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Never mind sharks, the beach’s biggest danger is the coconut

Photo: Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis via Getty Images
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Death by coconut

What it’s about: The perfect ingredient for piña coladas, Girl Scout Samoas, and death! Yes, while for most people, the worst thing about coconuts is their taste and texture (we’re not a fan), a handful of unlucky individuals have met their end at the hands of a falling coconut. The coconut palm can grow up to 100 feet tall and its hard-shelled fruits weigh more than 3 pounds, so falling coconuts can reach pretty significant speeds when hurtling earthwards, causing serious injury. And as with any blow to the head, a severe enough one can be fatal.


Biggest controversy: Coconuts are more dangerous than sharks. A shark expert defended their object of study in 2002 by claiming that falling coconuts kill 150 people a year, while sharks kill only five. Wikipedia seems less than confident in the veracity of this claim, however, as it keeps referring to the 150 count as a “legend.” Nevertheless, the stat has been widely reported, and it seems to be accepted as fact that more people die from falling coconuts than sharks.

Strangest fact: Coconuts served in WWII. When America retook the Philippines in 1944, General Douglas MacArthur stepped ashore on the island of Leyte, and famously announced, “I have returned.” But the Japanese army was waiting, and weaponized coconuts were in their arsenal. Soldiers reportedly built “coconut bombs,” by filling the fruit’s hollow inside with a hand grenade and picric acid. The coconuts were sealed closed with wax, and then thrown at American troops landing on the island.

General MacArthur reaching the shore at Leyte, October 1944. (Photo: Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Thing we were happiest to learn: Coconuts may have magic powers. According to (almost certainly apocryphal) newspaper reports in the 1930s, an elementary school teacher in Harnahalli, India, solved the mystery of a stolen book by having his students each touch a coconut with a religious symbol painted on it. He claimed the guilty party would face “divine wrath.” According to legend, one student resisted, but was forced to touch the coconut, and within an hour suffered fever, delirium, and death.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Children seem to be especially vulnerable to death from above. In 1952, a woman in Singapore was holding a 7-month-old baby when a coconut struck and killed the child. In 1973, a “hail of coconuts” estimated to number 57 fell on a 2-year-old girl and her aunt in Waikiki; the adult survived, the child did not. In 2002, a Malaysian 6-month-old was killed when a coconut somehow fell into the baby’s crib. And in 2010, a newborn was killed by a coconut during a religious ceremony in Thiruvananthapuram, India.

Richards seen leaving the Auckland hospital where he was treated for the coconut-unrelated fall. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Also noteworthy: There have been a few high-profile coconut strikes. One of the earliest recorded coconut deaths took place in 1777, when a concubine of King Tetui of Mangaia was killed by, “a falling green nut.” Keith Richards suffered a brain injury in 2006 and needed surgery, and it was widely reported that he had been hit on the head with a coconut; in fact, he had climbed and then fallen out of a (non-coconut-bearing) tree. That same year, a satirical Newsweek article presented Enron CEO Ken Lay as trying to avoid testifying in the aftermath of the company’s collapse by claiming he had been hit on the head with a coconut and suffered amnesia. Presumably, the court was able to settle the matter by referring to the legal precedent set in Gilligan v. Skipper.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Though far less deadly than coconuts, shark attacks are still a danger for swimmers, particularly if the swimmer is a teenager and the camera is focused solely on their legs dangling in the water. There are nearly 500 species of sharks, and only three—the great white, tiger, and bull—have caused any significant number of deaths. Australia is the worst country to be in for such encounters, with 72 fatal attacks on record, although in shark attacks per square mile, tiny Réunion Island, a French provence off the coast of Madagascar, wins with 19 fatal attacks on record (by comparison, the United States has had 35).


Further down the Wormhole: Getting hit on the head is the most common way to be killed by coconuts, but it’s not the only one. A factory worker in Kiev reportedly died in 1997 after falling into a vat of coconut oil and drowning. Oil is one of three edible parts of the coconut, milk and copra (the “meat” of the fruit) being the other two. Fisherman in India often use coconuts as a symbolic offering to the Hindu gods. The Hindu faith is notable for being the only major world religion (as far as we know) to publish an extensive guide to sexual intercourse. But while sex is one of life’s great joys, it—like the humble coconut—can turn deadly. We’ll take a look at the ins and outs of death during consensual sex next week.

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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.