Snorkel Basics – Safety, Breathing & Vision

(Last updated on: April 2, 2017)

snorkel basicsThis blog about snorkel basics covers what to wear when snorkeling; water safety; and commonly encountered issues with breathing and vision. This short course in snorkel basics will ensure that your snorkel adventure is both safe and enjoyable.

This is the second of three blogs that make up Snorkeling 101. These are the three parts:
1. Choosing the Perfect Snorkel Equipment (the previous part)
2. Snorkel Basics – Safety, Breathing & Vision (this blog)
3. Snorkel Skills – Location, Entry & Enjoyment (the final installment)

In a logical sequence, snorkel basics begins with what to do before entering the water; how to snorkel safely in the water; and how to fix any problems you encounter with breathing and visibility.

Snorkel Basics: What to Wear

snorkel basics

Three factors determine what you need to wear when snorkeling: body temperature; stings and scratches; and sun exposure.

Staying Warm. You probably know that scuba divers almost always wear a rubberized wetsuit to stay warm under water. The only exceptions might be in shallow waters that are “bathtub” temperature, as you might find in the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico. Surfers in California, where the water is chillier than Hawaii, typically wear “shortie” wet suits. In colder water, such as the Galapagos or colder, full wet suits are standard.

Generally speaking, you don’t get as chilly when snorkeling as you do when scuba diving, because you stay at the surface where the water is warmer, and also because the sun warms your body. However, there are instances where you may get uncomfortably cold, even in tropical waters:
– Some individuals are more sensitive to cold than others;
– If you choose to float quietly for a long time, observing fish activities or taking photographs, you may get chilly because you are not staying warm through exertion;
– Most people are comfortable enough for 30 or 40 minutes, but if you intend to stay in the water for an hour or more you may expect to feel a chill.

A respected snorkel tour operator (Sea For Yourself) that goes to far-away destinations typically advises:

… a lightweight wetsuit … will help conserve body heat and add comfort and buoyancy
 while in the water. We wear wetsuits and recommend that you seriously consider wearing one as well.

So here’s the bottom line:
– If you’re diving from the shoreline, where you can go in and out of the water at will, you don’t have to worry about getting too cold. In fact, if you’re staying at a resort, there will be a warm shower or a heated pool to warm you up quickly.
– If you’re planning a trip to a remote location such as Palau or Fiji, where you will ride a boat to a remote site that you will probably never visit again, you will want to take along a lightweight wetsuit. A wetsuit is expensive and bulky in your luggage, but it’s a valuable asset when you take a far-away trip; it ensures that you will have the flexibility to stay in the water a long time in order to see “everything.”
– Either way, pay attention to your body, and come out of the water when you feel chilly.

Stings & Scratches. When choosing your snorkel clothing, another consideration is protection from stings and scratches.

A sting might occur if you encounter stinging jellyfish. Jellyfish live near the surface of the water and are most often found in warmer waters such as the Caribbean and off the northeastern coast of Australia. A scratch will occur if you bang into some coral, which can happen if you snorkel too close to a coral formation and get knocked into it by a random wave or water current.

If you see swimmers and snorkelers in the water, you can be pretty sure that there’s not a big bloom of jellyfish just off shore. However, it’s always possible to encounter a random jellyfish, and you may want to protect against that.

If you’ve chosen to wear a wetsuit, that will insulate you from jellyfish stings and coral scratches. However, you can get almost as much protection with much less expense and weight with a lycra “dive skin.” Lycra skins are readily available from dive shops; they are stretchy and easy to take on and off. Dive skins are such a standard item in eastern Australia that the locals call them “stinger suits.”

How can such a thin material protect you from a stinging jellyfish? The same Travel NQ (North Queensland) website asserts that jellyfish who brush against the fabric don’t perceive it as a living creature (and therefore, a threat) and so their stingers won’t be activated.

You may consider a lycra skin to be ugly and stupid, but it’s a great asset to have in your travel kit. Certainly, if you see most of the other snorkelers wearing dive skins, that should tell you that you need to wear one. And, in addition to sting and scratch protection, the skin offers these advantages:
– It keeps you a bit warmer: the mesh of the suit holds still water next to your skin, where your body heat warms it up; this acts to insulate you from the chillier water around.
– A dive skin acts as extra protection from the sun.

Personal experience: I have never suffered a jellyfish sting while snorkeling in Hawaii. I have encountered jellyfish in the Caribbean, where the waters are warmer, but I don’t recall ever having been stung. Nevertheless, if someone told me there were lots of jellyfish in the water, I would stay on dry land that day.

Sun Protection. Your dermatologist and I wish to remind you that cold water is not the only threat to your comfort. You will have steady tropical sun on your back side and your head for a surprisingly long time, because times zip by when you are engrossed in watching sea life. Even on an overcast day, you can acquire a severe sunburn.

Therefore, you need sunblock and/or protective clothing. A water-resistant suntan lotion with SPF 30 or SPF 50 would be a good choice. If you choose to wear a lycra suit, that will of course provide full-body protection.

My personal approach to sun protection is to wear an old T-shirt and a dunkable bucket hat, which protects my back, neck and (mostly bald) head. I find that my arms and legs tend not to sunburn, perhaps because they are shielded by being a few inches beneath the water when I am snorkeling. However, if you are sensitive to sun you will want to protect your arms and legs, at least with a sunblock lotion.

Whatever you wear, remember to rinse all your snorkeling attire in fresh water when you come out of the ocean. Otherwise, the residual salt will eventually break down the fibers of your clothing, including dive skins.

Snorkel Basics: Water Safety & Comfort

You will snorkel with comfort if you also feel safe. It’s great to visit a fine aquarium, but it’s incomparably better to be in the middle of the undersea world! Snorkeling is a perfect sport and recreation.

You’ve probably heard “life is uncertain, eat dessert first.” Well, of course, any activity – even lying in your bed at home – can present risks. However, snorkeling is generally regarded to be a safe and manageable activity for most people. If you can swim and don’t feel alarmed about going into the water, you’re a good candidate for snorkeling. If you feel any discomfort about going into the ocean, stick with the aquarium and the swimming pool for your water sports.

The snorkel basics of safety and comfort are largely common sense:

Weather. Choose good weather for your swimming and snorkeling. That means a calm sea (no big waves rolling in), no strong wind or rain, and sunshine. Hint: if you see a large number of surfers in the water, expecting and hoping for big waves, it’s probably not a good day to be snorkeling. If you want to plan your snorkeling in advance, choose a day when you can snorkel in early morning or late afternoon, at a time close to low tide, on a day with not-too-big surfing waves. You can find high and low tide times and amplitudes at Tide Forecast. You can find detailed surf wave forecasts for Little Makaha (the surfing area just outside the south edge of Honokeana Cove) at Magic Seaweed.

Sunlight. Sunshine means more than daytime. Several factors affect how well the sun will illuminate the fish and the coral underwater so you can clearly see them:
– The fewer the clouds, the more sunlight hits the upper atmosphere, so a clear sky helps.
– There’s always a bit of haze in the atmosphere. The higher the sun sits in the sky, the less haze the light has to pass through before it reaches the sea, and the more of it penetrates the reflective surface of the water. Thus the undersea world is much better illuminated when you’re near the equator, and when you snorkel in the middle of the day (between 10 am and 2 pm local time).
– When the surface is choppy, sunlight is scattered in all directions, and much of it doesn’t go underwater where we want it. Thus you would like a calm surface, which is likely to occur near high or low tide, and when there is not too much wind.

Buddying. Don’t swim or snorkel alone. If someone gets in trouble, they need a friend in the neighborhood. And on the rare occasion that a predator comes along, it is not likely to mess around with a group of adult humans: you appear to be bigger than they are, and you don’t look like anything they have had for dinner.

snorkel basics

Sharks. The mention of predators suggests something that I knew you were going to ask about: sharks. When a shark attacks a surfer or swimmer, that’s big news, partly because of movies like Jaws and partly because it’s a rare occurrence. If you worry about this sort of thing, there’s a Wikipedia table showing where shark attacks and fatalities have occurred. There’s also a great article on avoiding shark attacks, which points out that your chance of dying from a shark attack is very low – less than your chance of dying from a bee sting, dog or snake bite, or a lightning strike.

In any case, it makes sense to not invite risk, so here’s what you need to do:
– Swim where other people are swimming, as mentioned under Buddying, above.
– Stay near the shore.
– Swim only in the daytime, when toothed predators are not very active.
– Don’t enter the water if you are bleeding.
– Don’t wear shiny jewelry, which can gleam like fish scales in sunlight.
– Avoid areas being fished, and avoid areas with lots of diving sea birds that may indicate the presence of many bait fish.
– If you see a sign warning of sharks in the area, go find another beach!

Your best protection against sharks may be that they don’t really want to eat you. Sharks rely on a high-fat diet, and humans simply don’t provide enough food energy for their needs. Sharks would much prefer to consume a seal, dolphin or whale, rather than you or me.

Stay Healthy. If you feel sick, give yourself the day off. There are plenty of land-side adventures to take until you feel at the top of your form. And as noted above, if you get tired or chilly, get out of the water and warm up.

Snorkel Basics: Breathing Comfortably

Whenever you snorkel in the ocean, even in a calm and protected area, you will encounter waves, usually small, sometimes larger. This is a major difference from being alone in a swimming pool.

As you paddle along, looking at the beautiful world below through your face mask, you are breathing through your snorkel tube. From time to time a wave will splash some water into the snorkel tube. Don’t be alarmed. You can usually clear the snorkel tube by strongly exhaling through it, which blows the water out and clears it again. You may remember from the Snorkel Equipment blog that some snorkels are designed to reduce water intake, or to help you clear out the water that eventually finds its way in.

If a sharp exhale isn’t good enough to clear the snorkel, then raise your head out of the water as you tread water, and use one hand to take the mouthpiece out of your mouth. Then you can breathe freely and take your time about getting the water out of your snorkel.

One reason that water comes into the snorkel is that the top of the snorkel may be too close to the water when your face is in the water. You may be able to adjust the snorkel to a more vertical position, where its end is somewhat higher above the surface of the water, by shifting it along and up and down on the mask strap.

Snorkel Basics: Clear Vision

Mask Fogging. As you snorkel, eventually your face mask will fog up.

It’s basic physics: your face is at body temperature, evaporating moisture from your eyes, nose and skin. The window of the mask is at ocean water temperature, which will always be cooler. So the moisture from your face deposits on the face plate, forming a haze or even droplets that run down the window.

You cannot prevent fogging, but you can postpone or lessen it. Before you get into the water, squirt some anti-fog agent (such as Gear Aid Sea DropsTM) on the inside of your mask window. Let it run around, or spread it with your fingers. Then dunk the mask once in water and let the water drain off. This removes all of the de-fog goop except for an invisibly thin layer. This surface treatment is hydrophilic, meaning that it attaches to water, and it tends to liquefy the fog as it forms, so that the mask remains transparent.

What if you’re all ready to snorkel and Oops! I don’t have any sea drops? Saliva is a time-honored substitute. It doesn’t prevent fog as well as the commercial solutions, but it is better than nothing at all, and is readily available.

De-Fogging the Mask. Inevitably, despite the anti-fog treatment, your mask will fog up. You can easily clear the fog as follows.

Tread water so that you can lift your face out of the water. Use one hand to lift the edge of your face mask so that a little bit of water flows into it. Then put your face down and tilt your head back and forth so that the water washes the inside of your mask. Then lift your face again and lift the lower edge of your mask so that the water runs out. Presto! A fog-free view once again. You may need to do this several times during a snorkel.

Snorkel Basics: Water in the Face Mask

Even if your face mask fits perfectly when you are still, as you move around your head muscles will flex and some water may leak in. A little bit of water is not a bad thing – in fact, you could allow a quarter inch of water to stay inside your mask, so any time you fog up you can slosh your head around to rinse it clear as described above. However, too much water inside the mask is an annoyance, and can even be alarming for some people.

To empty water from the mask, tilt your face up out of the water and use one hand to lift the lower edge of the mask so the water can run out, just as you did in de-fogging the mask. Then re-position the face mask, trying to seat it more centrally on your face.

You can also empty water from the mask with your face still in the water. Just lift the lower edge and exhale through your nose to bubble the water out. This is the approach used by scuba divers, who dive so deeply that they can’t reach the surface quickly to clear a mask.

Snorkel Basics: Ear Pressure

After you have been snorkeling for a few minutes, you may notice pressure in your ears. What has happened is that your ears are being chilled slightly by the water; as the air in your middle ear cools off, its pressure decreases, so the air pressure inside is less than your surroundings. This is the same sensation you get when your airplane reduces its altitude before landing, or when descending in a high speed elevator.

There are several ways to equalize your ear pressure so that your ears are comfortable once again:
– Your facemask is soft around the nose for a reason: so you can pinch your nose while wearing the mask. To relieve ear pressure, pinch your nose and try to exhale through your nose. The slight increase in pressure will usually open your Eustachian tubes and equalize the air pressure in your ears. This action is called the Valsalva maneuver.
– If this doesn’t seem to work, lift your face out of the water, take the snorkel out of your mouth, close your mouth and try again.
– Another way to equalize your ear pressure is by swallowing.
– If none of this works, you don’t need to worry. The pressure difference in your ears is very small, much less than you would experience in an airplane. Since the pressure is strictly due to the temperature difference, it will go away naturally as your ears adjust to the temperature of the water.

There is one situation in which your ear discomfort is actually due to a change in pressure. If you decide to hold your breath and swim down several feet below the surface to get closer to the fish and the coral, you will feel a stronger ear pressure. Again, you can use the Valsalva maneuver to equalize the pressure. (Scuba divers use this skill, and use it so frequently that it becomes almost automatic.)

This discussion equips you with all the snorkel basics for a great adventure exploring the undersea world. You now know what to wear, how to snorkel safely, and how to stay comfortable. The next section of this blog will discuss where to find good snorkeling and how to get in and out of the water.

Image Credits:

Dana Jeanne Bell with mask and snorkel; photo by Art Chester

Hat, shirt, swimming trunks; photo by Art Chester

Shark drawing adapted from picapica on

Gear Aid Sea DropsTM image hosted in iFrame from their website, which is referenced in the accompanying text.


Snorkel Basics – Safety, Breathing & Vision — 3 Comments

    • Good for you! You’ll have a great adventure with the incredibly tame animals, to say nothing of the ever-curious seals. Happy and safe travels!