Lack of evidence impedes Sharm snorkel death probe

The Red Sea resort of Ras Nasrani, where a snorkelling death occurred
The Red Sea resort of Ras Nasrani

It’s a sad fact that people around the world die while snorkelling in the sea every week – more than it would serve a purpose for Divernet to record on each occasion. 

Usually these deaths do not involve violent encounters with sharks or dramatic changes in sea condition – in local press reports they are recorded briefly and left unexplained. Sometimes pre-existing health conditions might be a factor. The snorkellers could be middle-aged or older, but are often practised swimmers accustomed to being in the sea.

Divernet has reported in the past about unexplained snorkelling deaths and in particular the hidden danger of IPO (Immersion Pulmonary Oedema, or drowning from the inside), as presented in studies carried out in Hawaii, where abnormally high rates of snorkelling deaths occur among tourists. 

The Hawaii Snorkel Safety Study concluded last year that snorkelling-induced IPO led to “some, possibly most, fatal and non-fatal snorkel-related drownings”.

One “unexplained” incident surfaced this week at the inquest into the death of a British snorkeller while on holiday in Egypt. In this case, forensic failures and lack of information forthcoming from Sharm el Sheikh underlined problems that can arise in pinpointing the reasons for such fatalities.

At the inquest at Cleethorpes Town Hall, reported by the Grimsby Telegraph, North-east Lincolnshire assistant coroner Marianne Johnson apologised several times to the family of 61-year-old Garry Hawkins for the lack of information supplied by the Egyptian authorities, which had forced her to take the unusual step of recording an “open conclusion”.

No post mortem

Hawkins, a retired factory worker, died on 16 January this year. He had been using a full-face mask to snorkel in Ras Nasrani Bay in the Red Sea from the TUI Blue Sensatori Coral Sea hotel, where he and his wife Patricia were staying. 

The inquest heard that no post mortem examination had been carried out, nor had a statement been provided from a lifeguard who had tried to save Hawkins’ life. According to the assistant coroner, the only evidence available to her had been statements from Patricia Hawkins and TUI.

“The reality is, we cannot obtain any information,” Johnson told the family. “We have kept trying. I would not have been able to call anyone from Egypt. It is unfair to leave you hanging on.”

Informed only that Hawkins had died of respiratory failure, she said that it was “very rare that I give an open conclusion”. When insufficient evidence is available to determine how a death came about, the case is left open in case further evidence might appear later. 

Patricia Hawkins stated that her husband, who played golf 4-5 times a week and was in generally good health, was a strong swimmer who enjoyed snorkelling at the resort. He had entered the sea at around 1pm and she had remained on the beach until being alerted to the incident by a TUI representative.

At a nearby hospital she learnt that a lifeguard had rescued her husband after he got into difficulties. The lifeguard had applied CPR but Hawkins was pronounced dead in the ambulance, with cause of death initially given as drowning, and later as respiratory failure. 

IPO awareness

While in the absence of evidence there is no indication that IPO was responsible for Hawkins’ death, all snorkellers as well as scuba divers are advised to make themselves aware of the condition, because they will then be equipped to respond appropriately and at an early stage should recognisable symptoms occur. 

A number of snorkelling masks have been the subject of product recalls in recent years, although the Hawaii studies concluded that full-face masks were no more nor less likely than normal snorkels to cause problems, with restrictive tube designs found to occur in both styles.

While scuba divers are increasingly knowledgeable about IPO, many snorkellers enjoy the pastime only on a casual basis, so might be unaware that such a risk exists. Divers are asked to share awareness of the condition and how to avoid it with friends and family who snorkel. The UK Diving Medical Council has a useful guide to IPO.

Also about IPO on Divernet: Red flags for snorkellers: how to stop the quiet deaths, The Hawaiian Snorkelling Deaths Mystery, Breathless swimmer’s case boosts IPO awareness, Hydration is vital, sure – but here’s why overdoing it is risky

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