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No Ka Oi Health

Snorkeling in paradise; is it a relaxation or risk?

How dangerous can it be? They float along in paradise watching colorful sea life while breathing through a tube. Snorkeling is high on the list of tourist activities.

According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority Visitor Satisfaction 2019 Report, 40 percent of Korean visitors, 49 percent of U.S. West visitors and 54 percent of Canadian visitors surveyed participated in this sport while in Hawaii. We should consider snorkeling a sport, requiring stamina, coordination and a general baseline of fitness and good health.

A review of drowning statistics indicates snorkeling, at least for visitors, can lead to harm. According to data from the state Health Department, snorkeling is the activity most frequently associated with fatal visitor drownings. Of the 206 people who fatally drowned while snorkeling in Hawaii in the last 10 years, 189 (92 percent) were visitors. Other ocean activities studied do not follow this trend.

Why do so many visitors get into trouble when snorkeling (outnumbering visitor deaths from strokes, motor vehicle crashes, falls, homicides and airplane crashes)?

Speculation includes inexperience, fatigue and panic. Underlying medical conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or asthma, may also be contributing factors.

Other considerations have been the accumulation of carbon monoxide in the “dead air space” of the snorkel, the style of equipment, and changes in lung physiology during air travel.

Full-face masks have come under scrutiny over the past few years. Indeed, of the five fatal snorkel drowning victims in 2018, for which type of mask worn was documented, two were wearing full-face masks. It should be noted, however, that snorkeling was implicated as the most common activity among drowning victims in Hawaii long before full-face masks became popular, suggesting there is a risk independent of equipment design.

The state Health Department’s snorkel safety subcommittee, the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association and others have been assessing all factors associated with “snorkel risk.” They aim to identify causes of snorkel-related drowning in Hawaii in order to ultimately decrease snorkel-related drownings incidents.

Investigations include surveys, equipment testing and data review. Elements under consideration include:

• Visitors who snorkel likely far outnumber local residents who snorkel. Local children and teens often opt for boogie boarding, surfing and diving rather than snorkeling; adults generally also opt for those activities, and go swimming with cap and goggles, rather than a snorkel and mask.

• In addition to the higher number of visitors who snorkel, other factors may be at play such as not knowing how to swim, never having been in the ocean, being unfamiliar with equipment that restricts air flow, and having the idea that “vacation activities are safe activities.”

• Another consideration in the quest to keep visitors, as well as residents, safe in our ocean environment is the influence of full-face vs. traditional snorkel masks. Data is being compiled while various mask makes and models of are being tested. In the meantime, industries are being encouraged to develop gear based on thorough real-life testing; oversight is urged in the form of yet-to-be-developed industry standards.

Ocean safety officials advise that when snorkeling in Hawaii, respect your physical limits and the ocean with its varying conditions; stay within arm’s reach of a buddy and check on one another often; know your snorkel gear and practice in shallow water; heed lifeguard instructions; and when in doubt, don’t go out.

Reviews of these ongoing studies are part of the Snorkel Safety Workshop to be held from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Hawaii Convention Center in Waikiki; $50 registration includes breakfast and lunch. For more information contact Bridget Velasco at bridget.velasco@doh.hawaii.gov.

* Bridget Kaumeheiwa Velasco is a planner with the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Maui District Health Office. She is the former drowning prevention coordinator for the state Department of Health and coordinates the Hawaii Drowning and Aquatic Injury Prevention Advisory Committee. No Ka Oi Health is published on the fourth Thursday of the month by the state Department of Health.