Here in the Dominican Republic, we have an abundance of coconut palm trees. They add charm and personality to the beaches they fringe. They are often posted on tourist post-cards and show up as an inspiring backdrop in so many of the pictures taken. Regardless, tourists are often told not to sit under the coconut trees to avoid the falling coconuts that could prove hazardous. You'll even see signs that read, "Beware Of Falling Coconuts."
You will also see groves of coconut palm trees growing in agricultural fields as a cash crop to sell locally and to export. A single coconut palm can produce between 50 -150 coconuts per year and the Dominican Republic is one of the major exporters of fresh coconuts.
With all this in mind, I've seen questions like the following posted all around the internet:
1. Can falling coconuts kill you?
2. Can flying coconuts kill you during a hurricane?
3. Do people really die from falling coconuts?
I do not want to sound like an alarmist but the short answer is "yes" to all 3 questions above.
Before I explain further, I want to mention that Punta Cana, the most popular tourist destination in the Dominican Republic, is often referred to as "The Coconut Coast." This is because the whole 30-40 mile stretch of the Punta Cana coastline is lined with wind sculpted coconut palm trees. As an eco-tour operator, I often take Punta Cana guests out on day excursions to nearby Saona Island which is also lined with coconut palms, so I'm sure you can understand my interest in this subject of potential hazards due to falling coconuts and Flying coconuts.
There was actually a peer reviewed scientific study done in 2002 to determine the bodily injury due to being hit by a coconut while sitting benefit a coconut palm tree. In the academic paper to come out of this study, Dr. Peter Barss, a Canadian physician, reported two deaths and several severe cranial injuries due to the impacts of falling coconuts. Some of these cranial injuries were serious enough to knock people out and put them in a coma. He was quite familiar with these cases as he worked as a doctor in the tropics for years and personally treated many patients who had been hit by coconuts.
From Dr. Barss' study, it was calculated that if a coconut palm tree is 25 meters tall (more than 82 feet tall) and a 2 kilogram coconut (that's 4.4 a pound coconut) falls from this height, when it makes impact it would hit at a Speed of 80 kilometers per hour – that is about 50 miles per hour! Some coconut trees get to be 35 meters tall (about 115 feet tall). No wonder a falling coconut can kill or seriously injure you!
So, what about flying coconuts picked up by a hurricane?
Well, consider this. A mere Category 1 hurricane has sustained wind speeds of more than 74 miles per hour! A Category 5 hurricane has sustained wind speeds of more than 155 miles per hour! It's not a difficult deduction that a coconut flying at this speed could kill you if it hit you in the skull.
Consider this: 155 miles per hour is the same speed of a really fast Andy Roddick tennis serve and I've seen super tennis pro Roger Federer duck on those! Instead of a soft little tennis ball barreling at you, imagine what a rock hard 4-5 pound coconut miss could do if you did not duck in time!
This explains why football helmets are sometimes added to hurricane preparedness kits in the Caribbean. It never hurts to protect the skull during a tropical storm. It is also why you should always heed the instructions given to you on how to take appropriate cover during a hurricane warning! Be sure to stay away from windows too because those coconut projectile missiles can easily crash through the glass.
In the tropics, you'll often see road work crews and property owners picking up coconuts when a hurricane is expected to hit. It is interesting to think about something as picturesque as the beautiful coconut palm becoming so dangerous but it can and does happen and you should always keep that in mind.
We often see comedy routines that show a coconut bopping someone on the head while they nap under a coconut tree but consider what Dr. Barss said in an interview, "It may seem funny from our perspective, but when you're treating these injuries daily, it's not funny at all."
Please know that the number of people killed per year by falling coconuts has been grossly exaggerated all over the internet. The idea that more people are killed by falling coconuts than by sharks was a completely made up bogus story, with numbers (150 per year) pulled out of a hat. There is no science or actual stats to back it up. However, having said that, you should still avoid lounging under coconut trees, especially in high wind conditions.
So, when you are traveling in the Dominican Republic or anywhere else in the tropics where you have coconut trees, be sure to keep a healthy respect for the coconut palm tree as you enjoy its beauty. Above all, be sure to sample a fresh coconut straight off the tree. It is a force of nature in more ways than one.