Wave Safe - Hawaii

Learn how to stay wave safe in Hawaii.


Hawaii’s magnificent beaches and warm, tropical waters can seem like paradise to ocean lovers whether you are a local or a visitor. These coastal areas can also become some of the most dangerous in the Pacific if you don’t respect the ocean.

Waves in Hawaii can include powerful surf, crushing shorebreaks and even tsunamis. These waves can create even more dangerous situations with jagged rocks and reefs, and strong currents along remote, unguarded beaches. You can make sure your beach experience is safe and fun, by being prepared for these and other dangers.

To be wave safe you want to be informed and situationally aware so you can stay calm before you act. To be wave safe you need to stay aware of dangers from the sand to the surf. Hawaii has an excellent system of warning signs on many beaches to let you know the hazards you might face. Be sure to take the time to read them. It could save your life.

Waves breaking directly on the sand are called shorebreak. These waves can cause trauma and even spinal injuries when people are thrown into the bottom head first. Imagine the weight of a car pushing down on your head, neck or back and pinning you against the sand. That is the impact a shorebreak wave can have and change your life forever. With sharp rocks and reefs just below the water, this type of wave can become even more dangerous. Obey the warning signs and stay well clear of the water when large shorebreak conditions exist.

Hawaii is also known for powerful surf that can be unlike waves you have experienced anywhere else. Large waves during high surf conditions can easily break over cliffs and rocks knocking people off their feet into deadly hazards below.

Even while snorkeling or swimming, rapidly moving currents can put you in the path of powerful surf. What’s less obvious are currents like these, they can pull you into danger or push you away from safety.

Even experienced ocean visitors can be overcome by the power of the waves in Hawaii, so your first choice should always be guarded beaches for any activity. Lifeguards are trained to help and they know the local waters. They are your best source for beach information and the warning flags or signs near lifeguard stands will help you know what to expect at that beach. Even if you are on one of Hawaii’s private beaches, make sure they are designated for what you want to do in the water and always know where to find help if needed.

Beach conditions in Hawaii can be dramatically different from island to island and beach to beach. On Oahu there may be flat calm conditions in Waikiki, while on the North Shore, you might find huge, powerful surf. Staying situationally aware is critical. Before your feet hit the sand know your local weather and tide forecast in as much detail as possible. These conditions can make a calm shoreline become a beach full of dangerous hazards.

The Hawai’i beach safety site provides real time ocean and beach conditions throughout the islands. No matter what the forecasts say always respect the power of the ocean and obey the one rule that every experienced ocean athlete and surfer follows: If in Doubt, Don’t Go Out.

When you see someone else in trouble, and before you act, stay calm and practice what we call “Take Ten.” Pause to alert the lifeguards, or someone on the beach and call 911. While help is coming look for something that floats or will let you reach and assist the person in trouble while you stay safe. The most important action you can take is to protect yourself first so you don't become the tragic second victim.

For thousands of years respecting the ocean has been part of the Hawaiian culture to protect themselves and others. This is still the best practice for anyone who finds themselves on the sand or in the surf of the South Pacific.

Before your feet hit the sand, join us as we visit American coasts in the Ocean Today Wave Safe Series.