Snorkeling Techniques

By Joel Simon

Today, there are many opportunities to appreciate the underwater world: outstanding books and periodicals, excellent television documentaries and films, and engaging public aquariums and interpretive facilities. But, for people who wish to actually get wet and mingle with the fish, snorkeling is one of the easiest, safest and most delightful invitations to explore the aquatic wilderness.

I work with literally hundreds of snorkelers each year. They range from novice to expert, from under 10 years old to over 80.
The most important key to successful snorkeling is simply being relaxed in the water. This sounds easy enough, but being comfortable in the water can entail as much psychology as actual physical skill development. With a few tips and a little practice, however, I’ve seen that virtually anyone can become a competent snorkeler.

In today’s world of increasingly complex, high-tech gadgetry, modern snorkeling equipment is refreshingly simple. Although there is an extensive assortment of styles, sizes and features to each piece of gear, there are only three essential items: mask, fins and snorkel. You can find an extensive selection at Scuba diving or snorkeling masks like the Ocean Quest Pacific fit just about everyone and come with or without a purge.
If you are going to buy just one item, it should be a mask that properly fits your face. This is the most important investment you can make for enjoyable snorkeling. To keep water out, the skirt of the mask (preferably silicon) must seal securely. When you put the mask on, be sure to brush away any hair that might interfere with the seal. Some suntan products, when wet, can sting your eyes. So, it’s best to refrain from putting lotion on your nose or face.

By essentially transferring your mouth behind and above your head, the snorkel lets you easily breathe while floating face down in the water. Especially for people more accustomed to breathing through their nose, becoming comfortable using a snorkel will require some practice. Many of today’s snorkels employ a purge valve to help remove unwanted water, and are optimized for use on the left-hand side of your mask. The Oceanic Ultra Dry Snorkel is 100% dry and the easiest to use.
With few exceptions, snorkeling fins should be flexible and lightweight. There are two basic styles. Full-foot fins are usually lighter, but fins with adjustable straps allow you to also wear neoprene booties. In addition to protecting your feet during shore entries and exits, booties also offer thermal insulation, facilitate horizontal floating, and protect your feet from potential abrasion caused by the fins.

Learning to use the gear is essential for relaxed snorkeling. Although some people master the activity almost by instinct, for most of us snorkeling is a skill that is continually developed through experience. As with any training, the more you practice, the more natural it will feel, and the more relaxed you will be in the water.

After you’ve put on your equipment, try floating, face down and horizontal. Don’t go anywhere, just relax, breathing easily while floating calmly in only a few feet of water. This is the essence of snorkeling.
When you know how your equipment works, it’s equally important to know how it doesn’t work. While floating in shallow water, beginning snorkelers are encouraged to deliberately flood and clear their masks and snorkels. By practicing these skills under controlled conditions, they won’t be so disconcerting should they be required in deeper water.
To flood your mask, gently pull it away from your face until water enters. One of the easier methods to clear a flooded mask is to simply lift your head out of the water, tilt the bottom of the mask away from your face, and let the water drain out. In practice, almost all masks will leak a little bit, and a small amount of water “swishing” around your nose is very common.

To flood your snorkel, dip your head down until you hear and feel water coming in the top. This is a good time to stop breathing! To clear a flooded snorkel, exhale a burst of air through your mouth, then breath in cautiously, at first, to make sure all the water is out of the snorkel.
Another skill to practice is judging distances, since in the water, objects look about 25 percent larger (or closer) than in air. Learning to accurately judge distance underwater will help you stay relaxed. An easy way to learn is simply to float in very shallow water, extend your arm down and touch the bottom. Become familiar with how an “arm’s length” appears underwater.

Keep in mind that fins work fine in the water, but walking with them can be precarious on land or boats. If you’re starting from a beach, try going into waist-deep water before putting them on. Then let the water (or your snorkeling buddy) offer support. When working from a boat, fins are usually put on just before entering the water, and removed at the boat ladder before getting out.

Fins can facilitate fast swimming, but their greatest asset is increased efficiency. A slow, gentle flutter-kick works best. Keep your knees and ankles “loose” to minimize the chance of cramps. When using fins, you rarely need to use your arms for propulsion. Let them rest easily at your side, or float one arm in front of your head to act as a bumper if needed.

Once you are comfortable using your equipment, practice controlling your movements in the water. Your relaxation will increase as you develop confidence in your ability to maneuver, and to minimize any accidental encounters with objects more durable than yourself. It’s both environmentally sensitive and safer to remain at least an arm’s reach away from elements of the reef.

Perhaps the most important snorkeling skill is learning to recognize, and remain attentive to, your own personal limitations, sometimes referred to as your “comfort zone.” There’s no need to push your limits. The combination of factors that define your comfort in the water are variable. For example, they will change, depending on the particular conditions of each snorkeling site—water temperature, surge, current or water clarity. They will also change with experience, age or health. Individually, each of us knows best what our limitations are on any given day and we must be responsive to those messages.

So, why is it important to be relaxed while snorkeling? With relaxation comes greater pleasure with the activity and appreciation of the environment.

Also, a relaxed snorkeler will appear much less threatening to aquatic wildlife. Many of the most fascinating creatures survive by being sensitive to vibrations in the water, and will quickly retreat from rapid movements. Rather than dash around a large area, many snorkelers discover that once they locate an interesting area, a shallow coral head for example, they actually see much more by floating quietly in one place. When small fish and invertebrates realize you’re not a link in their food chain, they will soon resume their normal routine.
And you will become a welcome visitor in the sea.

Joel Simon, president of Sea for Yourself Snorkeling Safaris, has been organizing and leading educational snorkeling tours throughout the warm water world for 20 years.