KAPAA — A single full face snorkel mask sat in the half-off bin at Kauai Beach Shop on Friday because the dive shop owners just wanted to get rid of it.
“They’re just dangerous and that’s why we’re not going to have them in the store anymore,” said owner Mike Westerhout. “That’s the last one. There’s a few issues with them like the CO2 build-up.”
Oxygen intake can get restricted with the full face masks. Another risk is the potential for the water stopper to get stuck at the top of the snorkel tube, which is built into the forehead area of the masks.
The masks are advertised in in-flight magazines, but lifeguards and water gear retailers on Kauai aren’t stoked about the risks.
In January, two visitors drowned on Maui while wearing full face snorkel masks.
After those deaths, one of the full face mask manufacturers, HEAD/MARES, started conducting specialized tests of different types of masks on the market. Out of four full face snorkel masks the company tested, three of them exceeded the EN250 standard for CO2 exposure at low breathing rates, but they were all within limits for high breathing rates. The HEAD Sport model was the company’s dog in the fight and the only one that came out with full marks.
“The success of the HEAD full face snorkel masks has spawned a number of low-cost copycat masks from little-known companies whose expertise, design and manufacturing experience are unknown. These off-brand products are offered at attractive prices, but their performance and the nature of any research or testing that stand behind them, if any, is completely unknown,” representatives of the company said in a statement.
On Kauai, snorkeling contributes to 23 percent of ocean drownings, according to the state Department of Health.
Robert Winter of Snorkel Bob’s, for instance, refuses to sell the full face snorkel masks, because he doesn’t believe they’re safe.
“We’ve never carried the full face masks, not even at the beginning. They’re terrible,” he said.
Instead of having two separate parts like traditional masks, full face snorkel masks covers the wearer’s entire face with a fixed tube that extends out from the top for breathing. Studies show it can trap carbon dioxide, resulting in depleted oxygen levels, he said, and that can get dangerous.
Westerhout said the decision not to stock the face masks was a bit difficult because they’re so popular.
“The rep came by and showed us all the high-end gear he’s representing, but he said the full face masks are by far the best seller,” he said. “They’re really popular, so it’s a hit to the pocketbook not carrying them.”
Dr. Phillip Foti of Oahu is currently researching those dangers and others associated with ocean activity equipment and has pointed out a dead space in the device’s ventilation that could cause a higher level of CO2 build-up.
Disorientation and loss of consciousness could be the results, and there’s also the possibility of other serious health issues.
“It’s called negative pulmonary edema and the man behind the research, Dr. Foti, refers to the full face snorkeling device as a recipe for disaster,” said Pat Durkin, aquatic expert from Aquatic Safety and a member of the Kauai Lifeguard Association.
Negative pulmonary edema occurs in events like when someone is overbreathing in a snorkel or regulator, which causes fluid to leak into the alveoli in the lungs.
Jim Jung, vice president of KLA, has been considering an experiment with the full face masks for several years.
“Many years ago, I had a full face, but it fogged up quickly,” he said. “I was curious about the new ones on the market. Looking them up, I learned that they were not made for diving, although some used them to dive a few feet below the surface.”
The masks are a bit pricey as well. Online, they range from around $26 to $100 and higher for one mask. On-island, the Aria Full Face Snorkel Mask sells for $99 at places like Kauai Snorkel Rentals in Kapaa.
Jung’s main concern isn’t price, but whether or not they’re safe. “I’m concerned about the carbon dioxide from rebreathing,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced of the dangers of the full face masks, however.
Laola Aea, secretary of the KLA, said she was at a function recently, sitting between two people who had differing views: a woman who represented a full face snorkel mask company and a woman who believed they were unsafe.
“My take is those devices will have warnings (of carbon dioxide risk) on the packaging within a couple of years,” Aea said.
While there are concerns about leaking and carbon dioxide levels, Durkin said there’s another problem with the masks that should be addressed.
“The real problem with the full face snorkeling device is that it furthers the faulty reasoning that anyone can do it,” he said.
Swimming skills are required for safe snorkeling and a full understanding of ocean conditions, as well as an ability to remain calm should something go wrong.
“The usual cause for snorkel fatalities is panic,” Winter said. “One common result is swallowing saltwater if you get caught in a rip tide. We give verbal and written reef etiquette and safety guidelines for every customer.”
Durkin said the old standby snorkels are the best, in his opinion.
“If you still have your old snorkel with no baffles or gadgetry at the opening on top, you have the safest snorkel,” he said. “And if you still have your black rubber mask from Waipouli Variety — gold.”