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Wrong Or Ignored Hawaii Visitor Drowning Warnings Refocused By Lawsuit

The serene beaches of Hawaii, often a paradise for Hawaii tourists and residents, have once again been in the news, sadly overshadowed by tragedy and conflict. A recent snorkeling incident has resulted in a well-publicized lawsuit that highlights ongoing concerns about ocean safety and visitor drownings in Hawaii.

Visitors account for about 90% of Hawaii snorkeling deaths. On average, every week, one Hawaii visitor dies from such a death. It’s clearly a huge issue.

Patti Johnson has initiated legal action against the Fairmont Kea Lani Resort, the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. That followed the death of her husband, Ray Johnson, who drowned while snorkeling off Wailea Beach on Maui. In the lawsuit, she claims her husband was never advised on the dangers of ROPE by state authorities or the resort.

Drowning as a result of Rapid Onset Pulmonary Edema (ROPE)?

Ray’s death was initially ruled as drowning by the coroner. However, Patti disputes this, suggesting that the cause was Rapid Onset Pulmonary Edema (ROPE), a condition we’ve written about many times before, which she believes was related to their long-haul flight from Michigan to Hawaii. ROPE involves fluid suddenly filling the lungs, making breathing difficult, and can be fatal if not immediately addressed.

A recent 3-year Snorkel Safety Study dispelled the conclusion that many drowning deaths were from water that was inhaled rather than as a result of ROPE. The study could not conclusively determine whether long flights prior to snorkeling may have played a role, with additional research being needed. However, the study could not rule out the concern either.

No matter the cause, visitor drownings in Hawaii, often related to snorkeling, are far too prevalent.

The study also found a relationship between drownings and pre-existing heart conditions.

Middle-aged men with heart conditions have a higher risk. Thus gender and age may play a contributory role when it comes to drownings.

Here are suggestions from the snorkel study:

1. Don’t snorkel for several days following transpacific flights. This advice is as applicable to Hawaii residents as it is to Hawaii visitors.
2. The safest snorkels are those that don’t have modifications to the tip to prevent water from entering the device.
3. Choose snorkeling locations where you can touch the ocean bottom for additional safety.
4. Snorkeling requires proficiency in swimming. If you aren’t able to swim, you should not be snorkeling.
5. When visitors drown in Hawaii, snorkeling is the most likely associated activity.

This tragic Hawaii visitor drowning event is not isolated.

Over the years, Hawaii has seen a troubling number of visitor drownings, often tied to a lack of awareness about the power of the Pacific Ocean and its hidden dangers. Our previous reports have emphasized the necessity of comprehensive safety messaging tailored to the unique risks presented by the ocean in Hawaii. From unexpected swells to powerful currents, the ocean around Hawaii requires respect and knowledge for safe enjoyment, whether snorkeling or participating in other ocean activities.

The Johnson family’s lawsuit claims negligence on the part of the resort and local tourism entities in failing to properly inform visitors about the dangers of snorkeling, particularly after long-distance travel. The lawsuit also points to a potential lack of adequate warning about the risks of ROPE, which might be more prevalent in travelers who have recently undergone long flights.

This legal action has reopened discussions on how tourism-related businesses and local authorities in Hawaii approach visitor safety. Critics argue that despite previous incidents, there needs to be more done to educate tourists about ocean safety comprehensively. This includes understanding the physical impacts of flying on the body and how it interacts with activities like snorkeling.

This Hawaii visitor snorkeling death casts a spotlight on broader issues of visitor safety in the islands.

Comments from our readers reflect a strong call for enhanced measures, such as increased lifeguard presence, better educational outreach, and more visible warning signs at popular tourist spots. While the natural beauty of Hawaii is a major draw, it should not come at the cost of visitor safety. Unfortunately, however, as we’ve witnessed ourselves countless times, visitors often don’t have good sense when it comes to snorkeling and ocean safety.

As we watch this case unfold, it stands as a stark reminder of both the critical need for proactive safety measures and better communication about Hawaii snorkeling hazards. It is a call to action for Hawaii visitors and all stakeholders in Hawaiian tourism to help prioritize the well-being of our visitors, ensuring that the islands remain a paradise not marked by preventable tragedies.

