Sunday, 26 March 2017

One Drowning Too Many! Full-Face Snorkelling Masks And One Man’s Quest For Answers

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.


Anonymous said...

I am sorry to hear of this tragedy. I recently returned from a vacation in St. John's VI and came very close to drowning while snorkeling, and found this activity Much more dangerous than it appears. I have snorkeled in the past and, on the face of ot; it seemed to be an activity, unlike diving that would require little or no training. NOT TRUEl My masked began to fill and I barely made it to shore. This is a safety hazard of the first order because it is assumed to be safe. I recommend everyone take a course or training before attempting this, much like diving, and know what to do when problems are encountered.

Anonymous said...

This is a sad story. My heart goes out to anyone who has lost someone in a (possibly)preventable accident. I think the real accident here though was in not maintaining contact with a buddy while snorkeling. Her friend should have never left her alone. To presume that the full-face snorkel mask was the cause of this accident though is just that, presumptive. No proper studies of this mask or other full-face masks exist that I can find, and no evidence in this case points to anything conclusive. Maybe Guy's efforts will inspire proper studies of these types of accidents and lead to proper regulation. I do believe though that the Azorro mask she was wearing is a cheap, unsafe piece of equipment that no one should be purchasing. I myself own a respected brand of full-face mask that I have been using for 2 years with no problems, but I still caution people to be safe while snorkeling with any equipment. People die ALL the time snorkeling, even with standard snorkeling equipment. It's a safe hobby if you are smart about it!

Educate yourself and be safe!

Hawaiian snorkeler said...

I am vacationing in Maui right now and 2 days ago some scuba divers that we met at the hotel told us that a 53 year old man drowned in Makena beach wearing one of these masks! He passed out in the water and no one knew he was unconscious till it was too late! We had been about to purchase one of these masks but changed our minds very quickly!
I am so very sorry to read about Guy Coopers wife drowning. I think these masks need to be pulled off the market before another tragedy strikes.

Anonymous said...

This is what I wrote about a full face mask on Amazon:

"Hi, well I got my snorkeling mask a few days ago and got to give it a good test out today. To give you a better idea if this mask is for you; let me give you a little background on me. I'm 65 never smoked. I never been snorkeling so I can not compare this mask to a tube. I swim one day a week. I swim slowly for 2.5 hours and swim about 1.4 miles. If I take a few full deep breaths, I can get into the snorkeling position with face in the water and swim about 60 to 65 feet without breathing.

Putting the full face mask on for the first time, I went from feeling free in the pool to being closed in and with the water coming into (at this time the mask was not setup for me yet) the mask I felt very uncomfortable fast. I am not use to treading water but you need to have your body stay upright to drain the water out of your mask. For me I could not get enough air to tread water with the mask on and had to take the mask off my chin to do so. I know there is a cute video with a child swimming with this mask on. But if you are buying this mask for a child make sure the child can tread water with having one hand out of the water!!!!

When I got the mask setup for me, a little water would come in if I turned my head from side to side. After having the mask on for a while the mask became water tight and no water got in at all.

I found that after some time the feeling of being closed in lessen and it felt more like you were in a sub looking out thru a window. I am very near sighted and this mask help me see much better. I would guess that you could buy a lens kit for the mask since there seem to be lots of room in the mask.

I don't know how fast you have to swim when you go out snorkeling in a group. I didn't have anyone time me but it seem like the best I could do was about 1/3 the speed I could do on my one breath swim. As far as how far I could swim with the mask on at one time; it was only about 350 feet. My chest felt so tired from trying to pull in air that I would have to go back to my normal swim routine to rest my chest. If I could pull more air in, I would give it 5 stars. I hope this helps."

Sorry to hear about your wife.

Pamela Johnson-Howe said...

After witnessing a man die while snorkeling in a full face mask, I’ve no doubt they are dangerous. Not for everyone every time, but too often. 3 people have died this week on the beach across the street.

Kador said...

Before i start my condolences to Mr. Cooper. What a tragic story and he is right to question the safety of these masks. I only have my own experience but I’ll never wear one again.
Some background. Although I am 64 I still consider myself in good shape. I run 3-4 miles a day. Swim a half mile at least once a week, am not overweight, do not smoke, go to the gym and bike and hike regularly.
Last month I went to Hawaii taking my new full face snorkeling mask with me. I had tested it out in the pool and it seemed to be fine. I did have to concentrate on long slow breaths however but just thought it was me getting used to the mask.
I went out the first day but after only a short time I started to feel fatigued. I attributed it to a bit of jet lag and headed back to shore. For some reason it took a bit longer than usual and I again thought it was simply doing too much too soon.
The next day I was raring to go and couldn’t wait to get in the water. This was the east side of the big island so there really are some waves and currents, but I’ve always felt confident.
After about no more than ten minutes I knew there was something wrong. I was not getting enough air and was trying some controlled breathing with very little activity to adjust. It wasn’t working. None of my recovery tricks were working.
This was followed by (for me a first) a full-blown panic attack. I have no idea where it came from but I just knew of I didn’t get back to shore I was going to have some serious problems. By this time I was a ways out and I’m sure if I’d have kept a level head I could have gotten back ok. However, in my panicked state I started rushing to shore then found I had absolutely no air. I was gulping it down but was starting to get lightheaded. I tried signaling to some people that i was in distress but no one noticed with the mask on. And I was afraid to take it off I was just not thinking clearly at all. As i felt the dark creeping in on the side of my vision I finally made it to shore but did not have the wherewithal or strength to time getting out of the surf due to my exhaustion and disorientation so I was thrown about quite a bit. Still, I yanked that mask off and crawled up to my towel where I laid there for a good 20 minutes catching my breath. I had not experienced that level of oxygen depletion .. ever.
At that point I started researching the mask because something was not right and I didn’t feel like I had lost that much of my physical strength myself. I was not sick and as soon as I got my breath back I felt strong again. I came upon this story and bells went off. I now consider myself tremendously lick. Once again. So sorry to hear of Mr Cooper’s tragedy. Maybe my story could save someone else. I just hope that you test out this mask under all conditions before you use it in any kind of compromising situation.

joyce johnson said...

Just saw this blog for first time and feel I must comment. Last summer my husband suffered a near drowning and was revived but died 6 weeks later from complications due to salt water in lungs and subsequent pneumonia.The mask was one of 7 top rated masks ans was not cheap, Costco is now selling at a low price which will entice

more inexperienced persons. He has used it several times before and liked it as long as he did not swim. My take is that on that day he stayed too long and suffered from low oxygen.

He was older but in good physical shape and swam nightly in a pool and did serious gym 3x week. He did not have a heart attack or a stroke as verified during his hospital stay.
More info needs to be out as we were not aware this popular new mask had hazards.
Those who rent masks should insist customers read in detail info and sign.

Unknown said...

The Hawaiian Lifeguard Association is conducting a study to identify the causes of drownings and near drownings while snorkeling. If you would like to participate in this study, visit or email with you contact information.