American diver Dave Barry said, “when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean.”
I’ve certainly felt that way since I first started snorkeling with my dad off the West Coast of Canada when I was 8 or 9 years old. Since then, I’ve been obsessed with experiencing the ocean.
If you’re reading this, odds are the word “snorkeling” means something very different to you than it does to your average lifejacket-wearing day tripper with a hard plastic mask and stubby fins puttering along the surface.
If you are hardcore about snorkeling, like me, it is an activity more akin to freediving with the purpose of observing marine life. It incorporates breath holding, equalizing, and perfecting your efficiency of movement.
I like the challenge of snorkel-freediving–the spotting of wildlife from the surface, the breath holding and the freedom you feel in the water without the diving gear.
You don’t need a dive computer or a complicated dive plan, and the deepest dive you’re likely to do (especially as a beginner freediver) is not likely to require any careful consideration of your gas levels.
I’ve been doing it for years, all over the world, constantly working on my ability to hold my breath, conserve my energy and oxygen and spot animals from the surface.
Below are some of my freediving tips for snorkelers and anyone who wants to become a better snorkeler. If you want to improve your snorkeling, you need to work on some freediving skills.
Have the right gear
If you want to be able to incorporate some deeper diving (i.e., freediving) into your snorkeling adventures, then you need to spend a bit of money on the right gear.
Pursuant to the above section on timing your kicks, once you’re actually on your way down, you want to have fins that are going to propel you through the water efficiently.
Stubby “snorkel” fins that you get from big box stores aren’t going to cut it.
Proper scuba fins
I wrote a guide to some of the best snorkel fins out there right now if you are interested in seeing what I use/recommend.
The right gear, for me, also means things like:
The right fins are also important from a safety perspective. If you are a confident swimmer and comfortable quite a ways from shore, then you need to be prepared for the current.
This spot off of Spanish Lagoon on Aruba had some of the best coral on the island, but it required a rigorous swim out through a channel that often had quite a current running through it, around a barrier wall, and then into some pretty serious swell.
You definitely want to trust that your fins are long and powerful enough to fight these sorts of conditions. Imagine trying to paddle a canoe with an oar that is too short.
- An appropriate tempered glass scuba diving mask (NEVER a full-face mask)
- A rashguard/wetsuit top
- Potentially even surf or wetsuit pants (depending on the water temperature)
- You might also consider a weight belt with some weights (if you are more advanced and want to maximize your oxygen conservation while descending).
Learn different equalization techniques (and never force equalization)
The last part is more important, so let’s address it first. Never force equalization. It’s one of the first things you learn while taking a scuba diving or free diving course.
You can do serious damage to your ears if you blow too hard.
If you’re descending and having a difficult time equalizing, swim up a metre or two and re-attempt. If for whatever reason, you still can’t, it’s safer to swim back to the surface.
Sometimes you just can’t equalize.
Learn the different equalization techniques
Most people who aren’t into free diving don’t realize there is more than one “style” of equalization you can (and should) use while descending.
The Valsava Method (or the hold your nose and exhale out of it method) is the one that is taught to most divers, and it’s the one most people are familiar with.
Past 10m (33 ft), however, this method is much less effective.
This is because the pressure on your lungs at that depth has now made them half of their surface volume. Go down another 10m to 20m (66ft), and they are now a third of their surface volume.
Bear in mind that free diving for snorkeling isn’t really meant to continuously increase your maximum depth or break world records. The idea is to improve your ability to remain fully relaxed while freediving/snorkeling and maximize what you can do with a single breath.
The Valsava Method requires you to have air in your lungs, which you have less and less of the deeper you go, which means it becomes increasingly difficult to use this technique.
Frenzel Technique (what most freediving courses teach)
Most divers (freedivers and scuba divers) use a combination of the Valsava and the Frenzel Technique, wherein you use your throat as a piston to push air into the airspaces.
It uses less air, less energy and generates more pressure to equalize. I still use both at depths of more than 33ft, but it’s handy to know both, especially if you find it hard to equalize past around 10m (33ft).
An official freediving course, as well as other more advanced diving courses (e.g. a safety diver course) will introduce this equalization method as well.
