The Pride of Maui, a company that offers snorkel tours and cruises, has recently announced it will no longer allow the use of full-face snorkel masks on its catamarans due to safety concerns.
The announcement was posted on the company’s Instagram feed earlier this month, and refers followers to the snorkeling safety section of its website, which explains that the decision was based on its experience with guest safety, in-water communication and comfort.
“I personally have been in the industry over 40 years, and we take a lot of guests out snorkeling,” said Scott Turner, CEO of Pride of Maui. “We’ve just seen too many people struggle with these types of masks.”
Full-face snorkel masks, which come in various designs, cover the entire face and generally offer a fixed tube from the forehead area, allowing users to breathe from their noses or mouths. A traditional mask has a mask covering the eyes and nose, and a separate breathing tube connected to the mouth.
Turner said safety is his top concern and that as more customers brought the full-face snorkels on board, his crews have found themselves having to assist snorkeling guests more often with removing the masks from their faces, particularly if water gets inside. Also, if snorkelers get in trouble and are unable to get their masks off, they cannot yell for help.
“There have been a couple of times, if my guys hadn’t been as attentive as they are, then we just don’t know what could have happened,” he said. “Rather than trying to guess on our own which brands are safe and which are not safe, we just felt it was the right thing to do.”
The Pride of Maui joins a growing list of tour boat operators that have decided not to allow full-face snorkel masks on board while a state committee continues to study whether they may be a contributing factor to snorkeling-related deaths.
Last year the Hawaii Ocean Project in Lahaina also announced online that it had updated its policy to no longer allow the use of full-face snorkel masks on its excursions to Lanai.
“While there is still much-needed research to be done on these trendy masks, we are not comfortable allowing the use of them on our boats at this time,” the company said on its website.
The company said it believed the dangers of full-face masks outweighed the benefits.
Over a 10-year period from 2009 to 2018, there have been an average of 21 fatal drownings among snorkelers each year in Hawaii, according to the state Health Department, with the majority being visitors. The number of fatal drownings among snorkelers in Hawaii has increased — from 16 in 2014 to 31 in 2018, according to statistics provided by state epidemiologist Dan Galanis.
From 2009 to 2018 there were 206 ocean drownings that occurred during snorkeling, compared with 142 while swimming and 51 while surfing and bodyboarding.
Based on Emergency Services Department records, the state Health Department estimates there are an additional 40 to 50 snorkelers who suffer near drownings in Hawaii.
Bob Wintner, owner of Snorkel Bob’s, which offers snorkel gear rentals throughout Hawaii, said his company has never offered the full-face masks in its more than 30 years of business.
“We did buy one and test it, and it proved to be a terrible thing,” said Wintner. “We just knew by intuition and instinct that it looked terrible, and it’s proven to be terrible.”
The company designs and manufactures its own masks, fins and snorkels, and books trips with charter boats, many of which no longer allow full-face snorkel masks, he said.
“One of the beauties of snorkeling is being able to free-dive, to go down and check it out,” he said. “You can’t do that with a full-face mask. … You can’t clear it. Water fills the mask.”
Earlier this month a 64-year-old Texas man died while snorkeling off Kaanapali Beach in West Maui. Firefighters said he was using a full-face mask in flat, calm waters. In another incident this month, a 33-year-old Canadian man was also found unresponsive while snorkeling with a full-face mask at Hanauma Bay. Lifeguards rescued him, and EMS transported him in critical condition to a hospital.
Several years ago Honolulu Ocean Safety began collecting data on the types of equipment used in drowning incidents.
A state panel, the Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee, is examining whether snorkeling equipment is a contributing factor to drownings, but has yet to draw definitive conclusions.
In April the state Health Department launched hioceansafety.com, an informational website aiming to decrease drowning risk factors through education and prevention.
In a section on snorkeling safety, the website mentions that full-face snorkel masks have been on the market for several years and that the state Health Department and other groups are working to determine whether there is any association between them and drowning risk.
“There has been individual testimony describing difficulties, including fatal drowning, while using this style of mask but there is currently not enough information to prove a direct association to increased risk,” the website said.
Theories on risks of full-face masks include carbon dioxide buildup, decreased oxygen uptake and difficulty removing the mask. When using a full-face mask, the website advises users to breathe through their noses only, due to a tendency to hyperventilate when breathing through the mouth. Diving below the surface could also compromise air exchange if the ball valve does not return to an open position.
In a brochure, the state Health Department also said the belief that using a traditional mask and snorkel is safer than a full-face snorkel mask is a myth. Snorkeling-related drownings occurred before full-face masks became available, it said, and “there is currently no evidence proving that a specific type of snorkel equipment is dangerous.”
DROWNINGS IN THE STATE
Annual number of fatal drownings among snorkelers in Hawaii, 2009-2018:
Source: State Department of Health