If you've been on any beach vacation, you might've seen those funky snorkeling masks with tubes and wondered how they work. What exactly are they for, and how are they used? You might be doing some research into snorkeling while you plan your next vacation. Either way, we're here to give you all the basic information you need to start snorkeling today.
What is Snorkeling?
Let’s start with the basics. Snorkeling is an activity where you swim over the surface of the water while wearing a special diving mask. This diving mask has a breathing apparatus called a snorkel; that's how it got its name.
Snorkeling is as a way to explore sights under the water's surface without too much effort. Usually, someone that's snorkeling will also wear swim fins to make swimming easier.
Using fins is important because snorkeling is most popular in warm waters where there is often a lot of tropical water life to discover, so the swim fins allow someone that's snorkeling to spend less of their energy swimming through the waves and allows them to enjoy more time observing things under the water.
Snorkeling is a very popular recreational activity because it can be done by people of all ages. The relative lack of necessary equipment makes it much more accessible than scuba, which often requires a lot more complicated equipment, like air tanks and ballasts, and time spent training to acquire a scuba diving license. Because you generally stay in shallower waters and on the water's surface, it's also less dangerous than scuba diving.
Despite these differences, scuba diving actually grew out of snorkeling, or rather it's predecessor, known as freediving. Even though the snorkel only works at the surface of the water, you can combine it with breath holding techniques and dives under the water's surface in what's known as freediving, to get a better look at things below.
While this article will focus on the recreational activity, technically snorkeling is done any time someone uses a snorkel and is done by scuba divers when they are on the water's surface and in some water-based sports.
Snorkeling is a great activity for those that want to:
Even though it's very accessible, there are still a variety of basic skills that can be developed to make the activity more fun and enjoyable, no matter your swimming level or comfort with water sports.
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Just because you're not scuba diving doesn't mean you won't run into everyday dangers associated with the beach and water sports. Even though you're in the water, your skin is susceptible to sunburn, so you'll want to be sure to wear waterproof sunscreen of at least 30 SPF.
It's important to remember you'll be face-down with your back to the sun, so you'll have to be sure to cover areas of your skin you may not be used to like the backs of your knees, legs, and ears. It can also be helpful to wear a waterproof shirt to help keep the sun off of you.
You should always enjoy water activities in groups for safety. You want to make sure everyone in your group has the same plans and knows what to do in case of an emergency. If you're snorkeling with children, you'll want to go over water safety with them, and maybe practice going out into the water without the snorkeling equipment so they can get comfortable in the environment.
It's also helpful to have new snorkelers practice using the snorkel in shallow waters or even a pool so they can get comfortable with the different breathing rhythms it can cause and they can get used to the angle they need to swim at to prevent water from splashing into the snorkel, which can be very uncomfortable.
When you snorkel, it involves quite a bit of swimming, so everyone can benefit from improving their swimming skills. While a small child could be reasonably held and led along through calm waters, it's still best to have them comfortable in the water. A good way to do this might be by having some lessons at a local pool before going out.
No matter your swimming level, you'll want to work on your freestyle swimming technique, as the kick used for freestyle swimming is the same one that needs to be used to swim successfully and economically while wearing the swim fins most people wear while snorkeling.
Improving your swimming skills will also give you more freedom in the water. While most wear floatation vests while snorkeling to make observation easier and more relaxing, they aren't necessary, and can sometimes even make swimming harder to swim in a wave or subtle current. If you're comfortable enough to swim without a vest and have built the endurance to do so easily, you can even access snorkeling areas you wouldn't have been able to otherwise, and can easily transition into freediving if you want to.
An important thing to remember is that you'll likely be wearing swim fins while snorkeling, so you'll want to practice swimming in those as well. Even if you're a strong swimmer, if you aren't used to wearing swim fins your muscles can get sore or may even cramp because the extra lengths of the swim fins put more strain in different parts of your leg. It can be helpful to practice using them in a pool or shallower waters before going on a snorkel excursion.
In the previous section, we used the word excursion for a reason. Sometimes you have to travel out to special snorkel spots to be able to see the impressive sea life and reefs. That means snorkel trips can take all day. Think about how tired travel can make you, especially if you have to take a boat in the sun, and then consider snorkeling on top of that! That's why learning how to conserve your energy while swimming and using a snorkel is important.
Going for a swim while wearing swim fins and a floatation vest might not sound like hard work, but if you do it for long periods in the sun, you can get tired. The most important thing to remember when snorkeling is to let the equipment do the work for you.
Often, new snorkelers will fall back into freestyle swimming, but using your arms burns more energy than kicking alone, and usually isn't necessary for a leisurely snorkel.
Your technique plays a big role in the amount of energy you expend as well. New snorkelers often try to suck air through the snorkel, which can lead to stifled breathing. Remember to take long, slow, breaths through the snorkel and trust that it'll work for you.
Another factor in conserving energy is the thing that will be using the most of it, kicking. Because you'll be wearing swim fins, you don't need to kick very hard, and kicking too hard can cause splashing that disturbs the beautiful sea life you're trying to see.
We've mentioned some of the basic snorkel gear you'll need to get started, but there are a few things to consider when looking to either purchase or rent snorkeling gear.
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The mask is vital to being able to enjoy your snorkeling experience. You want to make sure your mask is appropriate for outdoor snorkeling. That means it'll be made of tough material that doesn't deteriorate in seawater and has a relatively low amount of volume in the mask portion. This design will prevent too much pressure from building around your eyes, and be easier to clear if water gets in.
You also want to check to see if the straps on the mask are comfortable and if it can fit your head size, as you'll be wearing it for long periods.
An important note: although full-faced snorkel masks have risen in popularity because of their full range of view, there have been a number of troubling reports about their risks, and we don't recommend them.
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A key factor when choosing fins is knowing what the temperature will be for the water you're swimming in. If you're going to be in warm water, you'll want the extra comfort and security provided by a full heel swim fin. If you're going to be in cooler waters, you'll want a half heel swim fin that can fit over a wetsuit.
If you're going to be snorkeling in calmer waters, or casually, a shorter swim fin is more comfortable for most people to use, requires less exertion, and is easier to pack if you buy your own.
Like the swim fins, choosing the right snorkel will depend on the kind of snorkeling you want to do. Most people will be best suited to using a medium length snorkel. While it might be tempting to get an extra long snorkel to prevent splashing, proper snorkels will be equipped with a filter to prevent water from splashing in easily, plus, long snorkels make it harder for you to draw breath.
Now that you know the basics of snorkeling and snorkeling gear you have all the information you need to get started snorkeling for yourself and enjoy all the wonderful experiences snorkeling can offer. See you in the water!