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Ocean Safety Tips

Recently, one of Lahaina diver’s vessels was asked by the U.S. Coast Guard to assist a kayaker that had gotten blown too far off shore.

We were happy to do so, on our way back from a scuba diving charter at Molokini. However, it did prompt us to pass along some general ocean safety tips that can prevent such incidents from ruining your vacation…or worse.

If swimmers, snorkelers or those on craft like paddle boards or kayaks venture too far from shore, they can easily be caught up in the very strong currents running between the islands. Weather, including wind, can change rapidly. What might start out as a calm day could evolve into a stormy or windy day, blowing small craft out farther than an operator intends.

We are not focused on scuba diving in this article, but rather some safety tips for enjoying the near shore waters around Maui nui.

Non-motorized craft

Non-motor powered vessels, including kayaks, standup paddleboards and canoes are regulated by a few laws in Hawaii.

  • Each vessel must have one life jacket on board per person. Children under 12 must wear their life jacket, and it must be a USCG-approved Type I, II or III. While adults don’t have to wear their life jackets under normal circumstances, remember life jackets float, people don’t.
  • It is a violation of Hawaii law to operate any vessel- including non-motorized ones- while impaired by alcohol or other drugs. You’re considered under the influence if your blood or breath alcohol (BAL) level is 0.08% or more, or if drugs are detected.
  • Vessels under 23 feet should have red and green side lights visible from two miles away on a clear dark night, and a stern light. If not practical, a white-light lantern or flashlight may be substituted.
  • Vessels under 65.6 feet must carry a whistle, horn or other means of making a signal audible for at least half a mile.
  • All vessels are required to carry night signaling devices.

Manually propelled vessels are exempt from having to carry a communication device, but we think it is a darn good idea. The kayaker rescued was able to call the Coast Guard for help from his cell phone (he also had a signaling device). There are many affordable floating bags for cell phones that can also be attached to a person on the vessel.

Motorized personal water craft, primarily jet skis, can only be operated during the summer (not during whale season). In addition, the operator must be 15 years old; wear a lifejacket; have an engine stop lanyard attached to their wrist; not use alcohol before or during operation; avoid wave jumping and approaching other boats; and be ever vigilant about watching for other boats, skiers, divers, swimmers and other personal watercraft.

Beach Safety

When you are not scuba diving, you’ll likely spend plenty of time on Maui’s beautiful beaches during your vacation. The warm, inviting water is also very powerful, so remember to use a bit of common sense when enjoying the ocean.

First, never turn your back on the ocean. Ocean wave action changes continually. You might see gently lapping waves, but not expect a much larger rogue wave that can knock you down.

Similarly, if viewing the ocean from rocks or overhangs, always stay well away, where the ground is dry. Never swim alone.

Water conditions vary according to season and location so heed posted warning signs. If you get stuck in a strong current, stay calm and wave for assistance. The rule of thumb here is, ‘If in doubt, don’t go out.’

It is never a good idea to swim or snorkel in murky water or near the mouth of where fresh water meets the sea. There could be enhanced shark activity. If you see activity on the surface of the water, calmly swim away from the area. Read more about shark safety here.

Read more about Maui County ocean safety tips here.

Sun Protection and New Sunscreen Rules

Hawaii’s proximity to the equator and the intensity of UV rays in the islands make sun protection particularly important. Without adequate protection, you may sunburn easier here, and severely damage your skin, increasing the risk of developing melanoma. So even though it’s tempting to spend several hours lounging on a Maui beach or out on a boat, make sure you are adequately protected with sunscreen rated SPF 30 or higher.

New legislation has banned the ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate from all sunscreen in Hawaii, as these elements have been found to be damaging to ocean reefs. Look for options without these ingredients (often labeled “reef safe”).

Physical sun barriers are actually the best protection. Consider a wide brimmed hat or pick up a pair of polarized sunglasses at the original Maui Jim store on Maui. If you want to further protect the reef and your skin, consider making a donation to Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, and pick up an amazing, quick-dry, sun blocking shirt. The organization envisions healthy coral reefs, clean ocean water and abundant native fish, and is one of the most respected nonprofits on the island.

Coral Reefs and Jellyfish Safety Tips

What some visitors think are rocks beneath the surface of the ocean are actually corals. A living organism, corals can cause cuts and abrasions that can become easily infected.

Corals are also fragile- so we want to avoid breaking pieces off. These foundations of the reef provide a home for a plethora of other sea creatures, as well as preventing beach erosion. Find a sandy place to stand when in the ocean, or float on the surface.

Jellyfish can be ethereal and mesmerizing to watch on display at Maui Ocean Center. However, encountering one while swimming or snorkeling can be an unpleasant experience. These creatures can pack a nasty sting that can be very painful, or even dangerous to those who have allergies. Jellies are more prevalent about a week after a full moon, when tides carry jellyfish closer to shore. Look for an advisory sign at the beach, and watch for jelly fish that may have washed up on the sand.

If you do get stung, don’t scratch the wound site, and don’t rinse with fresh water, which will make the pain worse. Rinse with seawater.  A rinse with vinegar, or a paste made with baking soda and saltwater, and taking on over-the-counter analgesic like Benadryl will help relieve symptoms. Jellyfish stings will usually subside within 24-48 hours.

By the way, the remedy of peeing on a jellyfish wound is a myth, and can make the pain even worse, not to mention the grossness factor!

Be safe and enjoy your time in Maui’s coastal waters!

P.S. Here is a low resolution clip of the kayak rescue at sea.