Snorkeling is essentially underwater sightseeing. With a few simple pieces of snorkeling gear (mask, snorkel tube, and fins), you simply swim through the water along the surface, with your face down in the water to see what’s there, while your snorkel pokes out above the surface allowing you to breath.
Swimming is the only main prerequisite to snorkeling, but snorkeling can also prepare you for more intensive underwater activities like scuba diving, or even sports like underwater rugby or hockey. Also, if you’re thinking about becoming a search and rescue diver, then snorkeling is something you’ll want to try out early on.
Of course, you can dive down deep to take a closer look at something with your snorkel, but you will eventually have to resurface for air. People everywhere love snorkeling because it is a low maintenance and fun activity that can be done anywhere there’s water, and, on top of that, snorkeling gear isn’t all that expensive. If you are snorkeling somewhere where the waters are cooler, you may want to get yourself a wetsuit as well for warmth.
When it comes to where to go snorkeling, many people choose tropical locations because of the beautiful sights that are visible when they look under the water, such as coral reefs, tropical fish, and plant life like large forest of kelp.
You definitely enter another world when you go snorkeling. Observing sea life in its natural environment is something that snorkeling can offer, and this is a major part of its appeal. Other popular snorkeling locations include where ever there is something special to see under the water, such as a shipwreck.
Traces of snorkeling goes back thousands of years, taking us back to various geographical locations around the world and chronicled in various ancient and newer texts. It would seem that snorkeling began, as do most things, as a way to survive, either by catching fish or by searching for precious things like pearls to make necklaces to sell or trade, and also the procurement of sea sponges.
In the 1960’s, Mario Mationi’s explorations into pre-Columbian archeology shows evidence of snorkeling in the Caribbean up to 4000 years ago.
In Korea, diving dates back to the 5th century, where there were many male divers, but by the 18th century there came the Jam-Nyeo, known as the “sea women” who eventually outnumbered men in the realm of diving.
Meanwhile in Indonesia, the Suku Laut, or “Sea People” inhabited the Riau Islands and spent the better part of the day in the water, where snorkeling was employed.
Assyrian divers used animal skins filled with air so that they could stay under the water for longer periods of time.
Alexander the Great came up with the idea to sink a large bell shaped contraption into the water, so that air could be stored in it for the divers. This “diving bell” technology was further developed so that people could travel inside them under water without getting wet and to greater depths.
In his book, “Parts Of Animals” (written in 300 BC), Aristotle mentioned the practice of what would later become snorkeling. The term “apnea” comes from the Ancient Greek πνέω / pNEO and means to breathe, or rather to temporarily stop breathing. Artistotle spoke about seeing divers who used “instruments of respiration” that looked similar to the trunk of an elephant.
The oldest reference to snorkeling seems to be that of the people of Crete farming for sea sponges some 5000 years ago. For this, hollowed out reeds were used so that these farmers could retrieve these sea sponges and eventually sell them.
In 1771, a British engineer by the name of John Smeaton came up with the idea of moving air through pressurized tubes, allowing divers to travel deeper and stay under the water longer. This led to the invention of the SCUBA system (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus). As a result of all this research, the snorkeling method was soon formally adopted by scientists. This was less expensive that the SCUBA method, and more widely used.
In 1936, a Dutch scientist from the Netherlands by the name of Jacob Wichers, invented the snorkel. He was interested in the science of submarines. Early submarines could only stay under the water for short periods of time, such as when the submarine needed to hide from its enemy.
Jacob Wichers figured out a way for the submarine to stay under the water for extended periods using a pipeline system whereby heavy gases and fresh air would pass through these pipes and make it possible for the subs to remain underwater longer. He called his new submarine a “schnorkel”.
The Snorkel Itself
Snorkels tubes are most commonly found in J or L shapes, with a standard length of about 30 centimeters and n diameter inside the shaft measuring between 1.5 and 2.5 centimeters. At the end that goes into your mouth, there is a form-fitted mouthpiece which is made from either rubber or plastic.
When you have your face (eg. mouth and nose) submerged down in the water, you can draw breath from this mouthpiece from above the water’s surface, allowing you to keep intaking fresh air. There is often a clip that attaches your snorkel to your diving mask, for convenience. If your snorkel set-up lacks this strap, then you can fit the snorkel underneath your mask’s strap, but this is risky business as you could get a leak into your mask, or possibly lose your snorkel. Full-face snorkel masks are now becoming increasingly popular, as they integrate all the parts of the mark into one convenient unit.
