A Beginner’s Guide to Snorkeling Fun

Headed south for spring break fun? Snorkeling can be part of the adventure!

Snorkeling fun is part of spring break for many people. Photo by Brent T. Wheat

There is a world beneath the crystal waters that few ever see.  Fish so colorful and vibrant they exceed any imagination.  Unusual and beautiful creatures are hidden in the watery shadows that amaze and delight the explorer.  It doesn’t take expensive gear or extensive training to find them.  All you need to do is follow this beginner’s guide to snorkeling fun.

Snorkeling is fun and easy.

Even if you can’t swim very well, you can snorkel.  All you have to do to snorkel is put on your gear, lay face down in the water, and enjoy the view.  It’s that easy!

Snorkeling is not SCUBA diving.

In SCUBA a swimmer receives their oxygen from a tank of compressed air strapped to their back.  SCUBA divers generally explore much deeper water than snorkelers.  SCUBA also requires special training, certification, and expensive gear.

Snorkeling is done with much less gear and needs almost no training.  Like SCUBA a snorkeler will still see many interesting and exciting things, but it is done mainly from the surface so fresh air is always available through their snorkel tube.  However, a snorkeler can hold their breath and dive down to give something a closer look, then re-surface and blow the water out of their snorkel tube.  (It is easier than it sounds.)

To snorkel you need a face mask, a snorkel, and swim fins.

The face mask protects your eyes so you can see clearly and covers your nose so water doesn’t get in it.  The best masks, like upper end models made by US Divers, have a purge-valve in the nose area, so that any water that leaks in can easily be blown out.

The snorkel itself is a special tube that fits in your mouth and sticks up over your head so you can breathe freely when you’re swimming. The best snorkels have large diameter tubes and a drain-purge valve that makes clearing it after a dive easier.

With swim fins on your feet, you can swim easily and quickly through the water.  Swim fins also give the thrust needed to dive.  Some newer designed fins actually have flex points that make swimming much easier than swim fins of even a few years ago.

Some swimmers may want a buoyancy compensator or B.C. as most snorkelers call them.  A common B.C. is like a life vest.  It can manually have a little air blown into it to help the swimmer float higher and feel safer.  They also have an emergency CO2 tank that will instantly inflate the B.C. if the swimmer is in trouble and pulls the cord.

A buoyancy compensator is nice to have for children and new swimmers.

Most snorkeling is done in tropical regions like in the Florida Keys, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and Hawaii.

Snorkeling excursions are often the highlight of any tropical cruise.

In the tropics the water is warm enough to support beautiful coral, neon-colored fish, creeping starfish, gliding octopuses, spiny sea urchins, and more.

Fish and other creatures stay around structure like these coral heads.

You don’t have to go way out in the ocean to snorkel.  Most of the snorkeling that is done is close to shore.  However, snorkeling on a sandy beach is quite boring.  Few fish like to live over a barren sandy bottom.

The best snorkeling is near reefs, rocks, ledges, or other underwater structure.  It is there that coral, sponges, and seaweed grow and make an underwater oasis.  Small fish, sea urchins, crabs, and other small sea life live in and around rocks, coral, and other structure.  These small animals attract other larger predator fish.  (Don’t be frightened by the word “predator”.  That just means that the fish eats smaller fish, crabs, and other smaller animals.)

The “eye” on this foureye butterflyfish confuses larger predators.

While some of the fish come right up to you, others hide deep down in the nooks and crannies of the rocks and coral.  The best way to see them is to float or swim slowly while watching the bottom.  After a few moments the timid fish will come out and start doing their thing.  The bolder fish like Sergeant Majors may even school around you!  Be careful though, any sudden movements might send the fish back into hiding.

While barren sand bottoms usually don’t hold fish, sandy areas near rocks or reefs can be hiding areas for burrowing sea creatures.  Stingrays glide across the sand, then stop and

A Bluehead Wrasse loves to dart about.

wiggle their way into the sand until just their eyes are exposed.  Talk about camouflage!  Other fish, like the flounder, rest on top of the sand, but their skin pattern and color makes them invisible to predators.

