Worried about the snorkeling deaths reported in Hawaii?

I must admit, I felt sick when I read about the spate of drowning deaths of snorkelers in Hawaii being attributed to unsafe full face snorkel masks. Unfortunately, the first article I read was the UK Daily Mail and it was barely more than click bait.

As I review and recommend full face masks, I wanted to dig deeper and find out the facts. If these are dangerous, I'm going to be the first one to stand up and say so. 


I know you came here to find out more about how safe the full face mask is, so click the link below to skip straight to the answer to that question. Otherwise keep scrolling to read a super brief history on the full face snorkel mask and other information that explains how we got to where we are today. 

A very brief history on the Full Face Snorkeling Mask

Tribord (Decathlon) and Ocean Reef are two well known manufacturers who developed the full face snorkel mask together and released it for sale in May 2014. Ocean Reef make quality full face SCUBA diving masks. 

Following their unveiling of the Easybreath model along with other brands at international scuba and snorkel equipment shows in 2015, full face snorkel masks gained popularity very quickly with snorkelers worldwide.

The mask looks radically different from the traditional snorkel and mask, and a lot of work has gone into the design of a safe breathing system. This new air circulation design eliminates fogging and the need for a mouthpiece. By creating a pocket for breathing that's separate from the viewing area means people can breathe using both their mouth and nose. This style of breathing feels natural and is a big plus for many snorkelers. 

The view that full face masks gives is greater than that of a traditional mask, and designs continue to be improved upon each year. This, the lack of mouth piece, and the elimination of fogging are the main reasons full face masks have become popular so quickly. 

If these are so good, then what's going wrong?

There are a number of manufacturers who have put a lot of time and hard work into developing their own brand of full face snorkel mask. Full face snorkel masks are proving to be a huge success, and once something becomes a hit, others are sure to want to cash in on the success.

These great masks are being poorly copied in China and sold to international markets. To say the quality of many of these imports is poor is an understatement.

These poor quality copies are being imported from China and sold on Amazon and other online stores for low prices. This is when a bargain, is not a bargain. I can recommend the best high quality masks, but people will still buy the cheap knock-off's, and then come away disappointed believing all full face snorkel masks are rubbish - and that's just not the case. 

There are so many 1-star reviews of the cheap knock-off brands. Many reviewers mention how the snorkel float gets stuck in the tube cutting off air, or of masks leaking in joins because the pieces don't fit together properly, and snorkel pieces breaking when connecting or disconnecting. These issues are all due to these being made with inferior quality products.

Masks will also feel really uncomfortable and leak if the silicone is a low grade and doesn't have the flexibility needed to give a good seal. These can rub on your face or the bridge of your nose and really take the pleasure out of snorkeling.

Why you don't want cheap or bad fitting masks

If the snorkeling mask doesn’t fit properly, and particularly if the orinasal pocket (the lower section that covers your mouth and nose) doesn’t form a good seal over your nose and mouth, you will exhale both CO2 and moisture back into the mask, and not expel it completely through the snorkel.

Moisture will spoil your view by fogging and too much CO2 can be dangerous and even lead to a loss of consciousness.
Fogging in the orinasal pocket is not a problem at all, but it is when it occurs in other parts of the mask.

If you read nothing else, you really want to read this!

One well known manufacturer of full-face snorkel masks is Ocean Reef. They make full face SCUBA masks as well as their Aria full face snorkel mask.

Ocean Reef donated the full face Scuba masks used to bring the Thai boys and their soccer coach out of the cave they were trapped in during July 2018.

Along with Head/ Mares, Ocean Reef are assisting the Authorities in its research into the causes of drownings. Ocean Reef state that their mask eliminates air containing high carbon dioxide when it's being used, which other full-face masks may not do.

See below. 

Ocean Reef - Jon Wilkins

Ocean Reef USA’s Sport Division Manager

"Since 2014, there have been more than 1 million full face snorkeling masks, which have been designed and manufactured by Ocean Reef/Italy, sold into the world marketplace. 

"The design comes from more than 25 years of experience in the military, professional and recreational full face mask gas and scuba markets. These masks were designed to increase the enjoyment of snorkelers.

Ocean Reef’s masks are designed so that users breathe in fresh air, and eliminate spent air containing high CO2 content, safely and comfortably. 

With reference to 'knock-off’ versions, we believe that those which have been produced without understanding of, or non-adherence to, the same safety designs as Ocean Reef’s, may be a cause of reported discomfort to users. In addition, some of those products could be dangerous because of those design flaws, primarily related to inadequately eliminating carbon dioxide build up."

Facts vs Myths - What we know about the drowning deaths in Hawaii

Although it's not clear what caused the 11 recent drowning deaths in Hawaii, it needs to be noted that of the victims:

  • 10 of the 11 drownings were of men over the age of 50
  • 2 of the deceased were Scuba diving, not snorkeling
  • 3 of the victims were using traditional two-piece snorkel gear
  • 2 were swimming, not snorkeling
  • 2 were using full face snorkel masks
  • 1 was fishing from a jetty but was found floating in the water

Obviously more investigation is needed (and is being done). This doesn't stop news outlets and some social media sites from touting that all full face snorkel masks are dangerous. These stories don't appear to be based on facts and right now looks like nothing more than click bait and scare mongering.

