What is your first time snorkeling experience going to be like? A once in a lifetime experience that you can't wait to repeat? Or a miserable, boring or even dangerous experience?
Unfortunately, poor first time experiences are pretty common. Many snorkel tour companies will lead you to think that snorkeling is so easy you can just throw on some gear, jump in, and it is all fun from there on.
But the truth is that while snorkeling is a very enjoyable and easy sport, without some basic skills, good equipment, and knowledge about the dangers and conditions of the ocean, a first time snorkeling experience can be a bit miserable, scary and potentially dangerous.
Here are some common things many first time snorkelers experience that are no fun:
Fortunately, most of these bad experiences are avoidable, and come from common mistakes. Let's make sure it does not happen to you. Armed with a bit of knowledge you can expect your first time to be very fun and enjoyable.
Learn How to Fit a Mask & Prevent Fogging
Masks come in different sizes and shapes, and can be adjusted to your face. Rental places are often in a rush, so learning for yourself what to look for in a good fit, so it does not leak, is a good idea. We have written a detailed mask fitting guide here.
A fogging mask is a real pain, because you can't see very well through it. Read our mask fogging tips for keeping this from happening.
Get a Dry Snorkel
Spend a bit more and rent a dry snorkel, or at the least, a snorkel with a splash guard. One of the least pleasant experiences is having a flood of water come down your snorkel. A dry snorkel has a special valve on top that seals shut when your snorkel goes underwater (like with a wave, or when you tilt your head to the side). It will also have a special purge valve at the bottom of the snorkel so that it is easy to blow water out of the tube. For a first time snorkeler we find this piece of equipment essential (we use them ourselves). It is worth whatever additional rental costs. Learn more about different types of snorkels here.
Get Fins That Fit
Rent fins that are neither too tight, nor too loose, and that don't hurt. Having a fin fall off when you most need it, is potentially very bad. And getting sores on your feet from fins that have hard spots or are too tight will ruin your time. Keep in mind that your feet will be wet, and will often shrink a little in the cooler water, and so a snug fit is important. Don't even think about not having fins. They are essential for safety. They give you a tremendous amount of swimming force and will save you a ton of energy. Read more about the different types of fins here.
Get Your Gear Ahead of Time
Rent equipment before you go to the beach, and give yourself time to adjust it and get used to it. Practice putting on your mask. Adjust the strap so it is lightly snug, but not tight. With a light inhale, your mask should suction to your face. That is what mostly holds it to your face. Now the snorkel. How does it feel in your mouth? Is it pulling awkwardly? Normally you can adjust the angle and height of your snorkel. You can adjust where it attaches to your face mask strap. And on some models you can rotate the soft silicone bottom for a better angle to your mouth. Practice putting on your fins.
Practice in a Pool or at a Calm Shallow Beach
Next, pick a spot like a swimming pool or calm shallow sandy beach to get a feel for breathing through your snorkel. It takes a while to train your body into becoming comfortable breathing through a snorkel with your face in the water. The main trick is relaxing.
Does your mask leak? Adjust it (too tight is a common reason, or hair under the skirt).
Practice purging your snorkel of water by blowing hard to force the water out the top and out the bottom purge valve if you have one.
Kick around a little, learning how to use your big leg muscles slowly to propel you easily around with your fins.
If you are not a strong swimmer, use a flotation device. Either an inflatable snorkeler's vest, or a water noodle. Don't worry about what you look like. Being comfortable and safe is most important.
Stay Relaxed & Reduce Effort
Swim Slowly! Exhaustion is a common problem for first time snorkelers. Swimming takes a good bit of energy. The trick with snorkeling is to stay relaxed and calm. You can wipe yourself out quickly if you are not careful. Only swim at a speed that allows you to breathe slowly and easily through your snorkel. Your snorkel does limit your breath, so keep your activity level at a pace that does not demand heavy breathing. Your fins will make it much easier. Learn to just float without effort. Only swim rapidly if necessary for safety.
Read Ocean Conditions
Understand ocean currents, waves and surge. The ocean is alive, and the water flows, often taking you with it. Understanding the basics of how the ocean moves and your place in the movement is essential for safety. Read our ocean snorkeling conditions page carefully.
Most first time snorkelers just take a boat tour, or head to the first beach that someone suggests to them for snorkeling. Use a little more care and do some research to find the best spot for you as a beginner, and you will have a better time.
Go From a Beach - Not a Boat
We recommend you go from a beach your first time, not a boat. Jumping off a boat into deep water your first time can be daunting. Many first timers naturally are afraid that they will not float easily. Combine that fear with unease about breathing through a snorkel and using a mask, and pretty quickly it becomes a less fun first experience. This visitor story is why we suggest not going from a boat for your first experience.
Choose an Interesting Spot
Choose a beach spot that is alive, meaning it has lots of fish and corals to see. If you pick a dead or boring spot for your first time, you likely will not understand why people like doing this. And the most popular spots that everyone goes to, are most likely not the best spots (because all the traffic has killed the reef). Still, don't go out alone (always have a partner no matter what). When you are new, it is comforting to see other snorkelers on the water before you get in so you can get a sense of what the conditions might be like.
Choose a Calm Spot
Only go out if it is calm. This often means going in the mornings. Nothing will ruin your first time experience like going out into the ocean when there are waves. It makes entering, exiting and swimming in the water dangerous. It makes using your equipment more difficult. It greatly increases how much effort swimming requires. It may make you seasick. Waves almost always reduce underwater visibility, so you won't be able to see what you are there to see. So only get in the water if it is calm your first time (less than six inch waves).
Maybe choose a beach that has a lifeguard. Another good option is to go with another experienced snorkeler. Just don't let them talk you into doing anything outside your comfort level.
Having a good snorkeling experience is partly about expectation. Why are you going snorkeling? Why do we snorkel? We do it for many reasons, but the primary reason is joy. Snorkeling is about the joy of watching and appreciating the beauty of the underwater world. If you have no interest in the natural world, snorkeling is probably not for you. Snorkeling is less a physical sport, and more a meditation. Learning how to relax, allowing yourself to be completely supported and held by the salt water, being in the moment, experiencing all the movement and life around you, that is what snorkeling is about. For us, snorkeling is therapeutic. And with experience being in the water feels like home. Most of all though, it is fun.
So come to snorkeling with a joyful attitude of appreciation for what you get to experience, and you will have a better time.
All the above tips are mostly about taking care of yourself. Give back to the ocean by taking care of it also. Do not touch corals, fish or turtles. The only thing you can touch safely is sand and rock and water (that means with your fins also). Read our snorkeling etiquette page for learning how to develop skills for taking a break in the water without having to stand.
Don't use harmful sunscreen. Most common sunscreens are causing reef damage. Use a biodegradable, reef safe sunscreen that will not harm sea life.
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