The perfect snorkel equipment can turn a seaside vacation into an unforgettable experience. Here’s a guide to choosing the right snorkel equipment, to enjoy all the pluses of snorkeling and avoid the inconveniences.
The previous blog discussed snorkel versus scuba diving, plus other ways to experience life under the ocean. This is the first of three blogs that focus specifically on snorkeling, a series that you might call Snorkeling 101. Here are the three parts:
1. Choosing the Perfect Snorkel Equipment (this blog)
2. Snorkel Basics – Safety, Breathing & Vision (the next part)
3. Snorkel Skills – Location, Entry & Enjoyment (the final installment)
If you’re planning a vacation to Hawaii, the Caribbean, south Florida, or just about any warm-water island, you should not miss the chance to put your face in the water and get a glimpse of the exotic world that lives just below the surface. You may get an up-close view of tropical fish, hard and soft coral, and exotic residents such as giant sea turtles. The right snorkel equipment can make for a great experience, even if you are not a big fan of the water.
So what’s the big deal, you might say? Just put on a swimsuit and a face mask and dive right in. Oh, yeah, I guess I need a snorkel too.
Yes, you can do that. But if you haven’t chosen the snorkel equipment that is best for you, you may be peering through a foggy mask that is filling up with water, your snorkel may be feeding you gulps of water as well as air, and you may be distracted by an uncomfortable mouthpiece.
If you’re an experienced snorkeler, you don’t need this blog. But for everyone else, read on!
Snorkel Equipment Basics
The list of snorkel equipment that you need is pretty short:
– A face mask, to be able to see clearly underwater
– A snorkel, so you can breathe while you’re looking at things
– Fins, so you can move around easily
– Buoyancy, so you can float effortlessly, with or without a flotation aid
– Perhaps, a camera, with which to share your adventure.
We’ll now discuss each of these in turn.
You know that if you are swimming and open your eyes underwater, everything is blurry. There’s a good reason for that: the eye focuses an image on the retina using the cornea, humours and lens of the eye. However, the cornea has almost the same refractive index as water, so being under water keeps the cornea from doing its part of the focusing job. Our eyes only work well when they have air in front of them.
So we need goggles or a face mask (dive mask), to keep a layer of air in front of our eyes. A face mask works better than goggles, because it keeps you from accidentally inhaling water through your nose. You will notice that snorkeling and diving masks have flexible construction around the nose; this facilitates clearing your ears, as will be discussed in the following blog.
Select a Mask That Fits Well. The face mask needs to fit your face well enough to keep out the water. That means that you want to choose a face mask that fits the width of your face. Most face masks come in a medium size that fits most people, so you may be able to borrow one. However, an adult with a narrow face or a child will need to use a smaller face mask.
An easy way to test the fit is to hold the face mask up to your face, without putting on the strap. Then close your mouth and try to breathe in through your nose. If the mask fits well, the mask will tighten up against your face, and if you let go of it, it will remain stuck to your face until you exhale. If the mask makes an air-tight fit, then adjust the strap to hold it comfortably around your head.
[You may see some snorkelers using a “full face mask” that covers the entire face. Some snorkelers prefer these because they provide a wider view and feel less claustrophobic. However, in order to keep the water out, a good fit is very critical. You’d be advised to try it on in person, and to rent before buying. This type of mask has certain disadvantages: no way to pinch your nose to clear your ears if you dive below the surface to get a closer look at something; and water leakage around the hair or beard line.]
Anti-Fog. When you choose your mask, be sure to pick up some de-fogging solution (Sea Drops or the equivalent) to help prevent your mask from fogging as you snorkel. You’ll find them for sale in any snorkel or dive shop. Some rental shops will even refill your de-fog solution for free, as a way of getting you to visit their shop again. More about anti-fog in the next installment of this blog.
Vision Correction. What if you use vision correction to see clearly? Well, you can’t wear glasses under a face mask. However, contact lenses will work well, as long as you take extra precautions to keep from losing them.
If you don’t want to wear contact lenses for your water sports, you can instead build your vision correction into the mask. On Maui, for example, Boss Frog’s and other dive shops rent and sell face masks with lenses built into the faceplate. Masks are available in magnifications between minus 1.5 and minus 7 diopters. Depending on your optical prescription, you may be able to rent a mask on the spot that will give you good vision underwater.
