My first snorkeling trip was with my dad to Hornby Island, in the cold waters off the west coast of Canada, when I was 8 or 9 years old.
Giant Pacific Octopus, Dogfish, Lingcod, Skates, Kelp Crabs, huge Moon Snails, Sun Stars, Bat Stars, Leather Stars, Bay Pipefish, inquisitive seals, and Bull Kelp gardens; it was always a thrill to see the marine life I’d studied on our laminated ID cards up close and personal in their natural environment.
He had been snorkeling since the 1970s and 80s, and I got good beginner snorkeling tips from him.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some of the most spectacular snorkeling destinations and marine environments (particularly coral reefs) around the world–from the Red Sea to the Coral Triangle–and I’ve learned quite a lot in that time.
Working remotely, I’ve stayed in some remote places for long stretches of time, snorkeling hours every day.
I usually think it’s distasteful to pay yourself compliments (other people should do that), but snorkeling is definitely one of the things that, I can say with confidence, I’m quite good at.
Not that it’s an Olympic sport or anything, but there are definitely some things to do and things not to do.
With that said, I’m going to share some of my top snorkelling tips.
These include things you can do, purchase and practice to make you a more efficient, effective, and safer snorkeler.
The most important tip: invest in the right equipment
Right off the bat, if you are serious about snorkeling and exploring the underwater world, you should take your snorkeling gear seriously.
To that effect, I think rule number one for serious snorkelers should be to avoid full-face snorkel masks.
If the manufacturer hasn’t gone to the trouble of ensuring a full-face mask has a one-way breathing system, they are potentially quite dangerous because carbon dioxide can build up and you can asphyxiate.
This is why it’s important to have your own equipment if you take snorkeling-focused vacations. You don’t want to be stuck with a day trip tour operator’s stuff, because it’s usually not the greatest.
Unlike scuba diving, there are really only three pieces of foundational equipment when you snorkel: your snorkel mask, the snorkel itself and your fins.
Snorkeling isn’t skiing. You don’t need to drop thousands of dollars to get high-quality recreational gear.
Granted, there is a significant price difference between the plastic garbage you will find in the sports section of your local big box store and what you will get from a reputable manufacturer like Cressi or Scubapro, but you can completely bypass the massive amount of crap equipment out there without spending a ton of money.
I recently gifted a hand-me-down Phantom Aquatics mask to my girlfriend. I have been using it since 2014. It’s a great mask, and it will no doubt last many more years.
There really aren’t that many requirements when it comes to a good snorkeling mask, but you want to abide by them because a good mask will make or break a snorkeling trip more than any other piece of equipment.
- Tempered glass lenses–for durability and visibility
- Silicone skirts around the frame–for comfort and durability
- Something that fits your face properly
I’ve put together a review of what I believe is the best snorkel and diving mask for serious snorkelers–my favourite being the SeaDive Eagleye RayBlocker HD Mask– that you can check out here if you like.
It’s got everything you want in a high-quality snorkel mask–silicone, tempered glass, panoramic view.
The lens also has a UV and red light filter (you see more of the colour spectrum with a red light filter because the deeper you go, the more red light is filtered by the water–that’s why things start to look a lot more blue and green).
With respect to the first criterion, avoid plastic lenses at all costs. They will crack, scratch and become unusable in short order. There is no substitute for tempered glass. You can drop it, heat it, bump it (all within reason, of course), and it will retain its clarity and integrity.
With respect to the second criterion, you want a silicone skirt around the frame–particularly above your eyes, along the bridge of your nose and around your nose and upper lip–because it’s far more comfortable than plastic.
This is especially important if you are diving down because the pressure will start pressing the frame into your face.
Lastly, proper face fit is important because different masks fit differently. Some are more appropriate for women’s faces (i.e., smaller faces), while others are better for larger faces.
When you look at the reviews for masks, the fit is usually one of the things people gripe about most, even with good masks.
Some masks come with snorkels, but most up-market masks from popular diving brands–Cressi, Scubapro, Seac, etc.–are a la carte.
Most snorkels are interchangeable, meaning it doesn’t matter if it and your mask are different brands. There might be some special proprietary clipping mechanism that attaches your snorkel to the mask band, but I don’t even use those clips.
For snorkels, you want:
- A silicone mouthpiece–for comfort
- Dry snorkel design (my preference)
You want a silicone mouthpiece because you could potentially have your snorkel in your mouth for hours at a time, and it does start to wear your jaw out and hurt your teeth. There is no escaping this, but silicone is certainly easier on both.
