Though it’s been six months since we’re back from our last snorkeling trip to Oahu, I am only now getting up the courage to write about it. Now, I LOVE snorkeling. Really. We plan each vacation around snorkeling, it’s what we like to do. We just got a wake-up call from Mother Nature, though, and I need to share it.
We stayed at the JW Ihilani Marriott Hotel which is on #1 of the Ko-olina Lagoons. It was nice, even though the construction of the Disney Resort was going on in the parking lot, it was fine as our room was on the opposite side at the top, overlooking the northwest ocean view and a smaller natural lagoon.
We tried to get to that one natural lagoon, but it was not easy to walk to, and toward the end of our stay we did see a fellow swim into that lagoon, and looked like he had a heck of a time getting out of the water safely. He just laid there on the rocks after coming in, not even taking off his fins. That’s what makes me wonder if he’d had an experience similar to my husbands… let me tell you…
It just goes to show that one day you can swim in a spot that is fine, no worries, another day it might look rather the same, but the currents can be much stronger.
We snorkeled lagoon #1, then #2, then even #3. All were about the same, though we thought #1 maybe a bit better, though that was probably because we knew every inch by the time we left as we were there daily, and instead of walking down the sidewalk to the other lagoons, I snorkeled my way across each one, only getting out when necessary.
Snorkeling in the lagoons was a bit cloudy (because they’ve imported sand from New Zealand, we were told) and of course as it is relatively new, there is not much going on, though new snorkelers will have a wonderful time learning to snorkel in the calm waters with colorful fish around them.
It’d be great if they put a few more large piles of rocks in the middle of these lagoons to get some fish colonies established. On one small pile of rocks there were so many baby fish of various types, I spent an hour just hovering. Minuscule Hawaiian Sergeants were flitting about, and dime sized Hawaiian Domino Damselfish. I even watched a tiny lizardfish hunting, about the size of my little finger trying to catch even teenier fish. (He did.) There were actual schools of Orangeband Surgeonfish juveniles, and several types of the peacefully grazing goatfish.
We did have fun nosing around there, but it wasn’t something I’d get in the car to drive to, unless it was too windy elsewhere on the island. But spending an afternoon snorkeling there is better than even shopping for shoes.
My husband is a tall, strong fellow (handsome, too) and has been in and around the ocean his whole life. I, on the other hand, learned to swim in college, and used to greatly fear the ocean until I discovered snorkeling. I have to keep in mind that I need to reserve enough energy to get back to shore and the hotel.
This is where we got into trouble.
We set out one morning to the Kahe Point Beach Park by the electric station across the tracks. The guys at the hotel said it was a great snorkel spot. It was early, and we were alone on that beach, and the waves were really hitting. But we’d been watching spinner dolphins all morning from our hotel room, and realized that’s where they were, just waiting for us where the water was coming out of the pipes of the electric plant. The steep beach indicated the importance of careful timing and having an entering and exiting strategy, so we psyched ourselves up, and headed out.
The second I put my face in the water, I was alarmed. Nothing but white bubbles, and I knew I had to kick fast to get myself out past the rocks. So I just powered through toward the open water as fast as I could, keeping my legs straight out behind me so as to keep my knees from hitting any rocks. My husband was not as lucky, and scraped his knees up a bit on the way out.
Then we were out, with amazing visibility, and so many fish! The sergeant fish out there were intensely colored, nearly blue and yellow with black stripes. And there was a whole school of the scribble filefish with their weird neon blue scribbles – awesome. And the spinner dolphins were there.
A tour boat was just leaving the area, and that’s when I realized that the current was sweeping me quite quickly farther out and farther south. I stopped taking pictures, and tried to get my husband’s attention. I realized that though I am a good swimmer and use my fins well, it would be tough to get back into that beach, but I saw no other option.
I was already getting tired from our exciting launch, and from trying to stay near the pipe. I didn’t relish the idea of having to go in past those rocks I couldn’t see, and being thrown up on the beach with the rolling waves, but it was that or go with the current. And go where? Tahiti?
There was nowhere to rest, so we went back in, fighting the strong current, and ignoring the lovely fish and healthy coral underneath us, just saving energy. A very large surge dragged us in white foam over the rocks and deposited us on the steeply slanted shore where we quickly scrambled farther up, not willing to be pulled over the rocks again.
Let me tell you, my heart was pounding a little too hard. I couldn’t even talk, and that’s saying something.
Later that same morning back at the hotel again, we tried snorkeling in Lagoon #1, and my husband decided he would swim under the buoy and out to the ocean proper. I wasn’t too sure about that, so I waited in the lagoon and watched him. A couple of locals had said they spear-fished in the area beyond the lagoon, so it seemed do-able.
My husband got out through the channel pretty quick. Too quick. After awhile he seemed to be trying to come back in, but couldn’t. He tried, and tried, and tried. He couldn’t get in where the ocean comes into the lagoon, because that is a rock wall with waves crashing over it, not a way to get back into the lagoon.
This was Lagoon #1, and the water flow varies with the lagoons, but on this particular day, this particular lagoon, there was no way he could get in. I watched, helpless. We couldn’t communicate due to crashing waves. I knew he was in trouble when I saw him take his mask off, and roll over on his back, not even trying anymore. I was worried that he lost one of his powerful fins, or maybe got hurt again on a rock. He was tired out, and we didn’t know another way to get in. I was so scared.
So, finally, I called for help, and a fellow came out from the pool rental area with a kayak, he got out to my husband and had him hold onto the back of the kayak and use his fins and they started to come back in, but they were having a heck of a time, and ended up having to go to the side and hold onto the rocks. It took quite awhile for them to get back into the lagoon. The other hotel employees that came out did not go into water exit area, as they knew it was a strong current.
I still have nightmares about him, just bobbing in those big waves, chin down, mask on his forehead, so tired looking. For the rest of the vacation, my husband did not attempt to do anything remotely dangerous. (Well, except for driving the road from Hanauma to Ko-Olina in rush hour traffic.)
Sorry to have a not-so-fun story. It’s just that a word of warning seems a good idea; Mother Nature is amazing, but not to be taken lightly.
We finished up the trip staying in safer areas, and making the trip down to Hanauma Bay a couple of times.
Comments Moved From Previous System
Galen & Nicole – Oct 22, 2010 – Galen & Nicole
Patricia, thank you for sharing that personal story. We are so sorry to hear what a scary time you had, and can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been to have seen your husband in trouble. And we are glad you got out of it all with just a few scrapes.
Your story is so valuable. And hopefully future snorkelers can learn some things from your story. Here are some things we take from your experience.
Snorkeling Conditions Change Regularly!
What many times can be a safe site, can quickly change into an unsafe site, depending on the conditions of the ocean at that moment. You must learn to read the conditions EVERY TIME YOU GET IN THE WATER!
Don’t Push Your Comfort Levels
When we read your story about Kahe Point “…the waves were really hitting”, and “…so we psyched ourselves up, and headed out”, we immediately got concerned. We are not saying what happened was your or your husband’s fault. But we, despite years of snorkeling experience, never get into the water if we feel any concerns or feel like it might be dangerous. When we look it over, if we don’t like the feel of it, we don’t do it.
And that goes for each of us. If your snorkeling partner is uncomfortable, then don’t ever try and push them past their comfort level.
Keep a Constant Awareness of Currents
The last thing we would mention is that it is clear in both situations that currents are a real hazard, and they are. The ocean conditions page linked to above gives you tools to help you know when you are in a current, and you must constantly be aware of how currents are moving you in the water. Don’t be caught by surprise.
And if you are entering a situation (like your husband heading outside the barrier in Ko Olina) where you feel there may be currents, do it very slowly with that constant awareness of the currents. When you start feeling swept along, immediately return.
This happened to Nicole and I recently in Bonaire, and we had to quickly backtrack. Pay extra careful attention around any breaks in a reef, or when leaving a bay. These are big water movement areas.
Thanks again Patricia for sharing. We don’t normally post scary or negative stories, because the world is just too full of them. But people can and do die snorkeling. We should enjoy the wonders of the ocean but always be very aware that it is a powerful force.
Kelly – Feb 06, 2011 – Helpful Information
I appreciated this post a lot. My husband and I are planning to try some spots on the Big Island by entering on our own from the shore, and we’ve talked about having a boat between us and the open ocean as compared to us going out on our own. Because we’re inexperienced, I doubt we’ll go anywhere that at least a few other people aren’t already in the water and that we may choose not to snorkel some sites on our own until we have a little more experience.
Michael Silver – Nov 17, 2012 – Ko Olina Close Calls
I hate to be a Donny Downer, but THAT’S the very reason they have both the seawall and the roped off channel; to keep swimmers from entering a potentially dangerous current. Having lived within five miles of Ko Olina for several years, and having been there countless times, I’m well aware of where she was talking about… And yes, I have gone out beyond the seawall. But honestly, this isn’t a wise course of action. I am an excellent swimmer, and I didn’t encounter any problems… But I could have, and should have decided NOT to leave clearly marked boundaries.