If you already have a face mask that you particularly like, you could add vision correction to it by purchasing one of the stick-on lenses such as those made by Optx. They sell a variety of lenses that can be stuck on the inside of your mask – the diver’s version of “reader” glasses from Costco. There are lenses of various strengths and shapes, and even “bifocal” lenses.
Finally, if you have an exotic eyeglass prescription or just want excellent correction, you can visit a scuba diving shop, find a mask model that fits your face well, and pay them to order you that mask with your own prescription built into it.
Next, you need a snorkel, a J-shaped tube with a mouthpiece. The snorkel attaches to the strap of the mask, on either side of your face, with a clip or a “snorkel keeper” strap. Make sure your snorkel has a keeper clip if it’s not already attached to a mask.
The snorkel adjusts by sliding along the mask strap, and by sliding up and down on the mask strap. Generally, you want the snorkel to attach toward the front of the mask strap on one side of your face. (I am right-handed, and I position the snorkel on the left side of my mask.) Slide it down just enough that you can hold the mouthpiece in your mouth comfortably. When you are standing upright, the snorkel tube should not be vertical – the top of the snorkel should lean toward the back of your head, so that when you put your face into the water, the snorkel will stick up out of the water.
The mouthpiece of the snorkel works like this: the wide outer part goes inside your lips but outside your teeth. The two nubs inside are for your teeth to bite down on – just firmly enough to hold the mouthpiece in place.
Get a Comfortable Fit. Children, and adults with smaller mouths, will be more comfortable if they use a snorkel with a smaller mouthpiece. A snorkel or dive shop can sell you one that fits. If you’re an adult, a child’s snorkel may not be long enough for you; in that case, have the shop install a smaller mouthpiece on a full-length adult snorkel.
Rinse That Snorkel! If you are borrowing or renting a snorkel, then someone else used that snorkel before you. You will want to rinse it with soap and warm water before you first use it. You should certainly do this with any snorkel or face mask that you rent from a shop, since their equipment gets very heavy use by people whose bacteria you have not been introduced to.
If you have any concern about other people’s germs, then simply buy your very own brand new snorkel from any snorkel or scuba shop. Unlike a face mask, a snorkel is inexpensive, will pack easily in your luggage for your next snorkeling adventure, and can be attached to any face mask. Just be sure when you buy the snorkel that it has a clip or keeper strap on the side to attach it to the strap of the face mask.
Snorkel Technology. A snorkel is basically a mouthpiece attached to a curved hollow tube. But even this simple device is not immune to the onward march of technology. As you look for a snorkel to borrow, rent or buy you may encounter one or more of the following:
– Hooded Top. This is a curved shield that covers the top end of the snorkel. It’s supposed to deflect water spray from waves that might enter the snorkel. (If you’re the type of person who worries about a bird overhead exercising a precision bombing maneuver, the hooded snorkel will also protect you from that rare event.)
– Valved Top. This variation adds a ball valve to the hooded top. The idea is that if you decide to swim under water to get closer to some fascinating sight, the ball will float up and keep most of the water from entering your snorkel while you are beneath the surface.
– Valved Mouthpiece. Some snorkels have a rubber one-way valve (sump or purge valve) installed at their lowest point, the bottom of the “J.” This valve is supposed to make it easier to blow small amounts of water out of the snorkel tube. I am personally not a fan of this design because this type of valve sometimes fails. If that happens, water will continually leak into your snorkel, making it virtually useless until you repair or replace it.
– Fancy Clips. There are dozens of ways to attach the snorkel to your mask strap, to hold the snorkel in place. Some clips are easier or more difficult to use, so try out the clip and if you like it, then it’s fine for you.
You may call them dive fins, swim fins, or snorkel fins, but under any name they’re a great way to enhance your maneuverability and save your energy when in the water.
There are many different kinds of dive fins you can borrow, rent or buy. Some have adjustable straps that go around your heel. The short or “compact” fins are a great compromise, being comfortable for swimming and also comfortable when you wade into the water. They are also small enough to fit into your luggage easily, if you decide to bring them with you. Just make sure that they fit your feet well and won’t chafe when you wiggle your feet.
After some snorkeling, if the dive fins rub your feet too much, you have a couple of choices:
– Pull on some shortie socks (the kind you might wear with sneakers) or “fin socks” before you don your fins; or
– Go to a dive shop and buy some dive boots (“booties”) – short neoprene boots with zipper sides of the type used by scuba divers; then use fins large enough to fit over the booties.
