NAHA, Okinawa — Okinawa’s warm, reef-protected waters seem to constitute the perfect safe-snorkeling environment: Just strap on a set of goggles, breathe through the plastic tube and sight-see underwater to your heart’s delight.

Not so fast! That snorkeling is easy and safe is a widespread fallacy, says Michio Sunagawa, chief of the Water Safety Countermeasure Office, Okinawa Prefectural Police Headquarters.

Nine of Okinawa’s 26 drowning victims last year died while snorkeling, Sunagawa said. And of 14 Americans who died in water-related fatalities in the past five years, four were snorkelers. The most recent was Air Force Staff Sgt. Byron Grandy-Richardson, 29, who drowned Aug. 19 while snorkeling near Sunabe Seawall.

The airman, with the 718th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron on Kadena Air Base, was snorkeling with friends near a buoy and became separated from them as they returned to shore, according to an Okinawa police report. The report said some of the people snorkeling with Grandy-Richardson had difficulty swimming to shore.

Sunagawa said the prefectural police department began a snorkeling safety campaign earlier this year.

“Unlike scuba diving, which requires prospective divers to attend classes and obtain licenses, snorkeling is an easily accessible sport with no class or training requirements,” he said. But snorkeling equipment poses potential risks for poor swimmers.

“Putting on snorkeling gear makes some people mistakenly think they can swim, even though it’s the gear that allows you to float,” he said. Often, people don’t realize they’re in water way over their heads until they stop floating to let water out of their masks in an upright position.

“That’s how panic sets in,” Sunagawa said, adding that all nine people who drowned while snorkeling last year on Okinawa were nonswimmers. That’s why police urge snorkelers to wear a flotation device, such as a life jacket, he said.

Okinawa’s ocean currents are another hazard.

“Some beaches and shores are known for outgoing rip currents,” he said. At ebb tide they flow outward between the edges of reefs, washing everything toward open sea. Sunagawa singled out Maeda Point as the most dangerous.

“You can’t just jump in and snorkel,” he said. “Check with … people familiar with the area, like diving or snorkeling instructors. That’s how you can be sure to choose a safe snorkeling spot.”

In April, for the first time, prefectural police began offering a basic snorkeling safety class with safety instructors they train, Sunagawa said. The three-hour class is designed for beginners.

“It’s like learning how to ride a bicycle,” he said. “Once you learn, you will never forget. But trying without learning is very dangerous, and often fatal.”

On U.S. bases on Okinawa, Marine Corps Community Services offers children summer “Learn to Swim” programs that include instructions on safe snorkeling.

Tips for safe snorkeling

Always wear some sort of a flotation device, such as a life jacket.Never enter the water alone. Use a buddy system.It’s dangerous to be self-taught. Learn basic snorkeling skills from a qualified instructor.Never enter the water under the influence of alcohol or when not feeling well.Choose a safe snorkeling spot; stay away from beaches or shores known for rip currents.— David Allen and Chiyomi Sumida

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