Researching the differences between full face snorkeling masks and traditional snorkeling equipment has been a real eye-opener for me. Thousands of visitors each year hit the beach with snorkel gear in hand. Who doesn’t want to see what lies below the ocean surface? Heck, many have never even been in the ocean before. Warm water, tropical fish and sea turtles make for some impressive vacation memories.
But, unfortunately, for many reasons, this Hawaiian experience can be very dangerous. In fact, from 2008 to 2017, in the state of Hawaii, there were 183 drownings which occurred during snorkeling. 93% were non-Hawaii residents. More Hawaii visitors die from snorkeling than from motor vehicle crashes, aircraft crashes, falls or homicides combined. We want you to be safe!
Since 2018 there has been an increase in snorkel related deaths. Some of these deaths (at least 2) are believed to be linked to the full face snorkel mask, causing quite a controversy in the islands. I will start by saying that I have read several articles and watched quite a few videos and there does not seem to be a consensus on this issue, mostly because only recently was a snorkeling mask investigation started by the Hawaii Department of Health. Up until recently there have been no snorkeling regulations or records kept about the masks used in snorkeling deaths. The HI DOH Snorkeling Safety Brochure states, “Snorkeling-related drownings occurred before full-face masks became available. There is currently no evidence proving that a specific type of snorkel equipment is dangerous.* The truth is, snorkeling can be more dangerous than swimming – so be careful! *Causes are currently under investigation and may include: challenges with equipment, fatigue, changes in oxygen/carbon dioxide concentration, medical conditions, effects of air travel or other factors.”
What People Like About the Full Face Snorkel Masks
- Visibility – on most masks the lens curves behind the eye giving the swimmer a clear uninterrupted 180 degree view. The frame does not alter the view.
- Water Barrier – the mask seals around the entire face, decreasing the chance of water coming in. A wide strap in the rear holds the mask tightly in place.
- Natural Breathing – you can inhale and exhale through either your nose or your mouth. The absence of a mouth piece makes it more comfortable for some people.
- Go Pro cameras can be mounted on the top breathing tube.
Concerns Regarding the Full Face Snorkel Masks
- As reported by Hawaii Civil Beat, Dr. Philip Foti, an Oahu physician who specializes in pulmonary and internal medicine, addressed a conference, regarding drowning prevention, in 2017, and stated this about full-faced masks: “…there is dead space ventilation in the device that seems greater than in the standard snorkel tube. That dead space can cause carbon dioxide buildup.” This CO2 buildup could cause a person to become disoriented, or, even lose consciousness.
- Full face masks tend to be prone to leaking and fogging up. When it leaks water fills the mask making it impossible to breathe through either the nose or the mouth.
- With straps that go completely around the head, removing the masks can be difficult. In a panic situation, remembering the steps to remove a full-faced mask may be forgotten.
- Without taking off the mask, it is hard for other people to hear calls for help.
The original makers of the full face snorkel masks, Ocean Reef, claim their products have none of these defects. Jon Wilkins, Ocean Reef USA’s Sport Division Manager had this to say,
“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.”
This last paragraph raises concerns about the variety of manufactures selling full face snorkel masks. Robert Wintner, founder of Snorkel Bob’s, says, “I get three or four inquiries a week from Chinese manufacturers. ‘You must carry these. Please send your address. We’ll send samples.’ And my response is always the same, ‘No, thank you. Please put them in the dumpster.’” Wintner decided against carrying any of the full face masks after his researchers tested them.
Reviews are mixed. Some say the full face mask has allowed them to participate in something they were never able to do before with the traditional snorkeling equipment. Others report problems.
“I’ve been using a HEAD full face mask for two years. I’ve snorkeled in the Florida Keys, The Galapagos Islands and the British Virgin Islands. I’ve not had a bad experience. The mask is more comfortable that conventional mask and snorkel, the viewing area is greater and there is less fogging. My HEAD cost $99 and I’ve seen knock-offs for as little as $29. In this case you get what you pay for. Nothing but great comments for this mask.”
Mike Horn, July 2018
“We bought some Tribord masks for our trip to Maui a couple years ago. My wife likes hers and swears by it. I could never get mine to fit/seal properly and was constantly struggling with the adjustments. Once water enters, it fogs up fast. Also, I felt that breathing was a bit more restrictive and difficult at times. Unlike a traditional setup, it’s very difficult to remove and/or readjust it without getting out of the water completely. Personally, I’m much happier with a traditional snorkel setup, but I do see their attraction for new/inexperienced users. On a side note, we also purchased a no-name brand mask from Costco while we were in Maui (looking for a better fit). It was horrible compared to the Tribord. The water valve would randomly get stuck, and it had difficulties expelling the CO2 gasses (which made me nauseous and light headed). I returned it once we got back to the main land.”
Bill, July 2018
I would suggest you do your own research. If you decide to try a full face snorkel mask, be sure to:
- Buy a high quality product! The circulation system on good full face masks keeps fresh air for inhalation completely separate from the carbon dioxide exhaled.
- Try it out at home without water and/or in a pool.
- Make sure you can breathe comfortably and practice quickly removing your mask.
- Make sure the mask does not leak at all.
- Stay close to shore until you are sure the mask is working properly.
- Always snorkel with a buddy at arm’s length and check on one another frequently, regardless of the mask you use.
- Breathe slowly and move calmly.
- Monitor your body throughout your snorkeling excursion. It you start feeling tired or get a headache – come to shore!
Interestingly, some ocean tour companies are not allowing full face snorkel gear on board. One reason is that if a snorkeler is calling for help, without taking off the mask, the crew can not hear them. Here is one company’s rationale with pro and con comments following. I found them quite interesting and informative.
In May of 2018, after a rash of snorkeling deaths on Maui, CBS did this story about the full face snorkeling masks.
So whichever snorkel mask you decide to use, please watch the water conditions, observe all posted beach warning signs and know your limits. Make smart decisions. With caution, like thousands each year, you can have a wonderful experience snorkeling the reefs of Hawaii.
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