A dry snorkel design refers to two key features at the top of your snorkel: a dry valve and a splash guard. Here’s what a dry snorkel looks like:
A classic snorkel is just a straight, non-flexible snorkel tube that is open at the top (which I don’t like because water enters easily when you’re at the surface.
A sem-dry snorkel has a splash guard but no dry valve.
A full dry snorkel has both a splash guard (to keep water away from the tube) and a dry valve.
The dry valve is essentially a small floating plastic ball that floats to the top of the splashguard when submerged and plugs the pathway to the tube, sealing water out.
It’s hard for me to choose between fins and mask when it comes to the most important component of the snorkeling gear ensemble, but I think I’d go with fins if push came to shove.
That’s because I consider your fins safety equipment, help you conserve energy, enable photo opportunities and allow you to explore.
If you’re serious about snorkeling, I would advise avoiding the short stubby fins that are often advertised as “snorkeling” fins.
If you are puttering around a shallow lagoon with no current and aren’t incorporating any freediving into your snorkeling, then they are ok. They definitely require less effort and are nice for kids snorkeling.
If you’re planning on diving down, taking photos, and putting yourself in places where you may have to battle swell and currents, then full-size, full-foot fins that are designed for scuba diving are ideal.
Basically, for snorkeling in warm water, you want:
- A full-foot fin–full foot is more comfortable and fits better than an open heel when you’re snorkeling.
- A multi-channel fin–This creates better propulsion
- A good mix of flexibility and rigidity for maximized thrust
I try to make sure that whatever fins I buy, they can be easily packed without taking up too much room in a checked bag.
I’ve put together a guide to some of the best snorkel fins if you’re interested in having a look. I’ve taken into consideration things like weight, travel convenience, sizing, comfort, blade design and materials.
Make sure you have zippered pockets
I won’t spend too long on this, but zippered pockets are a must for serious snorkelers.
Whether you snorkel in shorts or wetsuit bottoms, zippered pockets are nice because they let you take things with you and you don’t have to worry about losing them.
I’ve been snorkeling with things in open pockets–a camera, keys, coins–only to look down to see them slowly sinking into deep water.
Know marine life dangers and respect the underwater world
The best way to mitigate disaster when snorkeling is to enter the water with as much humility and knowledge as possible.
I once saw a lady in Maui, after being told not to touch the surgeonfish, unless she wanted to find out why they were called that.
Unfortunately for her, she effed around and found out.
The moral of the story is twofold. First, don’t touch. You are a big, imposing, unknown quantity when you enter the ocean, and almost everything is smaller than you will assume you mean it harm if you get too close.
Second, understand what organisms pose a threat to you when you enter an environment. There are snails that can seriously injure and even kill a human. Know what these marine animals are, where they are likely to be found and the kinds of behaviour to expect from them.
Touching can harm sea life and you, so keep your hands to yourself and enjoy your time snorkeling. You don’t want to spend your holiday in the waiting room of a clinic–especially in a place like Indonesia or East Africa.
Read up on currents and how to handle them
Sometimes there will be currents in the places you snorkel. Sometimes the currents pick up out of nowhere, other times, you can predict where you are likely to encounter strong ones.
It’s important to know both where you are likely to encounter currents and what to do if you find yourself caught in one (especially a rip current) unexpectedly.
Where you commonly encounter currents
The above image is Raja Ampat, Indonesia, a spectacularly beautiful place and home to the most diverse coral reef ecosystems in the world.
It is also home to some mind-blowingly powerful currents. In the above photo, I have indicated a place where you commonly find currents while snorkeling (in the channels in between landmasses).
The massive amounts of water forced through these openings create currents that can easily drag even the most powerful swimmers far off course.
I was once snorkeling on Pulau We in Sumatra, Indonesia, around a small islet that was about 500m from where I was staying (marked H on the map below).
I had swum the channel fairly easily, and I rounded the tip of the islet without any difficulty, but when it was time to come back, the current had really picked up and I simply couldn’t battle it.
It was pushing me out into open water and I ended up having to let it take me down the coast for about a kilometre before I was finally able to make it to shore.
I had to bushwack my way back to a road and then hoof it a good 3 km barefoot back to town.
Currents are also common where points of land meet the open ocean, so always be cautious when approaching the end of a bay. Reasonably calm water can turn into strong currents quickly.
Handling rip currents
If you’re going to spend a lot of time in the ocean, then you will eventually encounter a rip current.
