WAIKIKI (HawaiiNewsNow) - In the last five years, 90 people have died in snorkeling related activities, according to the state Department of Health. And a rise in that number has prompted experts to try to figure out why.
"Snorkeling, people think it's just 'put it on, get in the water, float around.' It's a lot more than that," said Ralph Goto of the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association, which organized a first-ever workshop on snorkeling safety. The gathering drew some 60 people, from ocean safety lifeguards to dive tour operators to medical professionals.
Goto is also part of a health department snorkel safety subcommittee, which has been looking at the increase in the number of snorkeling-related deaths.
"With the increase in the different types of masks and snorkels, it has gotten us to a place where we're asking questions. Is there a correlation between the drowning that we're having and the different type of equipment that they use?" said city Ocean Safety Lieutenant Kawika Eckart, who's in charge of lifeguards at Hanauma Bay, the state's most popular snorkeling spot.
Experts are divided on one of those pieces of equipment, the full-face mask. Those masks allow the user to breathe through the nose, rather than the mouth, as with a traditional mask.
"There is 'dead air space' in the traditional snorkel, and the full face mask tries to eliminate that dead air space with an inner mask that covers the nose and mouth, which is a good thing," said Colin Yamamoto.
Yamamoto recently retired as the ocean safety battalion chief for the Maui County Fire Department. That's the county with the most snorkeling-related deaths -- 38 -- between 2012 and 2016. There were 31 deaths on Oahu, 13 on the Big Island and eight on Kauai during the same time period.
Just this past January, Maui had 10 ocean-related deaths in a two-week period.
Yamamoto has done preliminary research, and believes that the full face mask is a contributing factor in those deaths.
"There seems to be enough data to suggest that the design of the mask has something to do with oxygen and the carbon dioxide level," he said.
But experts are also looking at other factors, such as the health and experience level of the snorkeler. They also want to increase education about snorkeling, especially for visitors to the islands.
"Snorkeling is one of those popular activities that they engage in," said Goto. "And we want people to be safe."