Coral, sea fans, sea anemones all thrive in rocky areas and are some of the most beautiful, and interesting things to see while snorkeling.  But don’t touch any of them!  Touching coral, sea anemones, sea urchins, and some fish can hurt them, or you.  The oils on your skin can contaminate the tiny organisms that make up coral, or a careless movement or fin kick can break the arms off.

A Magnificent Feather Duster is a type of worm. It darts inside its tube at the first sign of danger!

Animals like sea urchins and sea anemones can stick or sting you and a few can be poisonous.  Don’t let that keep you from looking.  They will leave you alone if you leave them alone.

Seeing the beautiful fish is the best part of snorkeling.  The colors, shapes, and sizes will astound you.  Queen Triggerfish, Sergeant Majors, Rock Beauties, Blue Tangs, Angelfish, and others surround you with vibrant colors unlike anything else in nature.

Try snorkeling once and you’ll be hooked.  It’s fun, easy, and something you’ll want to do again and again the rest of your life.  You may even want to graduate to SCUBA diving and see things you could never imagine, as seen in this video.

Here are some tips to make snorkeling fun and easy:

  1. Make sure the mask fits your face. Hold the mask up to your face and breathe in through your nose. (Make sure no hair is in the way.) The mask should seal and stay on your face for as long as you breathe in. If the mask stays on, the seal is good. If it doesn’t, you need a different mask.
  2. Choose fins like you choose shoes. If they hurt or curl your toes they are too small and you may develop cramps while snorkeling. If they slip off your heels, they’re too big and you could loose them.
  3. Defog your mask. If you don’t defog your mask, it will fog up inside.  Saliva works well. Just before you go into the water spit on the inside of the lens and smear it around with your finger.  If that’s too gross, there are anti-fog liquids that you can buy.
  4. Choose a snorkel with a purge valve. Up to a cup of water gets trapped in a standard snorkel when you dive. When you resurface you have to blow out that water before you can breath, much like a dolphin.  While using a snorkel with a purge valve most of the water drains out when you resurface leaving you just a small amount of water to clear.
  5. Think Safety First.  Always use the buddy system when you snorkel.  Keep track of your buddy and have him or her keep track of you.
  6. Don’t go out too far. Wind and current can pull you far from the dive boat, or shore. Check on your position every couple of minutes.
  7. Don’t go out when storm warnings are up, or the sea is rough. The constant battling against the waves can wear you out to the point where you can’t get back in, or keep yourself away from dangerous rocks. The churning of the waves also stirs up the bottom and makes it hard to see anything.
  8. Always wear good sunscreen. Floating in the water exposes all of your back, legs, arms, and head to the sun. You can get burned in less than fifteen minutes.  Put good sunscreen on and keep reapplying it.
  9. Try out your snorkel gear in the local pool before going out in the ocean. It’s easier to get familiar with your gear in the calm environment of the pool than it is in the ocean. Adjust the mask straps, the snorkel, and the swim fins.  Learn to dive and then clear the snorkel when you resurface. Learn how to clear water from your mask.
  10. Take an underwater camera. You will see things that you have never seen before and one of the new digital underwater cameras is hard to beat. Be sure to get close before taking a picture.

More info:

WildIndiana goes snorkeling with manatee at Rainbow Springs Florida


Alan Garbers
Alan James Garbers – Alan is passionate for the outdoors. He enjoys fishing, hunting, hiking, canoeing, photography, writing, woodworking, and more. He loves exploring the BWCAW in northern Minnesota, roaming the deserts of Arizona, or hiking the mountains of Colorado. He has lived in Minnesota, Hawaii, Mississippi, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, and Indiana. From hunting rattlesnakes to black bear and fishing for catfish to muskie, he loves it all. Since 1989 his writing credits have included Indiana Outdoor News, Indiana Game & Fish, Muzzle Blasts, Outdoor Guide Magazine, Fur-Fish-Game, Boundary Waters Journal, Boys’ Quest, Fun For Kidz, Mother Earth News, Cricket, Small Farm Today, American Careers, Arizona Hunter & Angler, Old West, and others. Fiction credits include StarTrek Strange New Worlds Anthologies IV, V, and 08. Alan recently complied an anthology of his popular column, Behind The Badge: True Stories of Indiana’s Conservation Officers. It is available in e-reader format and found at Amazon and other on-line book retailers. Alan is a member of AGLOW and HOW.


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