South Shore Swell Causes Excitement and Concern

by Staff on September 1, 2011

A surfer takes his chances on advisory-worthy waves off Oahu's south shore. Photo courtesy of

Big Waves – Big Fun for Some, Big Trouble for Others

A storm that passed by New Zealand last week brought rough waters to the Aloha state this week. The resulting high surf advisory has been fun for some, and frightening for others.

Surf started building on Sunday and continued to grow, with waves reaching 15 feet on Tuesday. The summer’s most powerful swell – and arguably the largest south shore swell in decades – warranted a high surf warning, causing some surfers to head straight for the water and forcing other residents and visitors to enjoy the view safely from the shore.

While the waves have certainly brought some excitement to south-facing shores here in Hawaii, their power and the potential for danger has also meant more work for lifeguards and firefighters, and less business for surf schools and catamarans.

On Oahu’s south shore, the 16 lifeguard stands from Ala Moana to Sandy Beach are typically manned by 23 lifeguards. This week, seven additional guards were added to the staff to better ensure the safety of those entering the water. In addition, the fire department has been lending a hand to help with assists, using a chopper to spot surfers and swimmers in trouble, and directing rescuers to them.

In spite of ample official warnings and the mere site of the waves that should be enough to prevent inexperienced folks from heading out into the strong surf, many have done so anyway and as a result, put themselves and rescuers in danger. In fact, nearly 400 people have required assistance or rescue in the area between Ala Moana and the Waikiki Natatorium alone. And that’s not counting the assists that have gone unreported.

In an effort to keep visitors safe and not add to the numbers needing to be rescued, some surf schools have been discouraging visitors from signing up for surf lessons this week. Hawaiian Oceans Waikiki surf instructor Reynard Miura told KITV that surf lesson sign-up numbers “went down big time” this week.  Another Hawaiian Oceans instructor, Kevin Imura, explained, “I’ll be honest with them,” telling the visitors, “It’s not worth it going out there and dying out there. Come back on another day when it’s smaller. It’s more fun”.

Inexperienced swimmers and surfers were not the only ones advised to stay out of the water. Due to waves that closed out the channel near Kewalo Basin Harbor, Oahu on Tuesday, the entrance was shut down and boaters docked there were prohibited from leaving.  On the Big Island, the Pohoiki boat ramp in Puna was also closed Wednesday due to high surf that had caused rubble and boulders to be tossed onto the ramp. Catamarans that typically run snorkeling and sailing tours also took heed of the warnings and canceled some of their sailing trips this week.

Although no deaths have been reported as directly caused by the south shore swell, a diver from New York has been missing since Monday. He was exploring a sunken vessel with a guided group off east Oahu when he disappeared. It is unclear if the rough waters were the cause of his disappearance. The Honolulu Fire Department is continuing their search for him, expanding the search area to include Kokohead to Kaka’ako.

The 10-15 foot waves seen this week have reportedly decreased to 8-12 feet, and should continue to diminish to 6-8 feet today. The high surf advisory will remain in effect until 6 p.m. this evening.

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