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Michigan family files lawsuit against Hawaii tourism authority over snorkeling dangers after long flights

By Paul Drewes

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    HONOLULU (KITV) — A Michigan family filed a lawsuit against the Hawaii’s Tourism Authority, and other visitor groups, because they don’t warn tourists about potential dangers of snorkeling soon after flying.

Every year thousands come to Hawaii, and many take time to snorkel while they are here.

“The waters are so clear here, and I wanted to see what is underneath it. It was really cool, I got to see baby fish,” said Karissa Weaver, a first time snorkeler from Colorado.

Because of Hawaii’s relatively calm protected waters at popular snorkeling sites, some visitors view it as safe.

“It depends on your equipment. If you have decent equipment, it is relatively safe,” stated David Urane, an experienced snorkeler from California.

Equipment can play an important part in that safety. According to the Hawaii Snorkel Safety Study, the shape and design of the snorkel can caused it to have a low to high resistance to inhalation.

The higher the resistance, the higher the risk of developing Rapid Onset Pulmonary Edema, known as ROPE. That causes lungs to fill up with fluid because of negative pressure, and doesn’t allow people to take in oxygen.

It is believed to be one of the reasons why drowning by snorkeling is the number one cause of death for visitors to the islands, more than almost all other ocean activities combined.

But unlike typical drownings where people swallow water, and may thrash around in active distress, those suffering from ROPE can get short of breath, become confused, lose strength and then lose consciousness without showing signs of distress.

“It didn’t make sense. When I got the autopsy report, it said drowning. I watched Ray come in. When you are drowning, you are not talking to the people around you,” said his wife Patricia.

Patricia and Ray Johnson had been to Hawaii a half dozen times, and Ray had snorkeled in the islands numerous times.

“He was an experienced swimmer and snorkeler. But in February 2022, while snorkeling off Maui he had trouble breathing. A friend helped him to shore, but he died on the beach,” stated Jay Stuemke, the Johnson family attorney.

His symptoms are consistent of a ROPE drowning. The Hawaii Snorkeling Safety Study found along with health conditions increasing the risk for ROPE, there is the possibility long flights can too.

Stuemke says that contributed to Ray’s death, “What long haul flights do, is it has an effect on your lungs. After 3 days you are back to normal, but if you snorkel after that long flight there is a substantial increased risk of death.”

Now the Johnsons are suing not only the hotel where Ray rented the snorkel gear, but also the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Hawaii Visitors Convention Bureau. The Johnson family feels all of those groups knew about the dangers of snorkeling after long flights, but did not warn visitors.

“If warnings are effectively communicated, snorkelers can make informed choices about what risks to take,” added Stuemke.

The snorkel study did not conclude snorkeling after air travel raised ROPE risks, but the study stated it could be a factor and should be looked into further. The Johnsons want every visitor to know about any and ALL potential risks.

“After flying 10 hours, we would have waited 72 hours. His lungs would have recovered from whatever being in a pressurized cabin does to your lungs,” added Patricia.

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