My wife died in September 2016 while snorkeling Pohoiki Bay on the Big Island. A devastating shock. She planned a week’s stay. Lasted less than 24 hours.

I’ve since learned some things about her death and snorkeling. Some painful. Some I hope informative and life saving. If only I knew then …

She was an experienced snorkeler in Hawaiian waters and a strong swimmer.

She was found floating face up with her water-filled full-face mask pulled up, exposing her mouth and nose. She’d been in the water less than an hour. No struggle was witnessed. The fact that the mask was pulled partly off suggests something went wrong, suddenly, and she tried to get the thing off. Too late.

The coroner’s report is not much help. Part of the autopsy findings are consistent with drowning. But it also suggests a contributing history of ischemic heart disease (clogged arteries). Really? She had no such history. The coroner’s own examination does not support that conclusion. Her own doctor thought that conclusion bunk.

Guy Cooper carries a full-face snorkeling mask to show a lifeguard at Ahalanui Beach Park, a mile up the road from where his wife drowned.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Are epidemiologists and ocean safety officials jumping to the wrong causation conclusions about ocean fatalities in Hawaii, relying too heavily on possibly misleading coroners’ reports?

No one inquired about my wife. The coroner knew nothing of the circumstances, the mask, her experience, fitness, or medical history. Might there have been other contributing factors? What is the purpose of a coroner’s report if not to uncover facts that might help prevent future deaths?

Thirteen times more people die in Hawaiian waters than anywhere else in the U.S., the vast majority tourists. It could be these visitors are overestimating their own abilities or underestimating the power of the ocean. There is that. But typically these fatalities occur in placid waters without warning. Victims are found just quietly floating. Mysteriously dead. What else might be going on?

The full-face mask. It was novel. She tried it out at the local swimming pool. Died in it at Pohoiki.

Hawaii ocean safety officials never considered the equipment. The paramedics threw her mask away. No snorkeling incident reports mention the gear. My persistence has now led Hawaii ocean safety officials to collect that data.

No industry standards or independent certifications of snorkeling gear exist. Anything goes. To be fair, until recently all snorkeling gear was essentially alike. That’s changed. These new full-face masks are increasingly popular. They are aggressively marketed as offering enhanced comfort, view, ease of use, and safety. Great for kids and beginners.

Nancy Peacock and Guy Cooper met at the Burning Man festival in Nevada in 2007. Cooper said they quickly became “inseparable.”

Courtesy: Guy Cooper

Many versions of these masks are available on Amazon. Cheap knockoffs are promoted with fraudulent reviews. I wish I had known of this before an Amazon bargain killed my wife. At least, I think that’s what happened.

Many snorkeling sites question the whole concept. Forums relate bad experiences. There’s reports of sudden leaking, air hunger, exertion intolerance, claustrophobia, manufacturing flaws. There’s CO2 buildup resulting in dizziness, disorientation and near loss of consciousness. An inability to remove the mask in a hurry leads to panic. And there have been deaths.

Negative Amazon reviews have been deleted. Mine, reporting my wife’s death, was repeatedly removed. Amazon cannot or will not explain why. Actually, it’s all about manipulating the product ratings. There are review mills out there compensating people for posting positive reviews. Google “Amazon fake reviews.” Pure fraud. Amazon’s policing is largely ineffective. Amazon will not even provide manufacturer contact info for my wife’s mask. Really? Buyer beware.

Meeting with ocean safety officials from Hawaii, I brought along an identical mask. Some remarked that it was “weird,” “claustrophobic,” “scary,” “possibly dangerous.”

What makes the full-face mask design problematic? They strap tightly around the head and are difficult to quickly remove. Some apparently have design flaws that contribute to leaking, valve failures and improper gas exchange.

Dead Airspace

There’s a concept called dead airspace. That’s where oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) are exchanged. You need to effectively exhale all the CO2, or rebreathing it could lead to the aforementioned symptoms of dizziness, disorientation and unconsciousness. The larger the dead air space, the harder it is to purge the CO2.

There’s a lot more dead airspace in an enveloping full-face mask than in a narrow snorkel tube. Designs vary, but who knows if you have a good one or bad one? There’s the fake reviews. There’s the lack of industry standards and independent certification. Again, buyer beware.

Full-face masks have been banned in some swimming pools and aboard some excursions. Some retailers and rental outlets won’t carry them. The industry itself has claimed there’s no evidence these masks are unsafe. Well, yeah. There’s no evidence because there’s no data. But there have been deaths.

“I’ve absorbed a lot since my wife’s death. I’m trying to turn some of it to good.”

A recent spate of Hawaii snorkeling deaths, nine in two weeks last year, included two with full face masks. Some point out that ratio and conclude the gear is not the issue. Unfortunately, they are conflating separate statistics. What percentage of snorkelers use full-face masks? What percentage of full-face mask users get into trouble compared to the percentage of those using conventional gear? Could these new masks be more dangerous? No data exists. And no one has any idea how many near drownings occur that are never reported.

I’ve absorbed a lot since my wife’s death. I’m trying to turn some of it to good. She would wish that. I would advise people to be aware and informed. Know your fitness level, your level of experience. Know the challenges of Hawaiian waters. Know your equipment. Practice responding to emergencies. Never snorkel alone.

Snorkeling is not quite the light-hearted activity the tourism industry promotes. Thoroughly research the gear and don’t rely on someone casually offering you a new kind of mask because it’s so cool. Appreciate your circumstances. You’re on vacation. Ready for adventure. Maybe been partying. There’s even a current suggestion that recent air travel might heighten your physical risk. What Hawaiian tourist hasn’t recently been flying? For that matter, what Hawaiian Tourism entity is even going to mention that possibility?

Be informed. Be aware. Be safe. Mahalo.

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