Check for Comfort
Once you have these basic elements together, check them for comfort and function.
Put on your swimsuit, hop into the shallow end of a swimming pool, and put on your face mask and snorkel. Make sure that your hair isn’t trapped between the mask and your face, because that will cause a water leak. Put the mouthpiece in your mouth, and get used to breathing through the snorkel using your mouth.
Next, put your face in the water, still remembering to breathe! Check that the mask is centered on your face and that the strap is tight enough to keep the water out. Don’t worry about the mask fogging up at this point – we’ll take care of that later on. Then, try passively floating on the surface with your face in the water, breathing through the snorkel.
Try the fins too, with an easy motion. A small flip of one foot, then the other, will shoot you forward. The fins will also help you turn, to change direction. You may paddle with your hands to help steer, but your hands do not need to exert themselves – the fins are your main source of motive power.
If you don’t feel strong and confident in the water, then you should pause right here, and read the next blog: “Snorkel Basics – Safety, Breathing & Vision.” Try out those moves in shallow end of the swimming pool, with your feet firmly on the bottom, then floating in the deep end of the pool. Practice letting your snorkel ingest some water, and practice clearing it. Also, pull the mask slightly away from your face to let some water leak in, and practice clearing it. In this way, you will gain confidence in your snorkeling skills, so you can put all your attention on enjoying the undersea world!
While you are in the swimming pool, you should also test your flotation.
Start in the shallow end of the pool. Put your face in the water, breathing through your snorkel, and let your body spread out flat in the water. Most folks find that in this position, their body is buoyant enough to keep them floating and breathing comfortably, with little or no paddling.
It may seem surprising that you can actually float with little or no effort. There are several reasons you float so well when snorkeling, compared with when you are swimming:
– (1) Most of your head and your body are underwater, which means that your flotation only needs to support a small amount of weight, the part of your body that sticks above the water;
– (2) The air in your lungs increases your buoyancy, especially if you breathe with deep inhales and only part-way exhales;
– (3) The water in the pool is calm – and that’s the same kind of water we will recommend that you choose for snorkeling.
However well you float in the fresh water of the pool, you will float better when you are snorkeling, because that will probably be in salt (ocean) water.
When you are snorkeling, you will want to lift your face out of the water now and then: to see where you are going; to say something to a friend; or to clear water from your snorkel or mask. This is normally done by treading water, that is, kicking your feet enough to raise your face higher out of the water.
If you are not comfortable treading water, don’t feel you are floating well enough in the swimming pool, or if you just want an extra margin of safety, use a flotation aid. At any tropical resort you can borrow, rent or buy several kinds of floation:
– “Noodles,” also known as pool noodles, are inexpensive cylinders of soft foam, typically 2.4” in diameter and 55” long. You can hold one or two of these across your midsection as you lie down in the water. They will give you enough extra buoyancy to keep you floating comfortably.
– Snorkel, dive and boaters’ shops can sell you a flotation vest, a strap-on foam waistband, or a float shaped like a small surfboard or “belly board;” any of these can add to your natural buoyancy.
You may also want to have an underwater camera. Snorkel and dive shops as well as online stores sell inexpensive underwater cameras and waterproof housings for your smartphone. GoPro and other video cameras and housings for underwater use are readily available too.
Your best photos will come when the water is clear and the sun is shining on the water (see the later blog on Snorkel Skills). If you are taking photos of fish, try to get as close as you can without scaring them, in order to get sharp photos with a maximum of detail. Some of the greatest photos are obtained if you remain very still and let the fish come to you as they go about their normal business.
You now have the perfect snorkel equipment for a tropical island vacation. In the following blogs we’ll discuss “Snorkel Basics – Safety, Breathing & Vision” and “Snorkel Skills – Location, Entry & Enjoyment.” Stay with this blog and we’ll have a great vacation together!
Reef snorkeler from author “Masato Ikeda”
Dive mask from gnokii on openclipart.org
Snorkel adapted from diving mask by asalinasci on openclipart.org
Dive fin from photograph taken at Playa del Carmen, Mexico, in the Tortugas, author “Soljaguar”
Swimming pool at Honokeana Cove Resort, Lahaina, Hawaii
Lifejacket from Rambo Tribble on openclipart.org
GoPro Hero4 camera from author “Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick”