In February 2016 we wrote post about the spread of full-face masks. In that post and its forerunner we highlighted the fact that the full-face design is inherently flawed. We weren’t the only ones who had our doubts about these masks either. Even the manufacturers own literature pointed out a number of innate problems, one of which was, that if you attempted to swim whilst wearing the mask you soon found out that you couldn’t get enough air to breathe. In short if you got in to difficulty in the water and needed to swim for safety, you were going to have to remove the mask or risk suffocating. The full-face design also risks CO2 build up and if it leaks, vision and breathing are compromised simultaneously. As we said in posts, these are rather serious flaws in a mask that is marketed at people who don’t like getting their faces wet! Swimming, breathing and being able to see simultaneously are, you’d think, rather important for snorkellers and any mask that compromises all three so readily was, in our opinion, a pretty poor product all round.
Judging by the comments we received, a great number of people had suffered serious problems whilst using full-face masks. One comment, however, stood out. That comment came from Guy Cooper. Guy’s wife tragically died whilst snorkelling in Pohoiki Bay, Hawaii. Now, we could write a dozen posts about what happened that day and a dozen more about Guy’s tenacious search for answers but we’d rather he told you himself. Below is the address that Guy gave to The State Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee, Honolulu, Hawaii on March 15th this year and has kindly permitted us to use. We have not edited the address or amended it in anyway. This is Guy’s story and these are his words.
I’m here to talk about snorkeling. I have to preface that by saying I’m by no means an expert. In fact, I’ve never been snorkeling. So, I’ll explain what brought me here. Many of you already know my story.
I lost my wife to a snorkeling accident this past September. Soon as I got word, I caught the first flight over here. This is my third trip since then, trying to understand what happened— visiting the site, speaking and corresponding with police, 1st responders, ocean safety officials, doctors, divers and the woman who managed to get Nancy to shore.
Pohoiki Bay was calm that day. Nancy went in the water with a buddy. As was her habit, she floated passively on the surface so as not to “scare the little fishes”. After about 30 minutes her buddy left her side to dive off the rocks. (He should never have done that.) Returning to the rocks after one dive, he realized he couldn’t spot Nancy. After some minutes of scanning the water, he heard and saw a woman surfer across the Bay waving her arms and yelling for help. A few young guys jumped in and helped her and Nancy to shore. CPR was performed, but she was gone. She had been in the water less than an hour, in Hawaii less than 24 hours.
A little background. Nancy was 70 years old. She was not a novice snorkeler. nor a stranger to snorkeling Hawaiian waters. She swam laps nearly everyday. We had just hiked all over the hills of southern Italy. We enjoyed biking, hiking, snow shoeing, kayaking. As a young girl she was recruited by a professional water skiing team. Later, she organized river-rafting trips. She was always physically active and at home in the water. The coroner surmised she must have suffered some acute coronary event that precipitated her drowning. He referred to a known history of ischemic heart disease. Don’t know where that info came from. I was never asked about her medical history nor anything else for that matter. She had no such history, and even the physical findings of the autopsy contradict that conclusion. There seems to be a prevalent attitude amongst some over here (Hawaii) that dead tourists were old and in the way. To my mind, the heart attack assumption just makes the coroner’s job that much easier.
So what did go wrong? I started thinking about that new full-face snorkel mask of hers. She was so eager to use it in Hawaii. She tried it out a few times in the local pool before the trip. She bought it on Amazon, so I started perusing those reviews. I was shocked to read of these masks having inherent, potentially lethal design and manufacturing flaws. And alarmed that they were being marketed as great for beginners, and kids. I expanded my search to various snorkeling and dive web sites and learned a lot. These masks have to be strapped tightly around the head to achieve a good seal, yet they still leak, sometimes copiously. Valves and other structures have been reported failing. Once they fill with water, there’s no easy, quick way to empty them. Your mouth and nose are captive together, so there’s no escape. You can drown in them. There are other reports of snorkelers experiencing air hunger, CO2 build-up and rapid fatigue. So you can fall victim to dizziness, disorientation, hyperventilation, panic and loss of consciousness. Then you drown.
My wife was found floating face up with her mask partially pulled up over her nose so that both her nose and mouth were exposed. That tells me she was in trouble and tried to get the damn thing off, too late. I wondered if there were other reports of fatalities involving these masks. I looked up reports of snorkeling fatalities and near drowning incidents from around the world. That’s when I realized, my god, no one is paying any attention! Not one mention of the gear. My wife’s mask was just tossed in the trash. These things could be killing others, and no one knows! Not only are the risks unrecognized, but I could find no evidence of any independent testing or certification of these things. Wouldn’t you want to know if these masks represent a significant danger?
I started to educate myself about snorkeling in general. I found it is not exactly the benign, lightweight activity it’s promoted as being. Many significant physiologic stressors can come into play. The Australians have coined the phrase Fatal Silent Snorkeling Syndrome. The Japanese use the term Takotsubo, referred to as the “Broken Heart Syndrome”. A study out of the Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia identifies a number of inherent stressors. Dr. Douglas Smith, from Hawaii, promotes Slow, Safe, Snorkel Breathing techniques to counter some of the ventilation issues arising from the sport. The whole subject of snorkeling physiology begs further study.
So on one hand you have an activity rife with significant physical demands, then you exacerbate the situation by adding a new piece of inadequately vetted equipment with inherent design flaws. A perfect storm. Look, I’m aware of the demographic considerations. Hawaiian tourists, like the population in general, aren’t getting any younger. Many are probably over-extending themselves in this age of “active lifestyles”, and Viagra….
That’s all the more reason to fashion a robust, realistic tourist education effort that both alerts the public to the challenges of snorkeling and teaches them the skills they need to ameliorate the risks. That will help ensure that the tourists return from their vacation healthy and happy and pass on their positive experiences to others. All I ask is that you give serious consideration to the role of these new masks. Devote the resources to collect the data. Incorporate the data in incident reports and data bases. Look for trends. Make the coroner aware of their use. Secure the gear as evidence. Only then will you truly be able to assess the risk.
Some have said there just aren’t many of these new masks out there yet. No action needed. I suspect there will be more. It could be that my wife’s death represents the very first fatality involving a full-face mask. Well, one’s enough for me.
Nancy Peacock’s death was a tragedy but there have been tragedies before. Hawaii has a notorious reputation for snorkelling related drownings and one more fatality in those sparkling waters could easily have been passed over were it not for one man who kept asking questions. Since Guy gave that address, Lifeguards in Maui have begun tracking equipment worn by snorkellers who drown in their jurisdiction and other counties of Hawaii appear poised to do the same. Health officials and safety experts in Hawaii are looking at collecting the data necessary to better evaluate full-face masks and possibly even conduct controlled scientific studies on it and we’re sure that it won’t be long before other officials from other nations start doing the same. Guy Cooper may, single-handedly, brought about the biggest change in snorkelling safety ever!
The full story and further material can be found on the Civil Beat website - follow the links. Again we liked to thank Guy for letting us publish his address in full. We wish you all the best Guy and as snorkellers, we thank you.
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