Last weekend, I sat around a table of fellow volunteers with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui at the Kalaheo Community Center. It was our annual pupu potluck and while the winds whistled outside the cement block building in which we sat, someone suggested we share a favorite memory from our days spent seal-sitting.
One long-time volunteer recounted discovering a mere hours-old Hawaiian monk seal pup curled next to its mom and tucked under the naupaka bushes at the back of beach. Someone else witnessed a yearling swimming offshore and gasping for breath as it surfaced with fishing net wrapped around its body; eventually, the seal escaped drowning by freeing itself from the net. Another person shared her surprise in coming face to face, practically, with a seal while scuba diving.
Hawaiian monk seals love to snuggle alongside driftwood.
Hawaiian monk seals love to snuggle alongside driftwood.
Then, the conversation switched a bit to stories of seal encounters with our island’s visitors–some anecdotes silly, some quite stupid. Just the day before, a man approached a sleeping seal, sat close to it (a federal offense, by the way) and played his trumpet. He wanted to commune with the seal. The seal barked at the man, his way of saying, “You’re invading my space; get away from me.”
On another occasion, a visitor insisted on plopping his 18-month old baby on top of a seal for a cool vacation photograph. The volunteer on the scene couldn’t convince the man this was a bad idea. Sleeping seals may look sweet, but they are still wild animals. With teeth. When the volunteer pulled out his cell phone and started dialing the police, the man finally backed off.
Then, there are the questions some visitors ask. Like, does the water go all the way around the island? Are there sharks in the ocean? When do the whales come out? Where are the Hawaiians? Will the stores and restaurants accept American dollars?
Years ago, when I worked as a concierge at a condo resort, my co-workers and I heard variations of these questions all the time. We’d shake our head and turn to each other, saying, another visitor had forgotten to pack their brain. It was our inside joke. We collected each new tale like feathers we’d pull out of our hats at gatherings like the one last Saturday night. Tragically, we had no idea how right we were.
Last week, I listened to a podcast with Laurence Gonzales, author of the new book Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things. He confirmed our suspicion. People really do forget to pack their brains when they go on vacation. Of course, one of the reasons we go on vacation is to give our brains a rest–to chill out, to relax, to de-stress. And, yet, according to Gonzales, it could be the death of us. In his book, he calls it a “vacation state of mind.”
He writes about mental models and behavioral scripts. In a vacation state of mind, Gonzales said in the podcast, we stop paying attention. You might say it’s like flipping on the “automatic pilot” switch. When we go into automatic mode, we don’t see what we actually see. The rules don’t apply to us. He says:
The way we frame our activities defines what we can see and what we can’t see. If you’re on vacation and pull over at a Grand Canyon overlook to take a picture, your frame of reference is, “I am on vacation taking pictures.” It is not, “I am on a 3,000 foot cliff where lots of people fall off.” Depending on the way you frame your behavior you can have very different reactions. The reason people fall off cliffs is because they are thinking in terms of the immediate activity of taking a picture versus the overall scheme of things.
Another way of saying this is you can’t see the forest for the trees. Gonzales’ point: Do not forget the forest. Gonzales also says most accidents happen on the descent.
This past Saturday afternoon, a 33-year-old female visitor drowned in the Wailua River. According to the local newspaper, she had paddled up the river and hiked to a remote waterfall. When she and her group returned to where they had tied up their kayaks, she entered the water, turned onto her back and was swept down the river to her death.
Hundreds of visitors complete this tour safely every day. In the almost 10 years I have lived on Kaua’i, I have never heard of anyone drowning on one of these river kayaking tours. In the ocean, yes–often–but not the rivers. Yet, this past Saturday was no ordinary day. We had experienced heavy rains throughout the week. When this happens, the water volume increases, turning a meandering river into a fast-running one with a strong current. Flash flooding occurs.
The day after this woman drowned, fire fighters successfully rescued a stranded couple on the same river, and a group of bystanders rescued a 26-year-old male visitor who had been swept out to sea while swimming off the beach where the Wailua River empties into the ocean.
Maybe the reason was what Gonzales’ call the vacation state of mind. Maybe it was ignorance of the dangers of heavy rains on a river. As for the story of the father who insisted on sitting his baby on the back of a seal, I think there’s something else going on, too. TV has lulled us into a false sense of safety. We get up close and personal with wild animals all the time when we tune our television sets to the National Geographic Channel, Nature on PBS and The Crocodile Hunter.
And, yet, it’s important to remember TV is not real life, even with the explosion of reality TV shows. As someone who writes about the beauty and enchantment of Hawai’i, I feel it is my responsibility to also write about the dangers–to remind you to pay attention, to remind you to remember to pack your brain when you go on vacation. Seriously.
Before heading to the beach–or up the river–educate yourself: Talk to a lifeguard, call the Ocean Safety Bureau at 808-241-4984 and visit Kauai Explorer.