Longer snorkels don’t necessarily mean better for underwater adventurers. The best length for your snorkel tube is 40 centimeters maximum. Anything beyond that is going to make your lungs work too hard, possibly leading to some undesirable complications such as pulmonary edema due to insufficient air.
At the same time, it is also good to be aware of the need for fresh breath when snorkeling. When blowing out, there will be some amount of recycled air in the snorkel, and so fresh air is always being lost. Breathing out through the nose can help with this. You simply want to avoid the build-up of carbon dioxide in your blood, which can cause hypercapnia.
Blast clearing is where a snorkeler returns to the surface to expel water which enters the snorkel on a dive. One sharp exhale can achieve this “clearing” of the tube, or there is also the option to tilt back your head and exhaling as you approach the water’s surface, so that when you break the surface, water is basically displaced from your snorkel tube (hence the term “displacement method” for this technique). This technique requires less effort, but can only be done when surfacing. Otherwise, the blast technique works just fine for most snorkelers.
Sump / Purge Valve
A sump / purge valve is handy little part of the design of a snorkel tube, sitting at the lowest point and allowing for the collection of water that does not get inhaled while you’re snorkeling. Some gear has a sump with a non-return valve, which drains water during exhalation. A good sump valve will moderate the water pressure effectively when your exhalation pressure exceeds the water pressure on the exterior of the valve.
Some snorkels have a valve at the top, to block water from entering the tube when a wave comes along. These top valves are ok if you’re staying at the water’s surface, but can create issues when you’re diving because of the mechanics of the snorkel apparatus, with the solution here being a splash guard to block splashes instead of a valve. When shopping for a snorkel, be aware of these features and also think about if you’re going to be diving or staying near the surface.
For some snorkelers, a sump valve is not necessary, as they exclusively use the blast technique. Finswimmers are among these types of snorkelers who don’t use the sump valve. Blasting keeps water in the tube to the bare minimum, and this allows finswimmers, who often snorkel competitively, to swim faster and not have to worry about water interfering with their snorkeling.
Another thing worth noting, which many more experienced snorkelers will tell you, is that mechanical contraptions like valves that are used to mitigate water coming in and out of the tube often are subject to flaws and failure. And so, relying on the blast technique of expelling water is really the only way to go.
Silicone rubber is the material of choice for designing superior mouthpieces, due to their durability. In the past, natural rubber was most often used, but it has been found to experience oxidization and it breaks down slowly in the sun from the UV rays. Not only that, but natural rubber will eventually grow brittle, lose flexibility, and then crack, causing numerous problems such as leakage due to failure to seal properly. Other outdated designs include snorkels which include ping-pong balls mounted on the end of the tube, as well as snorkel tube & diving mask combos.
Valves can be assisted in sealing by adding a dab of grease, but this is not a long-lasting solution to the problem. Too much grease can lead to valves sticking, leakage, and disgusting-tasting grit in your mouth. Speaking of gross stuff in your mouth, one of the downsides of snorkeling can be inhaling things like sand, seaweed, and even small organisms. Yeeech!
There is certainly an argument to be made that if you are a freediver that maybe you don’t even need a snorkel. A mask may be all you need if you have decided to do some diving, because, unless you get proficient at using your snorkel, it may be more trouble than its worth to use it in the depths. If you are that serious about going down under the water’s surface, scuba diving may be more of the sport for you, which has different requirements. For surface swimming and looking around, or even just shallow dives, snorkeling will indeed do the trick.
Scuba diving masks and snorkels masks are effectively the same type of mask. The purpose of this mask is to see clearly underwater, which requires that an airspace is created around your eyes and nose and a fog-free pane of glass for a clear field of vision. The lense of your snorkel mask is referred to as the faceplate, with a “skirt” made of a supple rubber, as well as the strap to hold it all in place. Obviously, a little bit of shopping around will reveal a multitude of shapes and styles of snorkel mask. As you may have seen, some models are oval in shape, while others are more rectangular shaped. If you stay near the surface, swim goggles will suffice. Keeping the mask clear and fog-free is extremely important for snorkelers.
