Hawaii's Dangerous Destinations Revealed

Drownings are the leading cause of death for visitors to Hawaii, but one island is seeing a spike in the number of tragedies; Recently, three Bay Area tourists died there in separate incidents

By Elyce Kirchner and David Paredes
|  Wednesday, May 15, 2013  |  Updated 1:58 PM PDT
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Drownings are the leading cause of death for visitors to Hawaii, but one island is seeing a spike in the number of tragedies. One legislator wants to hold guidebook authors responsible for leading tourists to dangerous spots. This story first aired May 13 at 11 p.m. Elyce Kirchner reports.

Drownings are the leading cause of death for visitors to Hawaii, but one island is seeing a spike in the number of tragedies. One legislator wants to hold guidebook authors responsible for leading tourists to dangerous spots. This story first aired May 13 at 11 p.m. Elyce Kirchner reports.

Hawaii is known for its tropical paradise. But the top destination spot is also struggling with a growing number of tourists who have died in its waters. On the island of Kauai, eleven people have drowned just this year.  Of the islands, Kauai has had the highest rate of drowning deaths among tourists, even more than Hawaii and Oahu.

The tragedies are higher, critics say, because a guidebook series growing in popularity is enticing Hawaii-bound travelers off the beaten trail to beautiful - but often deadly - spots. One legislator wants to hold these travel guide authors legally responsible for suggesting visitors explore these once-unknown places. But some argue, including the guidebook author himself, that these travel tips should not be targeted as scapegoats for visitors who chose on their own to discover hidden gems.

“It happened just so quickly,” said Joy Chiu, in her first in-depth interview since the tragedy in January. The Berkeley resident watched in her horror as her boyfriend, Brain Baker, was taken out to sea by a rogue wave. Moments later Baker’s close friend, Adam Griffiths, was also swept into the waters off South Kalihiwai Point. “I was so close to Adam when he got pulled in,” she recalled. 

The group, which included Chiu, Baker, Griffiths, Griffiths' fiancee, and another friend came to the island from the San Francisco Bay Area to explore the islands’ rugged beauty. They hiked into remote unknown lava pool near Secret’s Beach. Chiu said they had no intention of swimming that day. For nearly 30 minutes, they stood together watching the powerful waves roll into the shelves of lava rock on the north shore of Kauai. But without warning, she said the two men were swept out to sea.  “I knew I couldn't do anything. If they dispatched a helicopter right now it would be too late,” she said tearfully.  Contrary to other reports, Griffiths tried to save his friend, but was also pulled into the sea, Chiu said.

Chiu said Baker had visited the same lava pool before and nothing had happened.

J.P. Ryan  is Hawaiian local who witnessed a drowning this year in the same area where Baker and Griffiths died.

“We all had the illusion of safety, that we were out of harm's way,” Ryan said.

Phua Chuan Chin, 62, had been visiting from Singapore and was staying with Ryan at his home on the island. Ryan, Chin, and another friend were all taking in the beauty of the crashing waves when Chin and the other man were both swept in by a rogue wave. Ryan tried to save both men but Chin did not survive. The Kauai man said he had visited the area many times before, and never realized the dangers.

Another man from Northern California also drowned in the rough waters.  Last month, 41-year-old Christian Lung of Castro Valley had only been on the island for a few hours when he decided to dive into the waters near the Plantation Hale Hotel in Kapa’a, less than 20 miles away.  The current was so powerful he drowned.

Five months into 2013, Kauai is already close to tripling the four downing deaths seen on the island in all of 2012.  The peak year of Kauai drownings was 2008, when there were 16 such deaths. But at the rate of the drownings so far this year, the island could certainly surpass that record high. Over the last decade, more than 100 people have drowned on this tiny island.

>> INTERACTIVE MAP: Kauai Drownings (1970 - 2012)

Monty Downs, an emergency room doctor at Wilcox Hospital in Kauai calls the drowning an endemic problem to the island of Kauai. “Drowning had just been almost been a dirty little secret that Hawaii was willing to sweep under the carpet,” Downs said. He’s witnessed drowning victims come in to his emergency room for years. But said this year has been even worst. In part, he believes because the deaths are occurring primarily at non-lifeguarded beaches. “The most common victim is a man in his 30s, or 40s, or 50s with children. They come over for their wonderful vacation in Hawaii, and all of a sudden the wife is a widow and the children are without a father,” he told NBC Bay Area.

“I think there's more information out there through blogs, websites, and guidebooks,” said Sue Kanoho, the executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau.  She blamed the published information – which  sometimes underplay the dangers of the spot - for guiding tourists to high-risk locations on the island. Kanoho has even contacted travel book authors, bloggers, and people who post photos of the locations on Instagram and Facebook. She explained, “That’s a dangerous thing for me to do as a visitor’s bureau person.  But at the same time, I think that it’s right to contact people and say that’s really inappropriate, please take it down.”

To ensure that her guests don’t get into trouble, Kanoho even refuses to give directions to visitors who ask how to get to deadly shorelines like Queens Bath. The spot has become very popular because of its rock shelf, but when the weather changes and waves rise it can be deadly. The guidebooks state this, but Kanoho would like to see all references to Queens Bath taken out of the guidebooks .  A sign with skull and crossbones at the entrance to the beach keeps a tally of those who have drowned there - 29.

On a recent hike down to Queens Bath, the Investigate Unit ran into a steady stream of visitors who said they found the spot through guidebooks.

One woman holding a baby said, “We shouldn't be here but we just wanted to see it.”

Another couple visiting from Las Vegas to celebrate their wedding anniversary agreed. “I do think it’s a bit more scary than the guidebooks portray. They do caution you, but being next to the waves is a lot worse than reading about it,” Julie Bartlett said.

State Rep. Jimmy Tokioka (D- Kauai) first tried to pass a bill in 2011 holding travel book authors and publishers liable. Though it went nowhere, Tokioka vowed to bring the issue up again.

“We felt it was irresponsible for them to be guiding people to their deaths,” he told NBC Bay Area.

Tokioka blamed one guidebook author in particular- Andrew Doughty. Doughty, who lives in Kauai, is the author of “The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook.” It’s the No. 1 selling book online and the most popular on the island.

The Investigative Unit talked with Doughty by phone. He agreed to an interview and then abruptly cancelled hours later. The author sent an email in part, saying:  "Nothing is more important to us than safety. If the last four people that drowned on Kauai had our books and had read it, none would have died because we specifically give detailed warnings about those areas." Others have taken his side, too. In many editorials and comments, those who support the guidebook industry say that travelers have to be responsible for themselves.

But Tokioka argued Doughty's warnings don't go far enough. He wants the references to all lava pools to be yanked from the guidebooks altogether.  "When people buy this guidebook, it gives them specific information. We were disappointed Mr. Doughty didn't want to come to the table and address those issues," Tokioka said.

Still, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit wanted to give Doughty another chance to respond to the criticism about his book.  However, standing in front of his large home on the island he again declined an on-camera interview. 

Meanwhile, Joy Chiu is still having a hard time coping with Bakers' loss. "I think he is the most beautiful man I will ever know," she said. She read about the dangers, but told NBC that better warnings about how unpredictable the ocean can be would have made her understand the dangers of the lava pools.  She explained that if visitors can learn why the beautiful ocean view in front of them can give them a false sense of security, then that might be more useful than a simple danger warning.  "It shouldn't have to take deaths to be able make changes like that," Chiu said.

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