Hawaiian authorities are urging swimmers and snorkelers to stay safe after what they describe as an "unprecedented" spike in drownings off the coast of Maui. Nine people, including at least three tourists from California, drowned near several beaches on the island between Jan. 14 and Jan. 27, ABC News reports. All the victims were men, and authorities say five of them drowned while snorkeling—bringing the death toll in the space of two weeks to almost a third of the 17 snorkeling deaths Hawaii experiences in an average year. The drownings have raised concerns about recently introduced models of full-face snorkeling masks, which critics say can trap dangerous levels of carbon dioxide, reports KTVU.
"Some people say it makes them sleepy. We know that it can exacerbate panic, which I think is the big culprit in most of these incidents you are seeing now across Hawaii," retailer Robert Winter tells Hawaii News Now. He says that after field-testing the masks, which cover the eyes, nose, and mouth, he refuses to sell them. Maui Fire Police Chief Edward Taomoto says that while it's too early to make a connection to the equipment and the recent rise in drownings, "there is speculation that there may be an unforeseen buildup of carbon dioxide within the breathing chamber in the one-piece, full-face mask design." "If a person were not getting enough oxygen, then it is possible for that person to lose consciousness," he tells the San Francisco Chronicle. (Read more Hawaii stories.)