Oh, the things you can do on the Hawaiian Islands. Whether you prefer hiking, swimming, surfing, or sailing; whether you love live lava beds or hanging rainforest gardens; whether you prefer white sand, black sand, or pink sand beaches…Hawaii’s got something for you.
But not all the activities hawked in magazines, on brochures, and in guidebooks are equally suitable for us travelers with pain. Here’s my take on Hawaii’s most popular in-ocean activities. Your mileage will vary, of course.
With the mighty Pacific Ocean tamed to a balmy 80 degrees F (27 degrees C), water-based sports and attractions make up a huge part of Hawaii’s tourist draw. And indeed, many travelers with pain and hidden disabilities find that a gentle swim can feel wonderful, diminishing pain while elevating mood.
Before you wade out into the warm water, ask a local or read a guidebook (or a 101 Things to Do magazine) to make sure that you’ve picked a gentle, swimmable beach without major riptides or a history of rogue waves and heavy surf. Even then, never turn your back on the ocean–she’s bigger and stronger than even the healthiest of swimmers, and it can be a little bit too easy to get lost in the weightless warmth of tropical waters and not notice that you’re tiring out.
As inviting as that cerulean water looks, you’ve also got to be mindful of your condition too. Not all IC patients do well with swimming–the dampness can cause irritation, which can grow into a flare. Also, bacteria lives in salt water. If you’re recently post-op, have stitches, a shunt or a catheter that’s not sealed off, or any break in your skin, don’t swim in the ocean. Staph infections hurt! (Ask me how I know about this.)
Despite some hopeful marketing statements to the contrary, the fact remains that SCUBA diving is an intense sport, not suitable to be lightly undertaken. Getting open-water dive certified takes about a week, and includes classroom and swimming pool time, then a test dive in the ocean.You’ve got to be able swim well, maneuver with heavy oxygen tanks on your back while wearing a wetsuit (yes, even in Hawaii).
But most of all, SCUBA requires tolerance to pressure changes, breathing changes, and the other physical rigors of spending time under water. Travelers with inner ear problems cannot SCUBA dive. Nor can anyone who’s ever had a bowel resection, certain ear surgeries, active asthma, seizure disorders, many types of heart disease, and a variety of other conditions.
Warm-water dive shops often attempt to boost their business by offering no-cert-needed shallow water dives for tourists. There’s also something called SNUBA–a no-experience-necessary cross between snorkeling and SCUBA. Before you sign up (and pre-pay) for any of these activities, talk to your doctor. Hawaiian fish sure are pretty, but they are not worth dying for.
If you’re serious about diving, check out this list and schedule a physical before you sign up for your first class or dive.
A much easier way to see the colorful marine life going about its business on Hawaii’s legendary reefs is by grabbing a mask and going snorkeling.
On my recent trip to Kauai, I had the fun of introducing to adults to snorkeling–something I learned to do when I was about 5 years old. I learned almost as much as my friends did! Most especially, I got a new view on the complications of the activity for newcomers–you’ve got to breathe through the tube, deal with diminished peripheral vision, swim with flippers, avoid touching delicate coral formations, and pop up regularly to check the location of your snorkel buddies and your proximity to the shore.
If you’ve got asthma or another breathing problem, the “breathe through the tube” part can be a real challenge. And if you’re taking meds for chronic pain, doing all those things together can get complicated. So before you book one of the many fabulous (and expensive) snorkeling tours available on Hawaii, be sure that snorkeling is something you can do comfortably and safely enough to make the trip worthwhile.
Happily, it’s cheap and easy and fun to try out snorkeling along the shore. In fact, I do a lot of shore side snorkeling whenever I visit Hawaii–it’s my favorite activity. I strongly recommend skipping the el-cheapo loaner and ABC Store masks; instead, go to Snorkel Bob’s, Boss Frog, or another reputable gear rental shop. Spend the extra few dollars to get an individually fitted mask and a good snorkel. Fins always come with the rest of the gear. As warm as the waters of Hawaii are, consider whether you tend to get chilled easily at all. I do, so I rent a wetsuit jacket.
Then I consult my trusty guidebook to find the best and most convenient snorkel beaches. If you’re new to snorkeling and not sure of your endurance or strength swimming in the ocean, look for a beach that’s got both reefs and lifeguards for added safety. Never ever, even if you’re perfectly healthy, snorkel solo in an isolated area. In fact, it’s best to have a buddy in the water with you or watching you from the beach. Plus it’s more fun to have a friend to share your discoveries of tangs and eels, butterfly fish and octopi with right then and there.
The iconic sport of Hawaii, surfing can be a spiritual way to become one with the ocean or an adrenaline flooding extreme adventure depending on how it’s done. But there’s one thing that surfing always is–an energy and strength intensive sport. Just paddling out through the breakers takes some serious effort. Then there’s the part where you’ve got to paddle like hell to catch the wave before you stand up to enjoy the ride. Should it go less than perfectly, you may find yourself tumbling in a breaking wave, tethered to a wildly careening surfboard. After you right yourself and reclaim your board, it’s time to do the whole thing all over again.
Surf schools on every major island promise that they’ll have every student up on her feet and surfing in only one lesson. (Or your money back!) On this last trip, I was terribly tempted to take them up on their guarantee. I’m glad I didn’t–those precious seconds of standing up on the surfboard would surely have resulted in getting to spend the rest of my trip lying down. I didn’t have enough energy or built-up muscular strength and endurance for surfing. I’m hoping that next time I’ll be in good enough shape to give it a shot.
Are you a surfer? Have you tried a lesson? I’d love to hear about–please drop a comment below!
The little sister of surfing, bodyboarding (aka boogieboarding) and bodysurfing let less coordinated, less energetic, and less ambitious ocean-lovers ride a few waves without the need to paddle out or stand up. While it’s easier to bodyboard than to surf (not having to paddle out makes for a huge conservation of energy), the sport still takes stamina and strength. And bodyboarding tends to be more deceptively draining than surfing. It’s all too easy to let the fun of bobbing like a cork in the near-shore waves distract from fatigue and even pain. At least that’s what happens to me.
If you want to try bodyboarding on Hawaii, do yourself a favor and use a good board. The little kiddie-style boards that some hotels loan out and that are sold at ABC stores don’t work well at all for adult-sized bodyboarders. (But they’re fine for smaller kids.) The snorkel shops I mentioned above also rent sturdy adult-sized bodyboards at reasonable rates.
Whether you go for SCUBA on alternate days, or just dabble your toes in the water at one of Kaua’i’s baby beaches, be sure to slather on the sunscreen. It works best (read: doesn’t just float back off your skin) if you goop up at least half an hour before you hit the water. Then reapply every hour or two–believe me, you’ll need it. If you’re sensitive to typical sunscreens, check out the most effective organic and natural brands described in this report.
Coming soon…Hawaii Part 3: More Fun on Land and Sea