We Can Thank Ralph Goto for Honolulu’s World-Class Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division
The OG Aquaman.
photo: David Croxford
Japan-born, Mainland-raised Ralph Goto came to Hawai‘i in the ’60s to attend UH Mānoa. He took a job as a lifeguard at the campus pool, which turned into three decades as the head of Honolulu’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division. After building the department to one of the best in the world, he retired five years ago but still volunteers with lifeguard and water safety groups—part of the reason he was honored with the Safe Hawai‘i Award this summer.
I went to the YMCA and I coached swimming and taught swimming for eight years, and then started my career at the city in 1981. At that time the lifeguard service was in the parks and recreation department and was pretty small.
I kind of steered the ship. I always thought that the most important part of the lifeguard operation is the lifeguards. So the supervisors and the chiefs and the captains—their job is to support the people under them because that’s where the work gets done.
I’ve been to probably every major lifeguard operation in the country. When I first started people said, well, you need to go to Los Angeles and you need to go to Australia. I did go and I saw those two systems, but Hawai‘i’s unique.
Lifeguards: Yes, they’re athletic, yes, they’re mostly good looking—but you don’t have to be good looking to be a lifeguard.
I swam occasionally at the district park pool in Kailua, and they have a hard time getting lifeguards. … One of the reasons is you can make just as much money at McDonald’s as lifeguarding at a swimming pool.
There’s never enough resources. The City Council is very supportive, the administration is very supportive, but … every time there’s a new mayor or every time there’s a new council, you have to go and educate them, or at the Legislature you have to go do your lobbying.
We used to think, look at all the tourists, they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re ignorant. And it’s not that they’re ignorant or stupid, they just need to be educated.
We’ve had a lot of snorkel-related drownings, so what’s going on? … Is it the snorkel? They have the full face mask now. People are saying those are dangerous, but we don’t have any evidence. We don’t have any data about what happens when someone has a pre-existing medical condition. In order to craft the actual prevention message, you need to know what’s going on.
The drowning prevention activity is just an extension of what I did for 35 years, ’cause the issues are still here. We still have a high incidence of drowning, a high incidence of injuries. The whole idea is to be able to reduce those numbers.
My wife asks me that all the time! “I thought you were retired.” The difference now is, I do this because I want to do this, not because I have to.
Visit hawaiibeachsafety.com for real-time beach conditions and a list of lifeguard-monitored beaches.