As far as hobbies go, snorkeling seems like one of the safer ones to have. It is no base jumping or sky diving where one small malfunction could mean a fatality. After all, how big of a risk is drowning when you have equipment that allows you to breathe under water as well as equipment that helps you float so you don’t waste all that effort swimming? However, it does happen.
People do die when snorkeling, and incidents of it have been on the rise.
Most recently there has been quite a story coming out of Hawaii about a recent snorkeling fatality, that of 70-year-old Nancy Peacock. She dove off a boat ramp into the waters of Pohoiki Bay for a bit of snorkeling, and less than an hour later was pulled out of them dead. Her husband, in his never-ending search for the how’s and the why’s of it all, thinks that her equipment was to blame. In particular, her full-face snorkeling mask.
This has lead to investigation in the potential dangers of full-face snorkel masks, but has also seen a massive rise in snorkeling safety, acknowledging that it is a hobby that does actually have some risks that people need to be aware of and know how to handle.
The Potential Dangers of Full-Face Snorkel Masks
Full-face snorkeling masks have become hugely popular since the original design – the Tribord – first released. This has lead to at least another dozen models to be put out on the market by other companies and many snorkelers are making the switch.
With a full-face snorkeling mask, there is no need to learn how to breathe through a tube because it covers your whole face allowing you to breathe out your mouth and nose in supreme comfort. Yet, the design is not without its potential flaws.
Unlike with traditional snorkeling equipment, the seal of the full-face mask is crucial. If it fails to form a tight seal, leaks or the sudden influx of water will not only let saltwater in to sting your eyes like in your traditional snorkeling masks, but it means your breathing can be impaired as well.
Another issue is the use of full-face masks when diving under water. While many models do allow it, the real problem is that since you can’t plug your nose, there is no way to equalize the pressure that comes with diving even for a short period of time.
Both of these issues are compounded by the face that full-face masks use straps to provide a tight fit on the face that can also make them difficult to take off if you are in a hurry and unfamiliar with the way it sits on your head.
However, the real controversy of full-face snorkel masks is the potential for build-up of carbon dioxide. Unlike breathing through a tube where your old, carbon dioxide-filled air is purged and then new, fresh air is brought in, in some brands of full-face snorkel masks, the air fills the entire cavity that sits over your face which makes it hard to purge the carbon dioxide. This can lead to a build up in both the air cavity and the blood, leading to carbon dioxide poisoning.
However, this is not an issue in all full-face masks. Many, especially newer models, have taken to separating the mouth and nose from the rest of the mask so that air is more easily purged and carbon dioxide build-up is no longer a risk. However, this is easily the biggest risk of full-face snorkeling masks, but you only really have to worry about it with some of the more dubious models.
The Real Danger: Knock-Off Brands
Full-face snorkeling masks usually have risks that can make them difficult to use while snorkeling for some. However, those risks can actually become very real dangers if you decide to go the cheapest route with full-face snorkeling masks.
Referring back to the story Nancy Peacock’s death above, she was using an Azorro mask that her husband thinks was responsible for her death. The Azorro is a Chinese knock-off of the original French Tribord design. Peacock likely chose it for the same reason we all would choose it, because it was a fraction of the price of the Tribord and other reputable models.
That is the real problem of knock-off full-face snorkeling masks. They are more affordable, yes, but they are also probably more risky. They are able to achieve such a lower price by using lower quality material and most likely less testing for their designs. However, people still choose knock-off brands because they are cheaper and they don’t know the risks of what can happen in a full-face snorkeling mask when it doesn’t function as it should.
This is why we only support full-face snorkeling masks with the quality and integrity of a brand behind them like:
While they may be more expensive then knock-off, off brand models, what you are paying for is a quality seal that help prevent leaks and have actually been thoroughly tested against both leaks and carbon dioxide build-up.
How to Stay Safe with Full-Face Snorkeling Masks
We don’t want anyone to use a dangerous product, but the fact is that full-face masks aren’t dangerous to everyone. Some people use them for every snorkel trip without a problem while others are plagued by a myriad of issues with them. While we have a number of brands we whole-heartedly recommend for their quality and design, if you aren’t comfortable with the potential risks, then traditional snorkeling gear is out there so you can still enjoy all the treasures below the waves.
However, if you do choose a full-face model, there are some ways that you can stay safe out there, including:
–>Practice Taking the Mask on and Off – No matter if there is a leak or your are starting to feel like you are having a hard time breathing, you will want to be able to confidently take your mask off and put it back on. As the straps on the back of the head are meant to keep it on snugly, if you are in a panic, it can feel impossible to get off so you want it to be as familiar to you as possible.
–>Know the Signs of Carbon Dioxide Build-Up – Carbon dioxide is what is exhaled from your body and in the small space of a face mask, it can actually build up in the mask as well as your blood and replace the oxygen we need to live. It is important that you know the early signs because it can result in convulsions and coma at advanced levels, both of which are deadly in the water. Early signs of carbon dioxide poisoning include difficulty breathing, hyperventilation, dizziness, and any sort of impaired feeling of consciousness such as sleepiness. If you feel any of the above, you need to stop and get your mask off as soon as possible even if you are in the middle of the water.
