Waters of Okinawa: Things you need to consider before jumping in
The islands of Okinawa have some of the most beautiful beaches, surrounding waters, and diving or snorkeling spots in the world. Service members and their families need to know how to enjoy these wonders safely and responsibly, because water-related dangers are some of the most prominent causes of fatalities to Status of Forces Agreement personnel on Okinawa.
Since 1995, more than 750 people have drowned in the waters surrounding Okinawa, according to David Orr, manager of the recreational off-duty safety program on Okinawa.
It is important to know how to gauge whether you should participate in recreational water activities, and also know the proper precautionary measures to stay safe. Here are some of the most important variables to consider.
Tides are the rising and falling of water caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon, and they can be treacherous, according to Gary Joyce, program manager of Tsunami Scuba, a water recreation supply and safety store located on bases across Okinawa.
High tide is when the water level, or crest, reaches its highest point.
Tides bring a variety of dangers to the water, such as affecting the roughness of the waves and currents, said Joyce.
“An incoming tide with wind and waves can be extremely dangerous,” said Joyce. “The combination of rough water and wind could throw you against sharp objects. You should always check for tides and wind before you go out, and once more before you get in the water just to be sure.”
Tides and winds are not the only thing to be mindful of while in the water; riptides also present a hazard. Riptides are caused by water funneling through a narrow opening in the reef, usually when the ocean is entering low tide, according to Joyce.
“Sometimes a riptide can pull you away from the shore and you have to know how to respond in an appropriate way,” said Joyce. “Some people tend to panic and fight the strong current, but that is ineffective. You should not swim straight against the riptide. Instead, swim at an angle with the flow of the water. This will get you out of the current and allow you to return to shore.”
Riptides occur in both deep water and shallow water, meaning if a person is just waist deep in water, they can still be drug out by the riptide.
You should also not go out during a swell. Swells are a series of surface waves generated by distant weather systems. Many people like to surf during a swell because of the constant waves, but this is dangerous.
At nearly every beach site, there is a designated swimming area that should be utilized. These areas are usually free of environmental hazards, such as sharp coral, and are in locations where waves are minimal.
Alcohol and water do not mix
Alcohol and prescription drugs can have a massive effect on the human body, especially in water, according to Cpl. Austin Dugan, a lifeguard with Marine Corps Community Services aquatics, and engine mechanic with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 36, Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force.
“Alcohol can cause disorientation while in the water,” said Dugan, a Pahoa, Hawaii, native. “Disorientation could lead to panic, or worse. Less-experienced swimmers, especially those who are unfamiliar with the ocean’s trends, can be putting themselves at higher risk.”
III Marine Expeditionary Force/Marine Corps Installations Pacific Order 5101.1, Recreational Water Activities, states, “III MEF and MCIPAC military personnel shall not enter open water while drunk from alcohol or impaired by any controlled substance or prescription drug. The words, ‘drunk’ or ‘impaired,’ mean any intoxication sufficient to impair the rational and full exercise of the mental or physical faculties.”
It is better to be safe and avoid being put in a dangerous situation if it is questionable on whether or not an individual is suited for aquatic activities.
Check the sea conditions
Anyone who is going out in the water should first check the sea conditions. On Okinawa, the east and west sides of the island are not always experiencing the same sea condition, meaning the east side could be safe, while the west side is dangerous. Entering the ocean during an elevated sea condition has been the reason for multiple deaths on Okinawa.
Sea condition all clear (SC-AC) is when conditions are ideal for water-related activities, but some hazards may still exist.
Sea condition caution (SC-C) is when hazardous conditions may exist, and personnel should use caution when entering the water.
Sea condition danger (SC-D) is when life-threatening conditions exist, and personnel are only allowed to enter the water under certain circumstances found at www.shogunweather.com/seaconditions/.
To check the sea condition, tune in to American Forces Network radio at 89.1 FM or check any AFN TV channel. When checking the sea condition on AFN TV channels, the listing will be in the top corner of the screen with an abbreviated code such as EC-WD to signify “east caution, west danger.”
Use proper safety equipment
It is recommended for everyone, despite experience level, to utilize proper safety equipment while in open water, according to Dugan.
“Using a snorkeling vest or life jacket minimizes the risk of drowning drastically,” said Dugan. “They are made to assist you in floating when you are too tired to swim.”
Snorkeling vests are identical to life jackets, except they are built to allow the swimmer to keep their head in the water for snorkeling purposes. Snorkels, fins and inner tubes are other life-saving tools to ensure a safe, fun time while enjoying the beautiful ocean sites Okinawa has to offer.
The best way to prevent dangerous situations is to have a partner. If you have at least one partner with you in the water, your chances of drowning decrease even more.
III MEF/MCIPAC Order 5101.1 states, “All III MEF and MCIPAC military personnel participating in recreational activities in open water shall use the ‘buddy system’ so that two or more persons operate together to monitor and assist each other in the water.”
If you see someone in trouble, don't risk your safety to help them. Instead, get help from a lifeguard, throw the victim something that floats, and yell out instructions on how to escape. If a lifeguard is not available, call 098-911-1911 for Marine Corps bases, 098-934-5911 for Kadena Air Base, Okuma, Camp Shields, and Torii Station, or 119 if you are off base.
Be sure to follow these water safety tips in order to prevent drowning, not only on Okinawa, but anywhere in the world.
For more information, visit your local safety office or go to www.shogunweather.com.