Between the crystal-clear water and perennially perfect weather, one would think that Maui doesn’t have a dark thing about it.
Think again. As part of the most isolated archipelago in the world and surrounded entirely by water, Maui is vulnerable to the wild whims of nature—from tsunamis that can devastate entire towns and flash floods that can wipe out whole hillsides. What’s more, a vacation is as much a state of mind as a destination, rendering some less likely to take the safety measures they probably would at home.
While several of the dangers outlined below aren’t inherently hazardous or common, a lack of caution—coupled with too much fun in the sun—puts people at risk for injury (or worse). Here are ten of the top perils in paradise and how to avoid getting hurt:
1. Body Surfing at Big Beach
Otherwise known as Makena State Park, Big Beach is one of the most spectacular feats of nature on the island.
2/3 of a mile long and over 100 yards wide, three separate entrances take surfers and sunbathers onto a stretch of sand that’s nearly surreal in its enormity. Tufts of kiawe forest flank the northern edge, and Pu’u O’Lai—a red-cindered hill that delineates Big from Little Beach—climbs magnificently towards the sky.
But as beautiful as it might be, the water here can be incredibly deceiving. One of the choicest spots for skimboarding on the planet, Big Beach is world-renowned for its fierce shore break—but it’s also notorious for it, earning the apt nickname Breakneck Beach. Every year sees injuries that range from broken arms to fatalities. Indeed, it’s consistently deemed one of the deadliest shore breaks in the world and goes down in the books for having some of the highest numbers of spiral injuries in Hawaii per year.
Part of the problem? Freak swells. The ocean here can go from flat as a lake to double-overhead within minutes. What’s more, the waves break abruptly in shallow water, causing brutal collisions against the sand.
Lifeguards may be stationed here at times, but take matters into your own hands. That is, if you’re unfamiliar with this break and new to the volatility of Hawaiian waters, go swimming and snorkeling at a less hazardous spot like nearby Maluaka. As some experts put it, when in doubt, don’t go out.
2. Portuguese Man-o’-War
Maui’s marine life is nothing short of amazing. From Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles to Humpback Whales, our waters are a veritable aquarium of fascinating wonders.
Of them is the Portuguese Man-‘o-War, a stunning specimen with some serious venom.
Often confused with jellyfish, these violet-hued carnivores are actually masses of zooids that string together to do lasting damage on fish and plankton. They’re most frequently seen on Maui’s beaches during high winds and storms, when they catch the trades on the surface of the sea and migrate closer—and onto—shore. With tentacles that stretch up to 165 feet long, these devious creatures have been known to wrap around surfers and sting unwitting keiki building sandcastles.
Happen upon one or a dozen? Don’t touch them, and stay out of the water: Their stings aren’t easily treated and can cause anaphylactic shock.
3. Hiking Unawares
Hiking in Maui might call to mind little more than quiet footsteps through lush vegetation and an epiphanic sense of what it means to be one with nature. All of which is well and true, but the islands also see a number of injuries and fatalities on their copious hiking trails.
To note: in May of 2016, a female visitor from China died from injuries from hiking Twin Falls in Maui’s verdant Haiku—a tragedy that followed news of a Californian hiker who sustained a concussion after dropping fifteen feet from a trail in Iao Valley. Three years earlier, a Colorado tourist slipped to his death on Waihou Spring Trail just west of Haleakala National Park, while in 2012 an Illinois woman tumbled to her death off a waterfall in Hana’s Bamboo Forest.
All of this is not to say that visitors to Maui should avoid hiking. Some of the island’s greatest adventures are found amongst its spellbinding trails, and those listed above are just a few of the best among them.
But trekkers—particularly those attempting the more challenging trails—should exercise caution at all times, staying away from ridges with precipitous drops, keeping an eye on where their feet land, paying mind to the weather (and weather warnings), and steering clear of erosion and crumbly soil. Bonus tip: Bring a hiking buddy with you in case of emergency.
4. Flash Floods
We may be free from blizzards with only a rare tornado ever spotted on our weather channel, but Hawaii is prone to sudden downpours that cause flash floods—and wreak serious havoc.
Consider this: flash floods, which are defined by a rapid deluge of water that follows a storm or heavy rain, are the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the US.
When the water hits regions of poor absorption, a flood begins, often carrying with it a significant amount of debris. Given that people tend to underestimate the power of these torrents, precautions aren’t taken as gravely as they should.
Maui’s breed of flash floods made national headlines when six hikers were caught in an unexpected surge of stream and rainwater on Hana’s “Commando Hike.” The abrupt flood turned into a fierce river that swept one hiker over a thirty-foot waterfall without a moment’s warning. While the hikers managed to scramble to safety on higher ground—with their friend who went over the falls surviving—others aren’t as fortunate: Over a decade earlier, two visitors were swept to their deaths when a flash flood generated a wall of water that engulfed them on Pipiwai Trail.
As with any outdoor adventure—on the island and around the world—one should always exercise caution. Heed warnings, stay on the main trail, check the weather, and familiarize yourself well enough with the area to anticipate bouts of nature’s prowess.
5. Scorpions and Centipedes
There are few things more delightful than walking barefoot on a bank of warm, toasty sand. But barefoot treks are best saved for the beach, where for the most part one can see what they’re stepping on.
