This is the third of three blogs that make up Snorkeling 101. These are the three parts:
1. Choosing the Perfect Snorkel Equipment (the first part)
2. Snorkel Basics – Safety, Breathing & Vision (the previous part)
3. Snorkel Skills – Location, Entry & Enjoyment (this installment)
Snorkel Skills: Picking Your Snorkel Site
The world is covered with oceans, teeming with creatures of every size and type. However, the number of good snorkeling locations, where you can visit and get close to sea life, is much more limited.
A quick survey of such reviews will convince you that the number of good snorkeling locations is much longer than anyone’s list! So the place you choose to snorkel will depend on many other factors.
Snorkel Skills: Scientific Site Selection
Let’s try to be systematic. The most highly recommended snorkeling destinations have this in common: they are oceanfront resorts in tropical or subtropical climates.
Some of these are far-flung destinations, at least if you live in the continental United States. For example, there’s great snorkeling in Thailand, the Maldives and the Red Sea. If you go to a far-away place primarily for a snorkel vacation, you would be best served by entrusting your time and money to a respected snorkel tour operator such as Sea For Yourself, a company that my friend Bob Kurkjian has used for snorkeling literally all over the world.
Closer to home, reliably good snorkeling abounds in the Caribbean, in the South Pacific, and in Hawaii.
When I first became serious about scuba diving, I was told the following about the Caribbean islands:
– Some islands were formed from coral reefs. They are not much to look at, being basically flat and close to the water. They have great snorkeling and diving.
– Other islands are “pointy,” with hills in the center, perhaps formed volcanically. However they were formed, the hills cause runoff, so that rainwater flows down the slope and muddies the ocean waters near the island. The result is that mud and haze pollute the offshore water. You can’t see as well through the water, and sea life gets less sunlight in which to thrive. Due to both factors, the snorkeling and scuba diving is not as good next to these islands.
I cannot attest to the accuracy of this story. However, I do know that islands with the highest or most isolated mountain peaks of the Caribbean are not the islands listed as the best for underwater exploration. And although St. Barts is surely beautiful, the diving and snorkeling is more renowned on the “flatter” islands of Little Cayman and Bonaire.
My advice depends on the primary goal of your travel:
– If you are going on a dedicated snorkeling trip, find a top-notch tour operator and put yourself into his or her hands.
– If snorkeling is only one attraction in your vacation plans, first choose a tropical island destination with other great attractions. Then, research the snorkeling opportunities on the island that you will be visiting.
With either of these approaches, you will wind up with an outstanding vacation.
Snorkel Skills: When to Snorkel
If you see gigantic waves coming in from the ocean, it’s not a very good day to snorkel! Any other day is fine, but like most things, some days are finer than others.
What you mainly want is calm, clear water so that you can see the fish and coral easily when you snorkel. Choppy waves tend to stir up sand from the bottom; this cuts down visibility by clouding the water, and also by scattering sunlight, causing glare.
Here’s another tip: when the area inland of your snorkeling site has heavy rain, the offshore waters will be cloudy for a day or even two days afterwards. This occurs because muddy water makes it way to the ocean by the easiest available pathway. So even if you have an otherwise ideal day, if it rained very recently you may have impaired visibility when you snorkel.
What if you have several days of bad weather, chewing up your scarce vacation? In that case, you’ll be glad if you chose a vacation destination with many attractions, not simply snorkeling. Mother Nature is unpredictable, and the best way to deal with natural uncertainty is to build in personal flexibility.
If you encounter a few days when the water seems too choppy, try to snorkel early in the morning (7 to 9 am) or late afternoon (4 to 5 pm), when the water may be calmer. You can also check the tide tables and try to snorkel just before and during low tide, when the waves tend to be quieter, or on a day when the amplitude of the tide (number of feet) is forecast to be smaller.
In summary, to be able to float and swim comfortably, and to be able to best see the wonders of undersea life, you’ll have the most fun if you choose a day with calm, clear water.
What about sunlight? You can snorkel perfectly well when the sky is overcast, and the fish and coral will be there as always. In fact, on a cloudy day you may see a larger number of small fish, who feel safe to come out of hiding. However, bright sun is preferable: you will see fish and coral better, and their colors will be brighter and more beautiful.
If you take underwater photos, those will turn out much better in sunlight. In addition, if the sun has been out for much of the day, the water will be warmer and more comfortable, especially if you snorkel in a shallow area that is protected from wind and currents.
Snorkel Skills: Entering the Water
If you’re on a boat as part of a snorkel tour, you can simply hop off the back end of the boat. You can wear your fins, or have someone hand them to you after you get into the water.
More frequently, you’ll be snorkeling from land, where you wade into the water. If you drive to a public beach, don’t take anything with you that you can’t afford to lose, and lock all items out of sight in the trunk: because everywhere in the world, theft happens, especially in beach parking lots.
A better approach, when possible, is to stay at a resort or hotel that has snorkeling, either on the premises or within a short walk. In that case, you simply have to plan your logistics. You’ll want inexpensive shoes such as rubber flip-flops to walk to a staging area where you can put down your shoes and towel.
Getting into the water from the staging area depends on the terrain:
– Sand. A sandy beach is attractive, but if the waves stir up the sand, the water will be hazy and you’ll have to swim out farther to have clear snorkeling. One advantage of sand is that it provides the most stable footing for getting into the water. You can walk into the water carrying your fins, then either sit down or float in the water to put them on. You just need to watch where you put your feet, so as not to step on pieces of coral or sea urchins.
