LIHUE, Hawaii – Travel guidebooks call Kipu Falls "a glorious little hidden place" and a "swimming hole extraordinaire." But the alluring beauty of the waterfall and natural pool conceals a deadly side.
Five visitors have drowned at Kipu Falls in the past five years, including two since December. In most of the cases, the swimmers jumped off the top of the waterfall into the pool of blue-green water about 20 feet below, then were pulled to their deaths while attempting to swim to the shore. Others have suffered chest injuries, rope burns, perforated eardrums and broken and sprained ankles. A teenage girl was paralyzed after jumping there.
The deaths have given rise to speculation about whether there's a powerful whirlpool current in the swimming hole and prompted local authorities to push for greater restrictions to the site. The local tourism bureau became so alarmed by the toll that it mounted a campaign last year to push guidebooks to remove all references to the place.
It supported a bill before the Hawaii legislature that would have made writers and publishers of travel guides liable if a reader is injured or dies while trespassing on private property they have depicted. The bill died amid protests from publishers who said it violated their First Amendment rights.
The latest victim, Santhosh Heddese of Irvine, Calif., drowned on June 26. Rescue divers found the 35-year-old's body at the bottom of the pool an hour later.
The Kauai Visitors Bureau is also urging hotel concierges and tour operators to steer people away from the area.
Sue Kanoho, the agency's director, notes anyone who goes to the falls is trespassing.
Kanoho helped Heddese's widow get the couple's luggage home after he died last month. She said it was "devastating" to see another tragedy.
"I've really asked the community and the visitor industry, please, let's not send people there," Kanoho said.
The deaths have some locally questioning whether an angry "mo'o" — a Hawaiian water spirit lizard — lives in Kipu Falls.
"I kept thinking, something just held him down there. What possibly could have sucked him back down to the bottom of the pond?" said Christine Kauhi, whose 26-year-old son, Kulana Kauhi-Apao, from the Honolulu suburb of Kaneohe, drowned last December.
Kipu Falls sits in a clearing along the Huleia Stream, which pours out of the hills of southeastern Kauai into the island's biggest harbor, Nawiliwili. It's rimmed by banyan and other large trees. Most people get there by driving along a paved road that's only a few miles from downtown Lihue and some of Kauai's biggest hotels. From there, they walk about five minutes down a narrow dirt trail flanked by 6-foot-tall growths of invasive Guinea grass.
The pool and falls are on private property owned by Grove Farm, but locals have been swimming there for decades largely without problems. Residents say tourists arrived when guidebooks started mentioning it in the mid-90s. Though multiple guidebooks tout it is as "hidden," it was crowded with several dozen tourists on a recent weekday. A consistent trickle of people walked to and from the spot along the trail.
The Kauai Fire Department sent rescue crews to Kipu Falls 10 times last year, and twice so far this year.
Dr. Monty Downs, a doctor at Kauai's Wilcox hospital, said someone comes to his emergency room from Kipu Falls every few months. In recent years, they've included a 25-year-old man who suffered major chest injuries when he swung from a rope over the pool but failed to let go and slammed into the cliff. He required surgery, but survived.
Despite suspicions about mysterious forces, John Blalock, deputy chief of the Kauai Fire Department, said Kipu Falls doesn't have any strange or unusual currents. His rescue divers tell him the water is actually calm under the surface.
Locals who frequent the spot say the falls have a current, but only a downstream flow — exactly what you would expect in a river.
Instead, Blalock attributes the high number of deaths and injuries to tourists getting in over their heads. He compared travelers from big cities or the U.S. mainland going to Kipu Falls to someone born and raised in Hawaii going skiing — and deciding to take on a challenging slope.
"When you think about it, when you go on vacation, you do 'high risk, low frequency' events," Blalock said. "You do things that you don't normally do."
Kipu Falls isn't the only place tourists have encountered danger. Earlier this month, a visitor from California died after being sucked into a blowhole on Maui. Witnesses said he was frolicking in the sprays when he disappeared.
Grove Farm, a former sugar plantation that now owns a fish farm and leases farmland, is in a dilemma over Kipu Falls.
Closing it off would be an expensive undertaking for a small Kauai company that has only about a dozen employees. A fence could break and Grove Farm could be held responsible for not maintaining the barrier. If the company posts warning signs, it would be acknowledging the area is risky, exposing itself to liability.
Locals who have enjoyed the pool for years fear they would lose one of the places they love most if Grove Farm blocks access.
Downs, the emergency room doctor, said he's reluctantly concluded that's exactly what should be done.
"I've seen enough families destroyed," Downs said, "that to me the benefit of making it not be accessible outweighs the downside of taking away yet another spot that locals enjoy."
Daniel Hale, a tour boat captain who has been swimming at the falls for about a decade, is sympathetic to families who have lost loved ones. But he said the accidents shouldn't lead to closure.
"People come here on vacation and they get hurt, and it's sad, but it happens because it's not Disneyland. It doesn't cushion you," Hale said.
Kauhi, whose son died there in December, hopes something can be done to prevent more drownings. As a Native Hawaiian, she also hopes a Hawaiian priest will bless the place and the people who have passed there.
"I know if my son had a choice, if he knew, I don't think he would have gone," Kauhi said, as she tried to stifle tears. "I don't think he would have wanted to leave his family and friends behind. I'm just very sad, and I'm sure all these other families are grieving just like me."