10 Tips for a Better, Safer Snorkeling Experience

A woman snorkeling above a reef

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Scuba diving is fun and addictive, but snorkeling grants us a glimpse of the wonders beneath the sea with far less effort and expense. Despite the simplicity, many beginners are understandably nervous about breathing through a tube while face down in water. Don’t worry—with a little practice, you’ll learn to trust the gear and pay attention to the best parts of snorkeling. Life beneath the surface is colorful, mysterious, and exciting! Use these tips to build confidence and enjoy a better, safer snorkeling experience.

Quality Snorkel tube and mask

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Choose Quality Snorkeling Gear

A leaky mask or snorkel (the tube) can ruin an otherwise excellent day of snorkeling. Unfortunately, the gear quickly handed out on boats by tour operators is often subpar and worn out.

To enjoy a better snorkeling trip, consider renting gear from a local dive shop and bringing it with you; the small extra cost is money well spent. Dive shops usually have higher quality equipment, and an expert can help you properly fit a mask. Your mask should seal, meaning you can keep it on your face only by inhaling through your nose. Don’t set the band too tight, otherwise you risk a painful squeeze later from the water pressure. Choose a snorkel with a dry valve at the top to protect against splashes from waves and a purge valve below the mouthpiece that allows you to expel any water that leaks inside.

Snorkeling fins in the sea

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Take the Rental Fins

Thinking they’ll just float languidly or swim normally, a lot of first-time snorkelers are tempted to leave their fins behind. Don't! Using fins will help you save energy while snorkeling, and more importantly, could make a difference if you need to swim against a strong current.

Your fins should be snug but not too tight. Your feet will shrink a little when cool and wet, but fins that are too tight can cause blisters on wet skin. Dive boots or water shoes will protect the tops of your feet. When wearing fins, walk backwards when entering and exiting the water from the beach—it looks funny, but you’ll be less clumsy!

Snorkel in the Right Places

A couple knows where to snorkel

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Having the best gear available won’t make any difference if you aren’t snorkeling in the right places to see marine life. When snorkeling independently, pop into a dive shop and ask the divemaster for suggestions. On a tour, ask your guide before just jumping in the water and hoping for the best. You’re more likely to see life where there is “structure” providing sanctuary rather than just a sandy bottom. If there isn’t a reef at the site, look near submerged rocks, walls, and outcroppings.

Be careful when swimming around a rocky prominence as they often hold back strong currents. Also use caution in places with boat or jet ski traffic; the crew may not be able to see you floating in the water.

Clearing a snorkel mask

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Know How to Clear Your Mask

A fogged-up mask is the most common issue to deal with while snorkeling. Anti-fog mask sprays are available and baby shampoo can help, but many divers opt for a decidedly low-tech approach. Right before jumping in the water, spit on the lens in your mask, wipe the saliva around, then give the mask a very quick dip for a light rinse. Don’t laugh—it works and is safer for the reef than chemicals!

Avoid putting your mask on too soon before getting in the water; the temperature difference will cause it to fog. If a little water leaks inside your mask while snorkeling, you don’t necessarily have to surface. Practice clearing leaks by tilting your head back slightly, blowing air steadily through your nose, and carefully breaking the bottom seal of your mask to expel the water.

Divers wear their masks down around their necks while treading water on the surface. As many snorkelers find out the hard way, a strong wave can knock a mask off your forehead and send it plummeting to the bottom.

Know How to Use Your Snorkel Properly

Small leaks, diving down, and splashes on the surface, can cause some water to accumulate in your snorkel. If the idea makes you uneasy, position your tongue to where you’ll feel any water trying to enter the mouthpiece. When you begin to hear moisture rattling in the tube, turn your head slightly and produce a quick, sharp blast of air through your mouth. Doing so once or twice will usually clear your snorkel. Remember not to turn your head so much while looking around that you dip the end of the snorkel into a wave.

A venomous stone scorpionfish hidden in surroundings

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Don’t Touch Anything

Rule number one while in the sea: Unless you’re a marine biologist, don’t touch anything! Observe but don’t interact—make no exceptions. Even that seemingly harmless shell tempting you from the bottom could be providing habitat for something that needs it more than you do. You don't have to pick up that starfish to admire it. Many marine animals are experts at camouflage, and more than a few have teeth, venomous spines, or stinging cells.

Coral Reefs are certainly where to find the action while snorkeling, but sadly, many around the world are in rough shape. Reefs are fragile, and one errant kick from your fins can destroy decades of growth. Never stand on the reef. If you accidentally make contact with the coral, take extra care of cuts and scraps.

Snorkeling with sea turtles

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Be Stealthy

Sound travels exceptionally well under water, and skittish marine life can detect your movements from a distance. Splashing around on the surface or stirring up sand on the bottom will spook the creatures you want to see.

Get in a habit of moving slowly and quietly. If you do encounter something exciting, just float and watch. Don’t kick, splash, or use your hands to turn your body. Instead of pursuing interesting creatures you spot, remain still—they’ll often come back around unless they feel like they’re being chased by something bigger (you)!

Use Your Legs, Not Your Arms

Snorkeling is enjoyable, but it is also exercise. You’ll get to enjoy yourself longer by keeping your heartbeat and breathing under control. Using your arms while snorkeling spooks creatures and consumes more energy. Learn to do as divers do: Propel yourself forward using only your legs. Many divers even choose to interlock their fingers or clasp hands in front—doing so cuts drag and reminds them to use only their fins to turn.

A turtle and colorful fish on a coral reef

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Protect Yourself From Sunburn

Too many people snorkeling worry about perceived threats beneath them when they should be more concerned with what is overhead. Getting severely sunburned while snorkeling is common, mostly because people enjoying themselves in cool water don’t notice the damage before it’s too late.

Many of the chemicals in conventional sunscreens are known to be harmful to coral reefs. Although often more difficult to rub in, choose mineral-based sunscreens (non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) when snorkeling near reefs. Better yet, consider snorkeling in a sun-protective top or rash guard.

Relax and Enjoy

For obvious reasons, our brains don’t like the idea of breathing while we are face down in water! Feeling a little panicked at first is perfectly natural until you learn to trust your equipment. Like with all pursuits, confidence grows with experience while snorkeling. Find a rhythm for your breathing, move slowly and calmly as if you belong in that world, and remain a passive observer. Use these snorkeling tips to push through the nervousness, and you’ll soon be rewarded with a peek into a magical world filled with life, beauty, and drama.