– Partial Sand. A rocky shoreline often has sandy areas where water entry is especially easy. This is a great combination for snorkeling: there’s just enough sand to give you good footing, but not enough to cloud the water. Watch for sandy patches, both for entering the water and when you decide to come out again.
– Planned Water Entry. Sometimes entry to the ocean is particularly easy, either by accident or design. The photo above shows a walkway and steps at Honokeana Cove in West Maui; the steps lead down into the water. Often there’s a sandy patch below these steps that provides stable footing. However, Mother Nature likes to move the sand around. If you don’t see sand at this particular location, look nearby for other spots where the sand is close to the shore.
– Pebbles. Another easy entry is a surface of small pebbles, meaning smooth stones smaller than your palm. You can walk across such a surface either barefoot, or wearing fins or booties. If you feel the least bit unstable, crouch down, or even sit down, scooting across the rocks on your butt until you get into a foot of water. At that point, you can put on your fins and float away from the shore.
– Large Rocks. Entering the water is more difficult when you walk across large rocks, meaning the size of your foot and larger. The rocks may look like great places to walk, but some of them tilt unstably under your weight. In addition, the rocks close to the water’s edge are often slippery from algae. You may find it best to hold your buddy’s arm, or simply scootch on your butt to cover the last couple of feet to the water.
– Rough Rock and Lava. Some shores have very rough rocks, such as coral or lava, that are just too hard on the bare feet. In this case, you need to wear your dive fins to cross over to the water. If you have the type of fins that fit over booties, you can walk in the booties and don the fins when you’re in the water.
When you pull on your fins, it’s good to slosh them through the water to rinse out any sand that might irritate you as you snorkel.
If you choose to walk in your dive fins, note these pointers:
– Dive fins are streamlined to slip through the water easily; that means that their underside is smooth and won’t provide much traction as you walk.
– Once your fins enter the water, you’ll find it almost impossible to walk forward because the toes of the fins intercept too much water. You’ll have more luck if you turn around and back into the water.
You might wonder whether it’s a good idea to snorkel wearing waterproof shoes. After all, then your feet are protected both getting to the water, and if you should accidentally step on sharp coral while you’re in the water.
Certainly, a flip-flop or thong-type sandal is out of the question: it’s much too easy to lose it in the water. However, sandals with a heel strap such as Tevas, or else reef shoes, are certainly a possibility.
The principal reason to wear fins rather than shoes or sandals when you’re in the water is mobility. With fins on you can move through the water with almost no effort; with bare feet you consume much more energy in the water; and with any kind of shoe you will tire yourself out very quickly.
Now that you’re in the water, you can float around freely and enjoy the sea life. Just be sure not to get too much sun, and save some of your energy to help you exit the water.
Snorkel Skills: Hand Protection
What about hand protection? You may see gloves for sale at dive and snorkel shops. My advice: don’t buy them, and don’t use them!
You should not be touching any sea life, whether it be fish, coral or turtles. Your hands are for paddling and balance, and they don’t need protection. If the waves and surge are so strong that you might be tempted to grab a rock for stability, please don’t go into the water. It would not be safe, and the visibility would be poor so you wouldn’t be able to see very much anyway. And you certainly don’t want to grab the coral, both for its sake and to avoid a cut which can easily become infected.
At many dive sites, scuba divers are prohibited from wearing gloves; the reason is that divers might be tempted to touch and damage the coral, which takes many years to re-grow. Wearing gloves is likely to get you angry stares and perhaps even rude comments.
I can think of an exception, however. If you’re at a dive location where you have to grab rough or sharp rocks to help you out of the water, you’ll probably appreciate having gloves to protect your hands.
Given these factors, you might ask: why do companies even make and sell diving gloves? People who work underwater in construction or removing human debris from ocean sites need to touch and handle things, and require protection. Divers who enter wrecks often encounter sharp corners and edges that can cause injury. And divers in cold water (think Puget Sound) need insulated gloves to conserve their body heat. However, if you are snorkeling in tropical waters, gloves need not be in your travel kit or even on your mind.
Snorkel Skills: Exiting the Water
You generally want to exit the water on the same pathway by which you entered. The principal hazard comes from wave action: waves are lapping the shore, and while you are floating in the water you are at their mercy. You would not want a sudden surge to slap you into the shore or against a rock
The way to keep the water from knocking you around is to stop yourself from being buoyant. You can do this as follows. Swim close to the shore, until you are in only one or two feet of water. Then find a stable spot to stand, such as a sandy patch. Plant your feet there and stand up. As your body rises out of the water, the water is no longer supporting its weight, all of which is transferred to your feet. This anchors you firmly so that the waves won’t move you around.
If you have trouble getting stable, then take off your fins and stand up in your bare feet. You’ll have more traction without the fins beneath you.
Thus stabilized, you can walk out of the water. You can enhance your stability by reaching for your buddy, or holding on to large rocks. Back on dry land, you have completed your snorkeling adventure for the day!
You now have all the snorkel skills you need, with this completion of this three-part Snorkeling 101 course covering equipment, basics and now skills. You have learned where and when to snorkel, and how to enter and exit the water with ease and comfort. Happy undersea adventuring!
Snorkelers at Honokeana Cove, West Maui; photo by Dana Bell
Global distribution of ocean chlorophyll, courtesy of NASA, by way of NOAA
Honokeana Cove walkway and steps, photo by Art Chester
Beach sunset courtesy of GDJ on openclipart.org