Of course snorkeling, swimming, and anything involving the ocean includes an element of risk. Currently, we don't know how many of these latest deaths are of tourists who may not have been familiar with the local beach conditions and rips, or inexperienced swimmers or snorkelers.

The Statistics of Ocean Drownings in Hawaii

Unfortunately, drownings of all kinds are a year-round occurrence in Hawaii. Drowning is the biggest killer of tourists and has been for well over a decade. Most deaths occur while snorkeling at beaches with no lifeguards.

Dan Galanis - Epidemiologist
Department of Health, Hawaii

Statistical data published on the Hawaii Department of Health website highlights that the common threads among drowning victims in Hawaii include:

"Up to 75 to 80 percent are males of 50 years old and above, and that circulatory diseases (i.e. respiratory, pulmonary, heart disease) possibly or probably contribute to 58 percent of these snorkel-related drownings.

You can see Dan Galanis' full report here. Clicking this link will take you to his report on the Health Department of Hawaii's website.


Makapuʻu Beach Hawaii - Image source Wiki Commons

How do full face masks work and do you need to worry about CO2? 

The original makers of full face masks put a lot of time into the testing and development of a breathing system that specifically prevents CO2 build up. 

The circulation system on good full face masks keeps fresh air for inhalation completely separate from the CO2 exhaled.

Many full face snorkel masks have split the tube of the snorkel piece into 3 sections. The middle inner tube channels air directly into the top section of the mask where it is drawn through to the mouth and nose pocket via valves. This is exhaled and channeled back out through the other 2 air channels within the snorkel tube. This is demonstrated in the first image below. 

Ocean Reef Aria full face snorkel mask
Ocean Reef Aria Full Face Snorkel Mask

What's being done now?

HEAD / Mares full face snorkel mask manufacturer

HEAD / Mares is one of the manufacturers of quality brand full face masks. They are working with Hawaiian authorities to help get an understanding of what's happened. HEAD / Mares has undertaken specialized testing of various masks on the market and possible CO2 build up.

HEAD / Mares gave the test results to the lead investigators in the Hawaii Department of Health and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and offered them the use of the Mares testing facility, among other assistance. You can read their report at the bottom of this article.

Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)

The Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) is backing several water safety initiatives, including:

  • Providing water safety videos to Hawaiian Airlines for its in-flight video service.
  • Introducing the GoHawaii App in 2016 with safety information to help inform and educate visitors to the risks of swimming and snorkeling while in the State.
  • Promoting http://hawaiibeachsafety.com on the new GoHawaii.com, GoHawaii app.

Understanding the limits of full face snorkel masks

There are restrictions to using these masks that many people aren't aware of. It's very important to know the limitations of the mask for your own personal safety, to get the most out of your mask, and to avoid disappointment. 

Firstly, these are not intended for swimming laps or exercising as the air tube is too narrow to provide enough air during vigorous exercise. 

These are NOT for free diving, or diving below 10 feet (3 meters). You can't equalize with these masks as they are designed for leisurely snorkeling on or just under the surface of the water. You may need to take it off when swimming between snorkeling spots. 

These are for use in relatively calm waters.

Full face snorkel masks can take a little getting used to and you may need to spend some time adjusting your breathing, but a good quality mask will make a snorkeling holiday unforgettable. 

Ocean Reef Aria Full Face Snorkel Mask

Still wondering whether to get a full face snorkel mask?

There are full face snorkel masks that are a real waste of money, as well as others that will be okay, but not great. 

The top well-known brands and models perform the best and give the greatest pleasure. You're so much better off paying a bit more and spending your money on brand-name model. You will get a quality mask that does what you are entitled to expect it to do when you go snorkeling.

If your budget doesn't stretch that far, then go for a good quality traditional diving mask and snorkel. You'll be much happier with this than buying a cheap full face snorkel mask. 

What's our experience? Would I let my family use these?

Ahhh, YES! 

I get to test and review big name brand full face masks as well as the lesser known 'knock off's'. The best endorsement I can give is that I'm happy for my kids to use any of the masks that I recommend.

My husband (who's a Scuba diver) recently went to a popular swimming spot with a collection of these masks. He took his expensive traditional style diving mask and snorkel with him, just in case.

He spent hours (seriously, I do mean hours) snorkeling and absolutely loved the experience of full face masks. He shared the full face masks around with some interested tourists, including a few older people who weren't confident swimmers. Some only used them in areas where they could stand and enjoyed looking at the fish, others swam around with them. The overall consensus was that they loved the experience. To be honest, one lady didn't enjoy the feel of the mask on her face, but she was the exception. Everyone else wanted to know where they could buy them from.

These are the quality full face snorkel masks we recommend

The best mask by far is the Ocean Reef Aria, and guess what - it's also one of the most expensive. The choice is yours. The next best are the Tribord Subea Easybreath and Wildhorn Outfitters 180 SeaView.

Tribord Subea are cutting down on their available sizes to reduce on their manufacturing costs. This means their masks are becoming cheaper overall, but you won't be able to buy masks in children's sizes from them for much longer. 

I take pride in recommending good quality stuff, so click the links to the reviews of the best full face snorkel masks if you'd like to read more about each of these masks.

HEAD / Mares Report on full face snorkel masks

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