Ideally, you don’t want to go in the water when there are strong currents. In many places, there will be signs on the beach telling you that currents are strong and to either avoid swimming or proceed at your own risk.
A rip current can quickly turn a leisurely snorkeling experience into a nightmare. If you don’t know how to respond to a rip current, you can even die.
This is how a rip current works.
waves from deeper water travel into shallow water
As they break on the shoreline, they generate current
The rip current forms as this fast-moving water travels back offshore
They can carry even a strong swimmer with the best fins at up to 8-feet-per-second
To escape a rip current, you want to stay calm, stay relaxed and swim parallel to the shore, not towards it (and into the current). It’s very often futile, will exhaust and panic you, and it might result in your death.
Eventually, the current should subside, and you can then make your way back to shore–although you will probably need to do some backtracking once on land.
Defog your mask with a natural baby shampoo
Nothing puts a damper on a snorkeling excursion like a constantly fogging mask.
The best defogger I have come across in all my years of snorkeling is natural plant-based baby shampoo.
It is cheap, effective, is not going to harm the environment in small quantities and won’t hurt your eyes.
Simply put a drop or two on the inside of your mask before heading out, smear it around until it covers the entirety of the tempered glass, and rinse with water once you get to your snorkeling spot.
You do this to create a thin film between the glass and the air inside your mask, minimizing condensation and preventing the dreaded mask fog. Even once you’ve washed the shampoo out, a microscopically thin layer will remain that won’t impede visibility but will stop condensation.
A small travel-sized (100 ml) baby shampoo would probably last me a hundred snorkel sessions or more.
Burn the silicone film off your mask
Using baby shampoo as a defogger is great, but the best thing you can do to a new mask is what is known as the “lighter trick.”
What you’re doing is burning off the thin layer of silicone on the underside of the glass that is leftover from the manufacturing process.
The silicone fogs up worse than the glass, and it’s easy to get rid of.
Here’s a video demonstrating the lighter trick.
Hold the lighter far enough away that the flame just licks the glass.
And don’t worry about touching the skirt with the flame; silicone has a high melting temperature (that’s why they make oven mitts and kitchen utensils out of it).
Know what the tide is doing
It’s important to know what the tide is doing before heading out snorkeling. The tide matters for a couple of reasons.
Knowing what the tide is doing matters from a visibility perspective because, ideally, you want to be in the water just after high slack tide.
This is when the tide has reached its highest point and there is very little tidal current stirring up sand and sediment in the water.
This is when visibility is at its best and you get the nicest photo opportunities if you’re an underwater photographer.
Swimming pool clarity
Safety and protecting the coral
Knowing what the tide is doing is also an important safety consideration and, depending on your snorkeling destination (i.e., the tropics), protecting the coral.
If you hit the water at a snorkeling site when the tide is on its way out, what started as a couple of metres of water between you and the coral at your entry point might turn into a few inches over the course of an hour.
I’ve arrived at a place, been so excited to stick my head in the water that I didn’t consider the tide, headed out, oblivious to the tide, and found myself stranded behind a wall of coral.
If it’s a big reef (like the one I’m referring to in my story), you might need to take a 30-minute detour before you find a deep enough channel to pass through. Less snorkeling adventure and more snorkeling hassle.
If you try to swim over a reef that is too shallow, you risk shredding yourself on sharp coral (and coral cuts take forever to heal), and you risk damaging coral (the world’s reefs are already suffering enough) and other sea animals.
Always rinse your snorkeling equipment
This and the tip directly above pertain to everyone, but especially first timers and newbie snorkelers.
Taking a couple of minutes to rinse your fins, mask and snorkel off when you get home (or back to your hotel room or wherever it may be) will greatly extend the life of your gear.
Saltwater is corrosive, and if you’ve spent a bit of money on your stuff, do yourself a favour and protect it by rinsing it with fresh water and storing it out of direct sunlight.
I think if I had a time machine that I could use to do just one thing in one place, I would travel back to around the year 1700 and snorkel for a few hours on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
If I could see that in its pre-Industrial Revolution state, I think I could die happy.
The world’s oceans, and especially coral reefs, have suffered so much in the last 100 years.
Despite the damage, there are still quite a few incredible places to snorkel and explore. Even a seemingly dead or boring spot can contain critters that will astonish you.
I hope all of this has inspired you to get out there and snorkel or, if you’re already obsessed like me, to get out there and snorkel more.