The Basics Of Snorkeling
As we mentioned earlier, most snorkelers are in it for the underwater sight-seeing, but technically, you could do snorkeling in your swimming pool or any body of water. Of course, that would be boring and most snorkelers love to see some interesting underwater life, so this is where the most popular snorkeling spots always seem to be. The majority of snorkelers are not competitive, and simply love to swim and look at things, making this a great low-stress leisure activity as opposed to a sport.
You really don’t need any rigorous training to go snorkeling, however you may want to get some instruction from a professional trainer before jumping in, just to learn a few inside tips. Part of the risk of snorkeling isn’t even the practice itself, but rather the location you are adventuring in. For this, it is always beneficial to have an experienced snorkeler by your side as an underwater tour guide. Be sure to ask around at the local tourist stop or diving shop, as those folks will almost certainly point you in the right direction if you need any kind of instruction. At the very least, if you’re going snorkeling, be sure to go with a friend, as doing it alone can be dangerous, particularly if you’re out on open water. Remember – don’t get any bright ideas!
Depending where you go, some authorities will recommend – if not demand – that you wear a floatation device / life jacket while snorkeling. And, if you’re not planning on doing any diving, it might not be a bad idea. Particularly with kids, a life jacket is the perfect way to get them used to snorkeling without the dangers of having no life jacket or floatation device. Some floatation devices come with attachments that will allow you to adjust the buoyancy of the device, while others rely on inflating / deflating the old fashioned way.
Since there is a danger associated with snorkeling where there are other things out on the water like jet-skis and other boats, and they might not see you, its always a good idea to wear brightly colored floatation devices so that you are clearly visible if you are near the surface of the water. Need we remind you that if you are wearing a floatation device, you can’t do any diving.
Wetsuits do have their own buoyancy (and they keep you warm), so this is something to consider when you’re assembling your snorkeling outfit for your next adventure. Wearing a wetsuit will give you the option of diving while still having a bit of buoyancy.
The other benefit of a wetsuit is that it keeps the sun off of your body, so if you have particularly pale skin, this is a benefit because the suit can keep you from getting burnt, or having other sea baddies get at you, like jellies or other germs.
Freediving is essentially the next level up from snorkeling, and does require some training by a professional. You can incorporate snorkeling into your diving, as we said, but many divers choose to abandon their snorkeling gear and upgrade to scuba equipment at this point, or else just literally dive free without being encumbered by anything except maybe some goggles.
Safety – Tips
We have already mentioned the dangers of jet-skis and boats with snorkeling, as they can’t necessarily see you to avoid you in the water, but there are other dangers as well, including more silent craft like surfboards or sailboats which are found in the same areas as snorkelers.
Anything that doesn’t have a motor can be even more dangerous, because you have no idea they’re coming and if they can’t see you, this can lead to an accident. Be sure to look for any kind of signage that indicates that you should not snorkel there, or that there are boats in the area. Of course, you can always look around first before heading out, but just because its all clear at the time, that doesn’t mean a boat or surfer won’t come along at some point.
Unlike your typical beaches which are marked by buoys which are usually reflective to protect beach goers, snorkelers tend to pop up in other regions that can be more remote and this can present problems as these areas aren’t watched by any lifeguards. If you are just floating near the surface, refective colors are a must-have.
Appropriate precautions must, once again, be considered because its so easy for an inexperienced snorkeler to burn, even if they are mostly submerged. Rash guards with SPF, extra layers including wetsuits and swim skins, waterproof sunscreen, and even t-shirts can help to prevent getting burnt while snorkeling.
Safety – Hydration
Keep hydrated at all times, and be aware that snorkeling for longer periods can really dehydrate a person. Make sure, before entering the water, that you are sufficiently hydrated, particularly if you are planning on snorkeling for a while. Staying hydrated can also prevent cramping in the water, which can be a concern.
Safety – Hyperventilating
Because it is an activity that requires a lot of breathing, be careful not to hyperventilate, because this can lead to blackouts. This is why it is a good idea to practice snorkeling with a buddy or in a safe area like a pool before you go into a lake, sea, or ocean. You wouldn’t want to run into those kind of troubles while you’re by yourself.
Snorkeling Near Reefs
You’ve heard the expression “Look, but don’t touch!” Well, this saying specifically applies to snorkelling, since there are many interesting things in the water to see, but you best not touch them.
For instance, coral reefs are extremely beautiful, but they are more or less alive and they can stab or sting you. Not only that, but poisonous creatures hide out in reefs, and if you wear protective gloves, you might avoid getting poisoned if you happen to touch one. Scrapes from coral reefs can lead to infection, so this is another reason not to mess with them. You might need special medical attention if you do. Be aware of the tide when snorkeling, as things like reefs can rise to the surface when the tide is low.
In addition, coral reefs are fragile and you can damage it by interacting with it. Even just a light touch can cause dozens of years worth of coral growth to be damaged beyond repair.
You’ll also want to watch out for things like sea turtles, who would rather you did not touch them, and can get frightened if you do. Besides the creatures that can’t harm you but you can harm it, there are also things like eels that like to hide under the sea, not to mention sharks to be aware of at all times.
The best places to snorkel are places where the water is calm, and the waves are not raging. This will make the viewing experience perfect as the water isn’t churning and your view will be unobscured. If the water is warm, this is another plus because cold water can be extra-taxing on the body, especially over prolonged periods.
As we said from the outset, snorkeling is about sight-seeing, so if there is something to see that is near the surface of the water, like a shallow reef, that’s all the better for snorkelers. If you venture down into the depths to see something particularly interesting, this is where your skill level with diving, breathing underwater, and overall technique must match your sight-seeing ambitions.
Types Of Snorkeling
Bog snorkelling – This activity is particularly popular in the UK and Australia.
Finswimming – A competitive sport which uses a more dynamic type of snorkel for improved speed and hydrodynamics.
Free-Diving – This includes any type of diving without the equipment, and sometimes we talk about the sport of competitive apnea (holding your breath)
Scuba Diving – This is diving where you wear a portable breathing device and can dive much deeper to explore more than with your typical snorkel
Spear-fishing – This is both a sport and a means of subsistence, and often involves a snorkel (and obviously a spear)
Underwater Hockey – Just what you’d imagine – its hockey, but underwater using snorkels and a puck, happening most often in a pool.
Underwater Rugby – Using a deep swimming pool, competitors play on teams and use snorkels and a ball
Here’s a quick video demonstrating how to use a snorkel and showing you how the basic equipment works, thanks to Valerie Kevorkian of Tarpoon Lagoon Dive Center in Miami Beach, FL.
Putting the equipment on and getting in and out of the water seem easy, but this can be challenging.
The ocean and lakes and especially rivers can add factors to this enjoyable beach activity that might turn you off snorkeling if you don’t know exactly what to expect.
Clearing your mask so you can see perfectly at all times and clearing your snorkel so you don’t have to worry about breathing in water would be the first skills to get good at. Here is a video which demonstrates how to clear your snorkel mask.
You can probably snorkel almost anywhere but some locations in the world are much more enjoyable because of the water’s temperature and what lies beneath the surface. Here are a few suggestions and hopefully you will fall in love with this beach activity and continue to do it for the rest of your life. Age and some disabilities are not barriers.
The Caribbean – The island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a snorkelers’ paradise. The waters are calm, clear, and warm, year round. Mangrove-lined lagoons and colorful coral reefs surround the island. Trunk Bay Beach on the north shore, has its own underwater snorkeling trail. It is located in Cinnamon Bay Campground, which is a 5 star accommodation and very reasonably priced as well. This small, very people-friendly island, has over 5 different beaches where you can snorkel to add tons of variety to your beach snorkel holiday.
Mexico – Puerto Vallarta is an old famous town, located on the west coast, the Pacific Ocean, and on Banderas Bay. It is a great snorkeling spot if you want to see unusually sights such as manta rays, sailfish, and even whale sharks.
Australia – This is the wordless largest island and smallest continent and it is surrounded by the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The beaches are breathtaking! The Great Barrier Reef lies close to its shores and has long been associated with scuba diving and snorkeling. Most snorkeling adventures begin in the tropical city of Cairns. The reef is close to the shore but you will need to sign up for a boat trip to be able to snorkel in the best locations. Brilliant corals and rich sea life are available with tons of options awaits you and your loved ones.
Thanks for reading!