–>Test Diving First – Unlike full-face scuba masks that come with nose plugs to help you equalize the pressure when diving, full-face snorkel masks have no such mechanisms. In fact, they really aren’t built for diving at all, despite having the dry top snorkels to keep water out when doing so. Putting the pressure of going underwater often makes the masks feel like suction cups on the face. So if you want to do some diving, it is recommended that you practice it first in easier snorkel spots before going to more challenging areas. Some people can handle the pressure while others will need to remove the mask for a moment to get rid of it before putting it on again.
The Other Potential Dangers of Snorkeling
Not all fatalities in snorkeling are caused by full-face snorkeling masks, in fact, the ocean with flush with dangers that can make snorkeling occasionally hazardous to anyone. No matter whether you are considering picking up the hobby or are a long-time veteran, it is important that you are aware of these potential snorkeling dangers.
Leisure craft and inshore watercraft like jet skis and speed boats are the real enemy of snorkelers throughout the world. Obviously, watercraft users like to go fast and snorkelers are notoriously hard to spot when in the water. If you are in a popular snorkeling spot, it is usually not a problem, but if there aren’t huge crowds of other swimmers around, you might want to invest in buoys and flags to help boaters spot you before it is too late.
Hours of swimming in the hot sun and surrounded by saltwater that can notoriously dry you out? Yeah, of course dehydration should be a major worry when snorkeling. This can lead to cramps which can be devastating if you don’t know how to handle them in the water. It can also cause heat stroke, and, if bad enough, black outs in the water. This doesn’t mean chug a gallon of water immediately before going, as that can cause cramps as well. Instead, drink liberal amounts of water the previous night or hours before getting in the water.
In areas like Hawaii, it is known for its occasionally chaotic water conditions. However, hazardous water conditions can happen throughout the world. The most dangerous current to swimmers and snorkelers is a rip tide. This strong current can quickly drag you away from shore and out into the vast ocean. Many snorkelers panic and try to swim against it, fruitlessly failing and tiring themselves in the process. Instead, always remember to swim parallel to the shore until you are free from the rip current and safe to swim to shore.
Drinking and Diving
The beach, the sun, the ocean air – it is only natural, you might want to have a few drinks. However, like drinking and anything more complex than beer pong, drinking and snorkeling don’t mix. Not only can alcohol dehydrate you and impair your judgement, but it can mask the effects of dangerous carbon dioxide build-up since being drunk has lot of the same symptoms.
Snorkeling with a Heart Condition
According to Hawaii’s State Department of Health, most victims that die while snorkeling are older men (86 percent) over 40 years old (76 percent) with 43 percent of them having heart conditions. This is because Hawaii in particular is a popular vacation destination and vacationers tend to underestimate how stressful snorkeling can be on the body. Swimming in the hot sun is hard work in the first place, and if something goes wrong, the panic of the situation can wreck havoc on the old ticker. The issue is then compounded if you have heart problems to begin with.
How to Stay Safe While Snorkeling
You can do everything perfectly while snorkeling and do it for half your life, but there will always be some risk to it. That’s doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy snorkeling, but it does mean you should know the risks and how to stay safe while enjoying all the ocean has to offer.
Snorkeling is a Buddy Activity
All of the above is just a sample of what can go wrong with snorkeling. It is not a one person activity, it is a buddy activity. Not only can you enjoy the ocean together, but you can keep each other safe.
Try to Snorkel in Sight of a Lifeguard
This one isn’t always possible, which is why we snorkel with a buddy. However, if you can’t find one, you must limit yourself to beaches with lifeguards on duty. They know the different between a snorkeler that is perfectly fine splashing in the water and one that is passed out or in peril. That alone can save your life.
Learn Your Ocean Conditions
A lot of knowing ocean conditions is a bit of common sense. Obviously if the water is rough and half the shoreline is jagged rocks, you don’t want to get in the water. However, a lot of areas will have ocean warnings for rip tide conditions as well as other dangers like jellyfish or sharks in the area.
Take Care of Yourself
If you get in the water and feel exhausted or a little dehydrated after a half-hour, the answer is simple -Get out of the water. You never want to be in the water and have to deal with a health issue at the same time, it is dangerous and has been fatal. Even if you disappoint your snorkel buddy by cutting the trip short, always take care of yourself. Just buy them a beer later on land.
Know Your Equipment
This is pretty common with those who rent snorkel equipment. They get it, they zone out when their renter tries to explain it, and they just get in the water. You need to know how to purge your snorkel, defog your mask, as well as get your fins on and off just in case of emergencies. It is the things that beginning snorkelers don’t know, like the fact that it is hard to stand in the water with fins on, that could endanger them.
It’s important that you stay safe out there on the water and to take care of each other. I try to end many of my emails and blog posts with “Snorkel Safe”…and I mean it. This is such a great hobby and addicting way of life but, just like many things in this world, you have to take care and be aware while doing it.
Also, important to note, I would like to point out that there is NO OFFICIAL BLAME OR STUDY that indicates the Azorro mask or the brand. This story/article is to make you aware of the issues that could arise while snorkeling and that off “cheaper doesn’t always mean better”. For myself and Lizzy, we often snorkel with our Tribords or Ninja H2O full face snorkel masks. We have never had an issue with breathing, clogging, jamming, etc.