What is your take on Hawaii visitor drownings, this case, and whether the lawsuit is appropriate under these tragic circumstances?

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50 thoughts on “Wrong Or Ignored Hawaii Visitor Drowning Warnings Refocused By Lawsuit”

  1. I was a flight many moons ago and will never forget a flight from HNL to ORD and a female passenger that had gone diving that morning. Over the Mainland she started feeling bad and was experiencing the bends. The airplane had to landing in Denver (the mile high city) because a decent into Chicago could have taken her life.
    Look at the people that climb Haiku Stairs with no regard for their lives let alone the firemen’s lives that have to rescue them.

  2. I have been coming to the islands for over forty years. This year is the first time I’ve ever heard about ROPE!! Why has this not been publicized better and why not years ago?? I am in my 70’s and never heard about ROPE. I don’t do a lot of snorkeling,but you’d think somewhere in the past I would have been made aware?????

  3. I do not think it is Hawaii and the resorts responsibility to educate tourists with snorkel safety. If you are snorkeling with a company that takes you on a tour, then yes.
    I do not agree with this lawsuit at all.
    More and more people don’t want to take responsibility of their chosen actions. And then they are quick to sue.
    It would be nice to see more life guards on more beaches.

  4. While I feel great empathy for any loss of life, the reality is the ocean is not a controlled area. Hawaii is not a theme park constructed for safety. I’ve been aware of drownings and the circumstances because I follow news from Hawaii. Most people don’t. Posting information at tourist beaches may help, but once you choose to go in the ocean, it’s at your own risk. I do agree more of those tourism taxes should go toward more lifeguards on busy beaches.

  5. Dear Beat of Hawaii and its readers, another ocean-related health risk for visitors and others to know about is “Surfer’s Myelopathy.” Since links are not allowed, feel free to search “PubMed” online for publications. One excerpt I found (note the “traditionally tied to first-time surfers”): “Surfer’s myelopathy (SM) is an acute syndrome identified by nontraumatic paraparesis or paraplegia. Though traditionally tied to first-time surfers, the condition encompasses any activity involving hyperextension of the back such as gymnastics, yoga, and Pilates.”

  6. Condolences to the family for there loss, peace be with you don’t be angry towards anyone. Life is to short as it is to carry that too. Forgiveness is much better.

  7. There was a sign we saw in Australia at the base of a trail that went up to some sea cliff. “Your safety is our concern and your responsibility”. I think that there needs to be some serious educational materials available but you have been warned.

  8. I am seeing some great suggestions on education of visitors regarding snorkeling- however, that will only alleviate responsibility by entities. In my opinion, if you are getting your safety information on your final descent on a plane, not too many folks are going to pay attention. Half the time they are already texting their friends or making a final bathroom break or cramming their stuff back into the overhead. I can hardly understand the flight attendant announcements to prepare to land as they rapidly give instructions. I think people need to take some personal responsibility for their activities. It’s not always someone else’s fault. I feel great sympathy for the widow but a lawsuit is not always the answer.

  9. Instead of giving people on airplanes info just on respecting the island and people there might be an opportunity to give some info on this topic as well.

  10. One snorkel-related death/week is a lot. I’m betting most tourists have no idea about ROPE or about the recommendation to wait 72 hours after a long flight before snorkeling. Of course you can’t keep people from taking risks or ignoring advice. But we put warnings on cigarette packages and alcohol because it seems wise and kind to warn of potential danger. Why wouldn’t Hawaii post signs or somehow provide warnings (thru airlines, hotels, STRs, timeshares, etc.) about snorkeling dangers? Just seems kind to me, and not that difficult.

  11. I’d think that with 50 deaths a year, the coroners office would do as thorough an investigation as possible. This would include finding a way of distinguishing ROPE from drowning, as well as examining the snorkel equipment and time of last trans-oceanic flight. These deaths are tragic and frequent. Relying on a small study from 2021 isn’t enough.

  12. So would there have been a different outcome had the hotel, etc. posted warnings that said: “If you go snorkeling you might drown”? He still would’ve drowned due to his health, inexperience, flying recently, breathing in water, etc. He didn’t drown because a warning wasn’t posted. It was just a tragic accident.

  13. Hmmmmm……. I’m a lifelong snorkeler and have never heard of ROPE before, so I appreciate this article. I definitely think rental shops should provide this information, but I’m sure others, like me, bring their own equipment. That being said, we need to take personal responsibility for knowing the risks of whatever activity we choose to do, at home or while traveling. Lifeguards at beaches can only do so much.

    I am far more concerned about the dangers of full face masks.

  14. Other issue: on-shore wave breaks. While working at a local hospital, I’ve seen an alarming number of broken necks from tourists body-surfing, then accidentally slamming their heads on the bottom. This happens in shallow water when “on-shore waves” break & slam one down, head-first. Seriously horrible results that I have personally observed doing patient-care. So many paralyzed and partially-paralyzed patients that I could write a book. And there is no cure whatsoever for spinal cord injuries. Yet not a peep of public warnings, and certainly not on the in-flight airlines “welcome to Hawaii” videos.

    1. Hi John.

      Thanks. We too have seen a significant number of injuries related to shore breaks in Hawaii. That in addition to large rocks in the ocean.


    2. Our lifeguards in Kihei do warn about this repeatedly and explicitly over their loudspeaker. However, I don’t hear warnings about the parents who bring infants and toddlers into the ocean in their arms without any lifejacket protection on them. When a stray wave hits them, it can easily knock the baby out of their arms.

      One winter my husband recovered 17 pairs of expensive sunglasses from the ocean bottom, each one representing a time that a strong wave overpowered someone unexpectedly. To me that demonstrates the risk dumb parents are taking with their babies.

      1. Marcia
        I do not think any parents are taking risks with their babies. That sounds pretty harsh.
        If one only knows of swimming in a lake, they may think it is similar.
        There are so many elements of the ocean that some cannot even imagine exist.

  15. Where does it lead?

    To new regulations & laws requiring snorkelers to pay a fee to pass a state certified online snorkeling course, you must have your snorkeling course completion card on you at all times, you’ll be required to wear a floatation device & some type of signaling device to alert individuals that you’re in distress need help.

    Otherwise like anything else big Gov and Big Corp are looking to make money off this tragedy.

  16. Wow, amazed at the callous comments suggesting nothing can be done to reduce tourist drownings. Strange way to express aloha.

    Fact- Average one tourist death a week from drowning.
    Fact- Lack of lifeguards, education, and safety equipment.
    Fact- BOH reporting April 18, 2024 on likely political corruption.

    Shame, Shame, Shame on Hawaiians.
    Eddie Would Go-if only Hawaiians cared enough to demand it.
    Mrs. Johnson has my sympathy and full support.

    1. I was an ER RN on Kauai for 40 years-this tragedy is one of the many terrible tragedies. The rescue tubes on Kauai’s shores have made a difference ,thanks to Dr daughter is a Na Pali Coast Boat Captain. She has people on her boat on oxygen,and others clearly not in good health to snorkel. She diplomatically explains the risks,but many passengers can’t even comprehend the risks.So not being callous but what can really be done to decrease visitor drownings?

      1. Mahalo for your service but I don’t get what point you are trying to make. And “she has people on her boat on oxygen” means what? She allows clearly compromised people to snorkel from her “boat” as “captain”?

  17. its not the airline, islands, tourism responsibility to warn you of your limitations, especially for someone who was experienced in snorkeling-he should have known himself that he should have waited 72 hours before snorkeling. This is all on him. hope the court throws the lawsuit out.

  18. Chris:
    The loss of a life is tragic, but don’t confuse what other parties “should” do, and what they are Responsible to do. If an old person is crossing a
    busy street, we “should” advise them about the danger, but if they go
    forward and get hurt, it’s not our Responsibility. Remember : “Sometimes something bad happens to us in life, and it’s not always
    someone else’s fault. “


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