on the east shore, near Kapaa; Poipu on the south; Salt Pond on the west; and Hanalei Bay on the north. (Note: Anahola and Wailua are manned only on weekends and holidays.) The guards will freely dispense information about the swimming conditions.
But if you visit a remote beach where there are no guards, Kaui, the county firefighter, offered a simple rule of thumb:
``The best thing people can do is observe,'' he said. ``If you see locals and children in the water, normally it's a pretty safe beach. If you see nobody in the water, that's a bad sign.''
Kauai's most dangerous beaches? The runaway leader is Hanakapiai, which is two miles down the popular Kalalau Trail at the north end of the island. There have been 28 drownings there in 31 years, most occurring during the winter months when the sea is rough.
The beach is at the mouth of a deep-channel stream, and the ocean current runs not in, not out, but directly across the front of the beach. Hikers who want to cool off with a swim here can easily get swept out the stream's mouth and around the west point, at which time they encounter waves pounding the base of the steep Na Pali cliffs - and no prospect of getting ashore for another six miles. (Of the 28 drownings, 15 bodies were never recovered, according to the TEOK report.)
But you don't even have to get into the water to be in danger here. Big sets roll onto this beach in winter, swamping unsuspecting hikers at the water's edge. ``We had two drownings there in November and December '99,'' Blay said. ``The people went down to wash the mud off their legs and a wave came in and swept them out.''
Lumahai, the postcard-like beach on the north shore that was a setting for the movie ``South Pacific,'' ranks second in terms of danger.
``There have been 20 drownings there since 1978,'' said Blay, ``and only six of the 20 were actually people who were going swimming. They were standing there (on the rocks at the east end of the beach), walking (along the water's edge) or trying to cross the river at the other (far west) end of the beach. It's easy to get pulled into the waves, and you might as well jump into a washing machine. That's how turbulent it is.''
When we visited Lumahai last December, we saw two young couples climbing those east-end rocks, nearly to disastrous results.
One young woman was picking her way along the rock shelf when a wave suddenly engulfed an area she had just passed over. This inspired peals of laughter from her.
The two men, meanwhile, jumped off the ocean side of the rocks, then attempted to swim around to the mouth of the cove. About that time, a big set rolled in, threatening to dash them on the rocks. One man briefly made the foolish decision to try to swim between two of the offshore rocks; he pulled out of an enormous breaker just before it slammed into the rocks and churned about them.
The two guys ultimately got around to the mouth of the cove and swam in with an ocean surge, making it onto the beach without further incident.
They endured their macho stunt and lived to tell of it. But they should probably ponder another of Blay's statistics: 89 percent of Kauai's beach deaths have been males, the majority in their 40s.
``It doesn't have to do with being in shape,'' Blay said. ``Olympic swimmers would drown in these currents.''