Snorkeling trouble in paradise

We’ve had many years when rip currents and dangerous shorebreaks (including on rock ledges as well as beaches) stood out as the reason people drowned in our ocean waters. This year, snorkeling has taken over as the #1 danger: four of our eight drownings this year have been snorkelers. What’s happening with this?

First, these drownings, in fact all eight drownings, have been at unguarded beaches.

Second, a huge challenge is that snorkelers are face down in the water, often floating with the currents with no visible arm or leg movements and enjoying seeing our beautiful underwater sights. It can be very difficult to observe that they are in life-and-death trouble.

Sometimes you get to see that a snorkeler has inhaled some water into his snorkel, isn’t properly trained at how to simply blow it out, and suddenly is struggling and gasping — and in certain instances the struggle seems to cause a heart attack.

But other times a nearby swimmer nudges a face down snorkeler and there is no response. A struggle was never witnessed. What happened?

My ocean safety colleague Pat Durkin referred me to an article entitled “How to recognize the Instinctive Drowning Response,” written by Francesco Pia, Ph.D., and aviation survival technician Mario Vittone.

In describing a phenomenon called the Instinctive Drowning Response, Dr. Pia and Mr. Vittone point out a couple of things: (1) Drowning people are often physically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is a secondary function. (2) Drowning people often cannot wave for help.

Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe. They are unable to perform voluntary arm movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

The bottom line is that “the splashing and waving and calling for help that one traditionally expects from a person in trouble are not there.” Even our professional lifeguards have had to learn that spotting snorkelers in distress is hugely challenging and requires the utmost vigilance.

There have been several instances, not on Kauai I’m happy to report, where snorkelers have drowned right in front of lifeguards who maybe hadn’t yet been fully tuned into what the Instinctive Drowning Response does (and doesn’t) look like.

As I already noted, all of our drownings this year have taken place at unguarded beaches. This is our huge Kauai problem: 10 towers, 65 beaches.

We have tried to address this numerical dichotomy with a number of programs, including rescue craft, fire department helicopters that are activated by a 911 call, and our KLA-sponsored rescue tube stations.

These programs have saved hundreds of almost-victims (and their families). Thanks to our mayor and our County Council and our Kauai Lifeguard Association supporters and donors, Kauai will soon be rolling out another program, namely roving lifeguard patrol units. The operational protocols for this exciting new program are being developed as I write, and hopefully, please God, this program will work beautifully to prevent many drownings.

So, another bottom line is, “Please swim near a lifeguard” — and more specifically, where you can see a lifeguard since that’s when a lifeguard can see you. If you do, it’s all but guaranteed that you won’t drown. Our men and women are that good at preventing, recognizing, and overcoming danger, including the often-subtle signs of snorkelers who are in trouble.

Unfortunately, this bottom line isn’t going to happen. Our visitors will be heading out for their snorkeling adventure, lifeguard or not, and of course our local skin divers go where the fish are, lifeguard or not.

Ke’e Beach and Poipu Beach Park and Lydgate Park and Salt Pond are excellent snorkeling destinations that are guarded. Tunnels is a bit iffy: Our amazing lifeguards can see you and helped by their ATV they do a remarkable job of guarding Tunnels, but you and many others are a full quarter mile away from the Haena Beach Park Tower. Many of Kauai’s other excellent snorkeling destinations, such as Koloa Landing and Longhouse Beach and Anini Beach, are not guarded — and many snorkelers are these places every day.

Our ocean safety professionals as well as our surfers and all of our “Force Multipliers” will continue to do all they can to help people not drown.

Until the impossible day comes when we have 65 towers for all 65 beaches, or until people never swim except at guarded beaches, we will never got to the Promised Land where people enjoy our beautiful (and dangerous) waters without subjecting themselves and their families to the risk of disaster.

In the meantime, it seems that we will have to continue to steel ourselves for our own hurt as we witness families get shattered when what they were expecting was a vacation in Paradise.

To learn where our guarded beaches are and what the daily conditions are, please refer to or to the free App Kauai Beach Guide.


Dr. Monty Downs is president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association.


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