Hawaii is dealing with an alarming increase in snorkel-related deaths, which is sparking debate over a relatively new product. We're talking about full-face snorkel masks, which you can find at several local stores here on the Gulf Coast.
FOX10 News is committed to your safety, so we're investigating these concerns.
Unlike traditional two-piece snorkel sets, full-face masks cover your entire face. This allows a snorkeler to breathe normally rather than through a mouthpiece. Some people say they love them because it makes snorkeling easier. The masks are becoming increasingly popular. You can find them at almost any store and online.
As the Alabama Department of Conservation continues to push for ecotourism by sinking artificial reefs, more snorkelers are expected to travel to the Gulf Coast. In Hawaii, where the tourism is always booming, government leaders are taking a closer look into safety concerns with different brands of the mask.
One man says for his wife, that warning came too late.
"She had used it a few times at the local pool where she went swimming every day. She was all excited to use it,” said Guy Cooper, who did a video chat interview with us from his home in Hawaii.
Cooper says his wife, Nancy Peacock, ordered her mask from Amazon. The two traveled the world together, but that all changed when Nancy went snorkeling alone in late 2016. A nearby surfer found her lifeless body.
"I started thinking about the mask, because that was the only thing different,” said Cooper. “She had been snorkeling in Hawaii many times before."
Big Island Fire Chief Gerald Kosaki says his department responded to that call.
"When they found her, the mask was halfway off, but still on her face, and full with water,” said Kosaki.
Since then, he says the department started collecting data on the type of equipment used in snorkel related deaths - something that had never been done before. While the department can't say for sure what exactly caused Nancy to drown, Kosaki believes more tests on the masks should be done.
"There are so many manufacturers of these masks, and not all masks are created equal so to speak,” said Kosaki. "We have somebody from the outer island who has tested these masks. It's shown that some of the masks actually are better than others in the way that it doesn't have the dead space of retaining carbon dioxide."
Kosaki says there are two big concerns with the mask. First, the tight-fitting head straps could make it hard to pull off in an emergency. Secondly, the carbon dioxide that we breathe out could build up inside.
According to several health websites, breathing in carbon dioxide can cause dizziness, confusion, and disorientation.
We wanted to get the perspective of a local dive expert, so we spoke with James Maham, who is the head of training at Down Under Dive Shop in Gulf Shores.
"If carbon dioxide is not fully exhausted, then what happens is we just go to sleep, which is obviously not a good thing, particularly if you are underwater,” said Maham.
Down Under Dive Shop only carries one brand of the mask at about $100. Maham says he believes the brand they carry, OCEAN REEF, is safe, but there are many knock off brands out there. He explained that his store no longer sells cheaper ones.
"We tried to carry some of the other brands. They all came back constantly having problems with them,” said Maham. He also explained the design of the mask to us.
"So if the oral nasal pocket is not well made, or if the one-way valves are not in place properly or working properly, yes it is a danger and it can be a lethal danger."
We tried to reach out to "Azorro” - which is the brand of mask Cooper says his wife was wearing when she drowned. We easily found the mask on Amazon, but couldn't find a website or any contact information for the company itself. So, we reached out Amazon, where Nancy ordered the mask. A representative told us they could not share contact information for the company for privacy reasons.
Amazon did not comment on this story. We’re told the exact model that Nancy was wearing has been removed from Amazon, but other similar masks from the same company are still for sale. According to the Amazon website, “Azorro” also sells oil diffusers and beard trimmers.
In a statement from OCEAN REEF - the brand carried at Down Under Dive Shop in Gulf Shores - representatives say:
"OCEAN REEF is confident in the safe design, development, and production of our FFSMs (full-face snorkel masks). However, we continue to test and look for ways to improve our products. Consumers should recognize that not all manufacturers follow the same safety standards as OCEAN REEF."
We also searched the Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC) recall/report database. We found a report for a "Tribord" brand mask.
The woman in the report writes, “I took a deep gasp, which then suctioned the mask to my face." She claims she was able to get the mask off just as she started blacking out.
"I have never been more scared,” stated the woman. “It was like I was gasping with a plastic bag stuck to my face."
According to the Hawaii Department of Health, there is an average of 18-snorkeling deaths per year in the state. Kosaki tells us so far in 2018, there have already been 12, with half (6) of those involving full-face masks.
The Hawaii Department of Health sent us this statement, which reads in part:
"We have requested the Consumer Product Safety Commission to stay alert for any trends regarding specific types or models of masks. However, there are no industry standards, so this is unknown territory, for which it seems Hawaii is ground zero."
Cooper is just hoping his wife's story can help make others more aware, including those right here on the Gulf Coast.
"I think they are a problem and I think that's what killed my wife,” said Cooper. “She was a remarkable individual. I just want to get the word out. It's horrible to have something like that happen, and I just don't want it to happen to anybody else."
Currently, there are no regulations for snorkel equipment in the U.S. A representative from the CPSC tells us because of that, it is unknown whether the masks, or other factors such as health, contributed to the snorkel deaths. We’re told the agency is looking into the reports.
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