Ocean Safety: Queens Bath Once Again

By Monty Downs, M.D.
Kaua`i Lifeguard Association
Springtime in Hawaii. The days start to get noticeably longer. We tend to have fewer of those cold winter nights. (My friends who live in wintry locales laugh when I say “Brrr, it was cold last night, got down to 58 degrees.” But after they’ve finished their chuckle I ask them “what temperature do you keep your home?” The answer is usually 68 to 70, even if you live in Minnesota. So when I tell them “hey, we don’t have central heating and our home is 58 degrees”, then they understand why we pull out a quilt and a morning jacket.)

Spring here is nowhere near as defined a season as it tends to be in colder areas. Other than the 2 aspects I just mentioned, there’s not a lot of difference between our spring and the other seasons. It may be rainy, or maybe not. As far as the ocean is concerned, the winter North swells become less frequent but they can still hit our northern shores deep into spring and all the way through May, even though we tend to think of December and January as being the peak winter North swell months.

North winter swells. These can be a problem (unless of course you’re a surfer, in which case they’re why you live here). What our visitors often don’t realize about these swells is that it can be a gorgeous day here in Hawaii but the surf can be monstrously high on our North shores. The reason for this is that the swells are generated by huge violent storms way up in the Bering Sea, storms that happened a week ago. It takes the generated swell several days to arrive in Hawaii, and when they arrive it could be, as I noted, a gorgeous day here. In many/most other places, it takes a nasty and stormy day for swells to batter a shoreline — and not many people want to go to the beach on a nasty stormy day. But here, it’s a different story.

Well, you may be able to guess from this discussion that I’m getting to Queens Bath. I’m going to ask a few hard questions, and you’ll find that my answers won’t be very satisfactory.

We again suffered a terrible tragedy a few weeks ago when a vibrant 23 year old young woman got swept to her death by a monster swell that hit the rock ledge. It’s easy to ask “how come she was there?? Not too smart. Particularly when there are gates and fences and warning signs that try and keep you from heading down to the ledge.”

(Time out here for a major THANK YOU to the Princeville Community Association for putting up these gates and fences and signs. I know they are keeping some people out, even if not as many as we wish).

In a way it may help us deal with the pain of her loss by thinking “she wasn’t so smart to go there on a day like that, and when you’re not so smart these bad things can happen.” I don’t buy this attitude, and I feel we have to look at ourselves and the tragedy more carefully. Despite the fence and the signs and the locked gate, there was an allure to going there that won out. Even if we can say that we’re not to blame for the allure, we still haven’t managed to to emphasize the danger of going to Queens Bath on that day. I don’t have the answer to what more can be done to get the word out. I do know that many, most, or maybe even all of our concierges are A+ at telling guests not to go there.

I believe the internet holds one of the main keys to the allure (i.e. Google “Queens Bath” and the first thing you’ll see is a bunch of gorgeous photos). So it seems like the internet might hold the key to how to get the danger word out more clearly and strongly. As you go further in your google search you’ll start to see information about the dangers, but I’m wondering how to get the danger message to jump out as the first search items you see? We need a google expert to help us with that.

Another allure is the one that the very name Queens Bath creates, since it suggests that one of Hawaii’s queens liked to swim in the lava pool that sometimes can be found on the ledge, on days when the ledge isn’t being smashed by surf. My conversations with knowledgeable Hawaiian people indicate that this is a hogwash myth, with no basis in reality. The Hawaiian name for the ledge is Waimaumau, and just when and why “Queens Bath” came into play is a mystery, and a detrimental one.

As for the “not too smart” part of this: Speaking for myself, if the price I paid for being “not too smart” about something had been getting killed, I would have been dead long ago, and many times over. So, this was a terrible tragedy, pure and simple.

One more question is: Why does a drowning at Queens Bath command so much of our attention, since we have 7-10 drownings/year at other sites and beaches? The urgency and family tragedy of many those drownings seems to rather quickly fade from our consciousness. The best answer I can come up with for this question is that the people who get killed there tend to be young, and this shocks us more than when we hear about someone in their 70’s drowning. The loss of an “elderly” person (Ahem, I myself am 73) is extremely painful to those who know him/her and hopefully love him/her, but at least we can say that the person had a good go at life. The loss of a 23 year old doesn’t have that slightly redeeming quality.

My final question is “what about going to Waimaumau on a nice day when there is no incoming swell?” That’s a tough one. As an ER doctor, who sees several patients every year who broke their leg on the tricky trail that leads down there, I would be perfectly happy to go back to the days when only the very astute ulua fisherman went there, probably a total of a couple dozen of them island-wide. (Nowadays there are hundreds of inexperienced people there every day). I do recognize that on a nice day, and one with no swell, it’s an exotic and beautiful area — and as one who has seen any number of old favorite areas gated off, why should another “favorite” area be taken away?

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. And I warned you that I would have more good questions than good answers.

I’ll close all this by pleading with anyone who reads this, don’t YOU go to Waimaumau unless you are 100% certain that there is no North swell condition in play that day.

Enjoy our Hawaiian spring, have fun, and be smart and be safe.