Voluntary Tubular Opening
This is what most professional freedivers are using as it’s a hands-free technique that lets you simply “swallow” in a way that activates your palatine muscles, opening your eustachian tube (that connects your sinus to your inner ear).
This technique doesn’t require forcing air into your inner ear but rather, lets it in.
The catch with this technique is that a person’s ability to move it is partly genetic. You can learn how to use VTO, but a lot of people who are good at it already had the ability to move this muscle.
Don’t use hyperventilation breathing techniques to improve your breath-hold
Hyperventilation or CO2 expulsion breathing techniques (e.g., Wim Hof) have become quite popular in recent years–especially with the appearance of people like Wim Hof on the Joe Rogan Podcast.
I’ve tried this breathing technique just for meditative purposes, and while it is something I would recommend trying (lying down in bed or on the couch) because you do feel good after, it is not recommended to use as a means to increase your breath hold while freediving and snorkeling.
This is because what this method essentially does is get rid of much of the CO2 in your blood.
The reason this is dangerous and potentially fatal while freediving is that it is not a lack of oxygen that creates what is eventually an overwhelming urge to breathe when holding your breath, but the accumulation of CO2. Hyperventilation methods, by delaying that reaction, allow you to hold your breath for longer without convulsing from a lack of oxygen.
Check out the conversation about the Wim Hof method in this thread in the Reddit freediving sub. Essentially, when you use a hyperventilation technique, you run the risk of oxygen deprivation because your natural urge to breathe isn’t as strong due to alternations of normal blood CO2 levels.
The worst-case scenario is that you pass out underwater and drown.
CO2 and oxygen tables
The safer way to build your breath hold capacity is to utilize CO2 and oxygen tables and perform static breath holds.
Tables are essentially breathing exercises where you practice increasing your ability to hold your breath for longer, gradually building the ability.
The surfing website Inertia has a great breakdown of how to create and implement these tables.
With CO2 tables, what you are doing is gradually decreasing the rest time in between each breath hold to increase the amount of time you can be underwater before experiencing the urge to breathe.
This will allow you to dive deeper and stay underwater longer with one breath.
With O2 tables, the rest time remains the same in between breath holds, but you increase the amount of time you hold your breath during each interval. This is the kind of training that helps you hold your breath longer.
I think O2 tables are more useful for something relatively controlled like snorkeling. Of course, it’s nice to know that you’ve trained your body and central nervous system to remain calm in the presence of elevated CO2, but generally speaking I want to be able to store more oxygen (and use it better).
This kind of training allows you to remain completely relaxed during your dives, maintain calm while you are deep, and better combat and rationalize negative thoughts.
Wait until your fins are below the surface before kicking to descend
This is the main mistake that I see new snorkelers and freedivers make when attempting to descend those first few times.
They angle their body downwards in preparation for the descent, their feet and fins are in the air, but they start kicking before their fins are fully submerged. This is a waste of energy and oxygen because you aren’t propelling yourself anywhere.
There’s a reason it’s so much easier to do a static breath hold than a moving one: moving your limbs and contracting your muscles requires a flow of oxygenated blood, which means you burn the oxygen in your lungs much faster.
Don’t start kicking downwards until your fins are fully below the surface of the water, or you’re just flailing around.
Check for boat traffic before descending and during the ascent
The days when you have a snorkeling spot all to yourself are heaven on earth. Depending on where you’re snorkeling, however, you could be sharing the water with people doing things that are potentially hazardous to you.
That is why this is such an important rule for freediving, snorkeling and diving.
The below shot is of Napoleon Reef in Dahab, Egypt. It’s a fantastic stretch of hard and soft coral just outside the main town of Dahab.
It’s about a semi-arduous 40-minute bike ride through the desert to get there and, because of that, there are few snorkelers, so you get places like this to yourself.
It’s also one of the most famed kite surfing destinations in the Red Sea, so after 11 am, this is what it looks like above water.
A kiteboard to the head very well could be fatal, depending on the impact.
In other places, you are constantly watching out for boats.
Longtail boats are going to be a hazard pretty much anywhere you snorkel in Thailand, for example.
I’ve been snorkeling in spots where I know for a fact a snorkeler has lost their life to a boat accident.
