PRINCEVILLE — Tom and Terry Grubbs, whose daughter lives in Princeville, have a longstanding relationship with Queen’s Bath.
“We go down there and fish in the summer all the time,” Tom said Friday morning as he stood on the hill overlooking the black mass of boulders that edge the sea.
Terry said she loves seeing the turtles that spend time there, and she always looks forward to seeing Queen’s Bath when they are visiting Kauai from their home in Port Angeles, Washington.
“We’re not going down there today, though,” Terry said.
That’s because Friday’s surf, reported by Surfline at about 10 feet, sent water crashing over the rocks as the sets came in.
“The water builds up through the set and then it gets pushed up and over the rocks when you’re not looking,” Tom said. “It’ll take you right out.”
Laurie Chapman, who is on island from Connecticut, said it was her first time at Queen’s Bath, but she wasn’t going to be journeying farther than the hilltop, either.
“I don’t want to die,” Chapman said. “I’m not going down there.”
An exotic danger
The Feb. 26 fatality at Queen’s Bath, when a 28-year-old Chicago man was swept out to sea in high surf, was the second in the past five years, according to Sarah Blane, spokeswoman for the Kauai Police Department.
Dr. Monty Downs, Kauai Lifeguard Association president, said that number is on the decline because of the increase of safety information.
“It’s a legendary place for rescue officials and they’ve responded to plenty of incidents over the years,” Downs said. “I don’t know how many rescues there have been recently, but I know there’s been a few.”
In the past 15 years, The Garden Island newspaper has reported six fatalities at Queen’s Bath, and many injuries. Cardboard signs sometimes decorate the Queen’s Bath trailhead, with hand-drawn skulls and death tallies that add up to more than 30 people.
“There’s been plenty of deaths over the years,” Downs said, “and I think the reason they hit us so hard is that it’s so avoidable.”
Downs explained that Queen’s Bath is exotic — a clear salt-water pool that is refreshed by the open sea and framed by Kauai’s breathtaking mountains. But it can turn into a death trap because big waves will suck you right off the rocks.
“This is the kind of place you expect to see at Disneyland,” Downs said. “But this is not Disneyland.”
Blane said ocean safety officials noted record-breaking waves on Kauai on the day of the latest fatality, with the surf off Queen’s Bath reported at 40 feet.
That was also the day the Eddie Aikau Memorial big wave surf competition ran on Oahu.
“During that time, the Ocean Safety Bureau issued daily public announcements urging beachgoers to stay out of the water and away from the shoreline from Polihale to Anini Beach,” Blane said.
Downs and Enright both said the location’s popularity exploded about 20 years ago, when visitor guides included it in their publications.
“What’s done is done: It’s in the guidebook now, and I understand it,” Downs said.
Enright said since Queen’s Bath has made its way into the “Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed,” at least 200 tourists visit the location every day.
As the number of fatalities and rescues has grown, Downs said the visitor industry has started to dissuade people from visiting Queen’s Bath and bring awareness to the dangers of the location.
“I think the concierges are doing a better job of discouraging people from going there, and the guidebook (‘Ultimate Kauai Guidebook’) is good about it right now,” Downs said. “When you get to reading about it, they’re pretty darn good. I’m not on the bandwagon that I used to be about the guidebook.”
Sue Kahono, executive director of the Kauai Visitor’s Bureau, said the organization describes Queen’s Bath as “a dangerous area that should be avoided by residents and visitors.”
“We disapprove of any guidebook, website or article in print or online that encourages people to experience Queen’s Bath,” Kanoho said. “The wave action is too unpredictable and the risk is simply too great for a tragedy to occur at anytime.”
George Thompson, communications specialist with Wizard Publications, which publishes the “Ultimate Kauai Guidebook,” said the company works hard to be a good community partner and has a “good safety briefing on that location.”
“Taking it out of the book might do more damage than good because our readers might not have that information,” Thompson said. “If you Google Queen’s Bath on Kauai right now, you’ll come up with 275,000 hits. How many of them have safety information?”
Close Queen’s Bath?
Rory Enright, general manager of the Princeville Community Association, said he’s spent a lot of time ruminating about Queen’s Bath this year.
“If it were up to me, I would close it down,” Enright said. “But I don’t have the authority.”
Queen’s Bath is on state land, but the path leading there is on private land, Enright explained. The county owns an easement on the trail and owns the parking lot adjacent to the trailhead.
The county did close the trailhead to Queen’s Bath with concrete barriers for about two months in 2002 by decree of then-Mayor Maryanne Kusaka.
It was reopened when a Hanalei resident discovered that by state law, only an act of the County Council, through a resolution or ordinance, can close a public access route.
Blane explained that the county, as a government entity, must balance access to public spaces with public safety.
“Queen’s Bath is a public space, but it is not a county or state park, nor is it an area that is advertised or publicized by the county, state or the Visitors Bureau as an attraction,” Blane said. “Beachgoers are encouraged to visit guarded beaches across the island.”
Public safety officials and experts on Queen’s Bath agree on the same thing in the end — beachgoers have to help in securing their own safety.