Saturday's drowning of two California men off Kahala is part of a growing trend in Hawaii that involves fatal snorkeling incidents and tourists.
"I'm not surprised, because a lot of tourists are coming from places where they're not acclimated to the ocean," said Kurt Taguma, manager of Maui Sporting Goods off Kapahulu Avenue in Waikiki.
The two California men ran into trouble as they snorkeled with a friend off the Hunakai Street public beach access at about 6 p.m. The third man was assisted to shore by a surfer who happened to be nearby. However his two friends, ages 31 and 32, were pronounced dead a short time later at the hospital. Their identities have not yet been released by the Honolulu Medical Examiner.
Although the twin drownings are still being investigated by Honolulu police, Taguma believes the men may have fallen victim to inexperience and a swift-moving current, a notorious feature for that particular patch of reef.
"We did check (and) it was an outgoing tide," said Taguma. "So, all that water from the flats is going into the channel and going out."
While many in Hawaii would likely associate drowning with activities such as swimming or surfing, more visitors have died while snorkeling compared to any other ocean-related activity over a five-year period. According to state Health Department statistics, 79 tourists died while snorkeling from 2009 through 2013. That's more than scuba diving (8), free-diving (1) and surfing (3) or swimming (32) combined.
In fact, the 79 snorkeling-related drownings make it the leading cause of accidental death among the 369 categories of injuries tracked by the Health Department over the five year period.
"Nearly every one of these folks that perishes is 55 or older," said Jim Howe, acting administrator of Honolulu's Ocean Safety Division. "These incidents happen in 3 feet of water or less, and they could have literally stood up."
Those familiar with Hawaii's ocean conditions say snorkeling is much more strenuous than it appears, and many of those who die simply panic.
"You're using muscles that you maybe haven't used and it is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced to do it safely," said Howe.
Although Maui Sporting Goods doesn't rent snorkeling equipment, the store often sells gear to those visiting Oahu. Taguma says he frequently suggests a snorkel with a built-in valve to those who are not familiar with the ocean, or are new to the activity.
"If it's a little water, it will funnel around it," Taguma explained, while holding the snorkel in question. "If it's a lot of water, there's a valve in here that will shut off so you cannot breathe it."