Part of the potential harm is striding on or near a centipede or scorpion, both of which are prevalent on certain parts of the island. Sound unfamiliar? The former is an arthropod known for its numerous legs and vicious sting; the latter is a predatory arachnid with a segmented tail that’s packed with poison. And while only one of the three species of centipedes that roam Hawaii needs to be feared—the orange-shaded Scolopendra subspinipes, which can grow up to a foot in length (!)—scorpions ought to be avoided at all costs: Its venom is filled with enzyme inhibitors and neurotoxins, which can lead to convulsions, even death.
Both creatures are found in both the dry and wet parts of the island, but, because they tend to suss out moister climes, are seen most frequently after a rain. In other words, stifle the urge to go bare and keep an eye out for darting critters after dark, especially after one of nature’s showers.
6. Jumping Off Waterfalls
Jumping off a waterfall is one of the greatest thrills nature offers. And while waterfalls aren’t innately treacherous—approached with caution under the right conditions and they can supply wonderful, even serene experiences—jumping off them can be a risky endeavor if you’re unaware or cavalier about its dangers.
One of the biggest risks is jetting into water that’s too shallow, placing you in peril of breaking a leg—or worse. (A number of deaths have been reported on Maui; Kauai’s Kipu Falls was recently closed because of a spate of fatalities.) Furthermore, the lip of your launch may be covered in loose risks, spilling you over the edge—or too close to the outcropping—with little or no warning. Common sense suggests one should never be the first to jump into a pool they don’t know—or a pool whose depth is uncertain—and novice swimmers may want to save their leaps for the diving board.
7. Staph Infections
Hawaii may lead the country in the cost of living and longevity, but we also lead the nation in the highest number of deadly staph infections.
The islands possess bacteria that cause staph infections, which can run from mild skin irritation to deeper infections within the bones, bloodstream, and organs that can lead to death. But the most menacing strain, MRSA—whose occurrence in Hawaii is twice the national average—is resistant to antibiotics; as many as 200 people per year die from it. Open wounds render people particularly vulnerable to contracting the infection.
To stay unscathed, avoid swimming in the ocean if you have a cut or wound (or other point of entrance). Should you find the water too alluring to not hop it, seek help immediately if you find the area red or inflamed.
8. Swimming in Murky Water
Maui might be world-famous for its warm, pristine waters, but heavy rains can turn the ocean murky and littered with debris from land and nearby streams. And when such debris accumulates in the ocean, sharks swim closer and closer to shore, placing intrepid swimmers, snorkelers, and surfers at risk—particularly those who paddle out near stream mouths.
While Maui shark attacks are rare—the Department of Land and Natural Resources puts one’s chances of getting attacked at one in one million—those who are bitten often face life-threatening injuries. Common sense is often the best form of protection. Diving into the ocean when few others are around—or no one at all—may be foolish; there’s probably a reason there’s no one else out. Some species of sharks tend to move closer to shore not only after storms, but also at dawn, dusk, and night. Have an open wound, or happen to bleed from anywhere on your body? Stay out of the ocean completely (see #7). Kayaking or taking a SUP out for a ride? Don’t paddle too far away from shore alone, particularly after a storm. Save your shiny jewelry for land—sharks can detect contrast with incredible acuity—and resist the temptation to swim near dolphins. (They might be gorgeous, but they’re also shark bait.) And if the water is so murky you can hardly see the sand beneath your feet? Stay onshore and swim in a pool or freshwater.
9. Sting Rays
Sharks and Portuguese Man-‘o-War aside, swimmers should also be wary of stingrays on the ocean floor.
These gray-colored creatures, otherwise known as lupe (which means kite in Hawaiian), are abundant in Hawaiian waters, often gliding amongst other fish like grinning show-offs. And while swimming beside them is harmless—they’re fundamentally non-aggressive—they skim and lurk near the bottom of the sea, which makes treading on one a very real (though uncommon) possibility. Get stung? Seek medical attention right away, and wear fins the next time you set out near their environs.
10. Speeding on Hana Highway
“I Survived the Road to Hana” had some real relevance in the past: Once a rustic footpath that was part of a trail that encircled the entire island, navigating the terrain to reach Hana truly was treacherous at one point.
However, the road has been refurbished considerably since its inception, rendering most of it easy to traverse. Curves abound and whole swathes are exceptionally narrow, but cautious drivers are rarely at risk of tumbling over the cliffs to their demise below.
All that being said, negotiating Hana Highway safely requires four primary precautions: accede to other drivers (allowing others to pass or go first on one-way stretches), focus (as in, don’t get so carried away by the raw beauty that you fail to see the road in front of you), use common sense, and follow the speed limit.
True, between the long line of cars in front of you and the frequent passes to let others pass, it’s nearly impossible to speed here at times. But if you’re the only soul on the road—or believe so—resist the urge to press the pedal to the medal. Beyond the fact that it’s illegal—with parts of the road near keiki and schools—it’s also hazardous, particularly for those who are unfamiliar with the terrain and cannot anticipate upcoming bends or blind corners. Likewise, stopping at unofficial outlooks or nearing the edge of what could easily be a slippery slide down a cliff should be avoided at all costs. As with everything else on Maui—including its wildlife—savor it with sound judgment and treat it with respect. It’ll reward you in kind—and then some.