Spike in snorkel-related deaths again highlights potential danger of full-face masks

Updated: Sep. 17, 2019 at 10:10 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - New data from the state Health Department shows Hawaii’s snorkeler deaths have nearly doubled in the past four years.

A state committee is trying to figure out what’s causing the sudden spike in fatalities.

One theory: full face snorkel masks.

On Monday evening, Hanauma Bay lifeguards rescued a man snorkeling with a full-face mask.

Another snorkeler with the same type of mask died in Kaanapali two weeks ago.

While the committee hasn't drawn any conclusions yet, several Hawaii companies have banned these masks.

"I kind of felt like I was kind of running out of breath," said waterman Chad Asuncion.

Asuncion said he bought a full-face snorkel mask to give it a try, but quickly returned it.

“I saw myself actually taking shorter and quicker breathes and was like wow, what’s going on,” Asuncion said.

The Hawaii Health Department reports an increase in snorkel related deaths from 16 in 2014 to 31 in 2018.

Department of Health officials say there are an average of 21 fatal drownings among snorkelers each year and 92-percent of those victims are visitors.

The data is from 2009 and 2018. They do not have data for 2019 yet.

They also said more victims drown while snorkeling than from simply swimming.

In addition, EMS records show here are an additional 40 to 50 snorkelers who suffer nonfatal drownings.

However, the data does not show how many of these snorkelers were wearing a conventional mask compared to a full-face mask.

"In that respect, that particular problem, is very difficult to determine by looking at the mask or being generically capable of indicating whether one mask is more or less safe than the other," said Pulmonologist Dr. Philip Foti.

Dr. Foti is the lead investigator for a state study of this very issue.

He says there are more than 100 different snorkeling devices and says a snorkeler’s experience is also a factor.

“We have a lot of hypothesis and theories. None of which can be certain. There are certainly more people in the water snorkeling. Certainly, have more tourists snorkeling, we have more devices of various kinds,” Dr. Foti said.

Just this week, the Pride of Maui tour company banned the mask saying a buildup of carbon dioxide can cause the wearer to lose consciousness.

Dr. Foti says that’s a myth.

Still, the owner of Snorkel Bob’s said he also has not been allowing his customers to wear them.

"When they came out, intuition and instinct told me that this was a bad idea,” said Robert Wintner. “Hawaii does have a leadership position when it comes to reef recreation and I think it will go away in time. Unfortunately, there will probably be some more casualties along the way.”

Dr. Foti says they need more near drowning victims for their data.

If you’ve had a near-death experience while snorkeling and needed to be rescued or know someone who has, click here.

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