Part of the risk you run when you snorkel and free dive, especially if you do it without some kind of floating visibility device, is someone in a boat not seeing you.
It’s extremely important to make sure the coast is clear before ascending (I like to come up slow and do a 360-degree spin while I do), but you can hedge your bets by checking your surroundings before diving down.
Take note of where any boats are before descending. Are they stationary? Are they moving, and, if so, in which direction and how fast?
Don’t wear jewellery (freediving or scuba diving)
In addition to potentially losing that watch, ring or necklace, depending on the dive site and where you are in the world, could also be attracting sharks.
As described by the International Shark Attack File in the linked article, a lot of shark attacks happen because the animal has confused a piece of gold or silver for a fish scale.
It’s why fishing lures are often metallic–to mimic the glimmer of a prey fish’s scales in the water.
Do yourself a favour and try to look as little like shark food as you can while snorkeling.
Descend slowly into the underwater world
Descending slowly, as touched on above, is part of efficient energy use, but it’s also how you avoid spooking the animals you are, presumably, there to see.
Especially important if you’re trying to catch a glimpse of some garden eels:
I covered this in my article on underwater photography tips, if you’re interested in learning more about how to take great shots of marine life.
The reason this is important is that a lot of predators attack from above. They have camouflage and patterning that makes them more difficult to spot against the backdrop of surface light.
A big mammal (you) rapidly approaching the reef is going to send a lot of reef dwellers into panic mode.
If your objective is to take photos while you snorkel (which is almost always mine), you need to understand how your body language (including how you approach) makes or breaks your photo opportunities.
Rocks and sunken objects make for good photo and video opportunities
Again, if your m.o. Is underwater photography while you’re out snorkeling, I’ve found that some of the better shots and videos are while you are anchored to rock or other sunken objects (log, jetty post etc.).
Not only are you not moving as much and, therefore, not using as much oxygen (and destabilizing your shot). But fish tend to acclimate to you quicker when you’re stationary, which means they are more likely to act normally around you, giving you better photo opportunities.
So long as I’m not touching live coral or reef, I often will just dive down, grab ahold of a rock ledge or hole (make sure there is no urchin or other pointy critter inside or underneath), and curious fish will come to me.
Here’s a very curious clown triggerfish coming to check me out while I do just that.
Know what’s above your head at all times
When I’m snorkeling and freediving, I always like to check out reef holes, walls, and ledges. This is where a lot of really interesting cryptic species like to hang out, including things like moray eels and lionfish.
The trick is to always remember when there is something above your head.
Your nerves are, naturally, a bit more on edge when you’re underwater, especially at depth, and for good reason. Your body isn’t designed to be there.
A bump (especially a sharp one on coral or a jagged piece of volcanic rock) that comes out of the blue can send adrenaline surging through your body. Has a tiger shark just snuck up on me or was that my snorkel buddy? Am I trapped or stuck on something?
In your panic, you might accidentally inhale deeply and take in a bunch of water ten or so metres below the surface. Not a good situation to be in.
Keep your snorkel in your mouth when you’re on the surface and the swell picks up
This is something that, once you’ve been told, seems like common sense.
If I’m at the surface–looking at a photo, looking around for my dive buddy, keeping tabs on any boats in the vicinity–and the waves are picking up around me, I tend to keep my snorkel in my mouth.
That way, if a wave hits me in the face when I’m not expecting it, I don’t inhale a bunch of water.
You can easily inhale water while at the surface, start panicking, inhale more water and really find yourself in a bad situation.
If your snorkel is working properly, you shouldn’t need to remove it from your mouth to inhale and exhale properly.
Serious snorkeling requires knowing and using some common freediving tips
If you’re content to just paddle along the surface in a few metres of water, then you don’t really need to care about working on your CO2 tables, static breath holds, or the proper descent method.
If, on the other hand, you are interested in pushing your limits a bit more while snorkeling–to challenge yourself, to gain better mastery over your motor control while in the water and to expand your underwater photography opportunities while underwater–then hopefully you can put the above tips, insight and safety recommendations to use.
In addition, there are always freediving course options and formal training out there. These go more in-depth with respect to safety and the ins and outs of the sport of freediving (especially if you want to go really deep).