Snorkeling Etiquette – The Do No Harm List

Snorkeling etiquette is a simple set of rules you follow to avoid harming sea life, yourself and equipment in the process. Really this is very easy to do.

Don’t be one of those harmful unaware people that make us cringe, banging into coral with their fins, or standing on it. Or someone who assumes that it is OK to pick up a shell, and dies for it.

If you become aware of how beautiful the underwater world is, you will naturally want to do no harm when you are snorkeling.

Snorkeling Etiquette Tip #1: Don’t Touch Coral!

Coral is beautiful, and looks like rock, but it is actually a fragile living animal. Really, we have seen video of a coral polyp eating a fish! And when you touch coral with your fins or hands, you disrupt the protective mucous layer that contains their microbiome, like the one in a human’s gut. Removing some of or causing damage to this mucous layer can negatively affect the health of the coral.

Leather coral with some of its polyps out feeding

Coral is so wonderful to see and so important to our world that you should feel like you just ran over your kitten if you touch coral. And while it sounds silly, corals can “bite” you when you touch them, causing severe stings or scrapes that can be difficult to treat.

How to Avoid Touching Coral

Now, everywhere you snorkel you are going to have people telling you not to touch the coral, it’s snorkeling etiquette 101. But how do you avoid it?

We have seen that many people stand on coral when they get tired or want a break from swimming. It feels natural to them to try to stand up to relax and talk together, or to take off their mask. Do not do this!

When in shallow waters, over a reef, we have developed a skill of laying on our backs when we are needing a break from being face down. It is super easy to relax on your back in salt-water. We talk to each other and look around this way.

And as an alternative to laying on our backs, in shallow areas we will sometimes tread water with our knees bent up close to our bodies to avoid touching anything. We have gotten so that we can relax in either position, talk, and adjust our masks.

Practice it, it is a great skill to learn, and it saves the reefs. Be aware of your fins. Know if you are kicking something.

If you are finding this information helpful, you will love our free monthly snorkeling newsletter.

Snorkeling Etiquette Tip #2: Don’t Touch Anything, It Could Be Deadly

Snorkeling etiquette tip: don't touch a deadly Cone Snail

Besides not touching coral, this snorkeling etiquette rule is not to touch anything, because there are a number of things in the ocean that are poisonous or dangerous to touch. There are not a lot of them, but do you know which ones they are? For example, picking up a beautiful little seashell when snorkeling can be deadly. Cone shells have a stinger that can extend for several inches and can be deadly. That also means keeping an eye out for what you are swimming into, like jellyfish or the Portuguese Man-of-War, a jelly-like siphonophore that delivers a very painful sting from the long tendrils that extend below it into the water.

Got Hurt Snorkeling and Travel Insurance Won’t Cover It?

Yes, many travel insurance policies exclude snorkeling accidents, leaving you in the lurch. See our recommended travel insurance that does cover snorkeling.

Snorkeling Etiquette Tip #3: Don’t Harass Sea Life, Like Fish and Turtles

Give the poor critters some space. Sure you can swim slowly towards turtles and fish, but don’t try to get too close. And if they are resting, on the bottom or on shore, give them lots of space. The same goes for all sea life. In Hawaii, it is illegal to approach within 50 yards of Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins.

Snorkeling Etiquette Tip #4: Don’t Feed Fish

Man floating in the water surrounded by fish because he fed them

We know, you can buy fish food at most snorkel gear rental shops, but please don’t do it. Feeding fish has been proven to really mess up the natural ecosystem in the area. And besides, there is a trick that we use that is just as good. If people have been feeding fish in an area, you can just pretend to feed them. Rub your fingers together and pull them across in front of you as though you were spreading fish food in the water. Fish will come for sure. It works great.

Snorkeling Etiquette Tip #5: Use a Reef-Friendly Sunscreen

The ingredients in some sunscreens are killing reefs. In fact in some parks and countries you are not allowed to get in the water if you are not using a reef-friendly sunscreen.

We did not used to think that a “natural” sunscreen would work. But then we did a bunch of tests of the best reef friendly sunscreens and found some that not only work, they are more water resistant and work better than the store bought brands. We love them, and they are good for the environment. Read about the winners of our sunscreen tests.

Now Watch This Beautiful and Entertaining Video About Reef Etiquette

Here is a wonderful underwater video that is entertaining for adults and children alike about observing snorkeling etiquette. This was produced by award winning underwater filmmaker Ziggy Livnat who we housesat for in Hawaii years ago.

Here is a PDF Reef Etiquette Quick Guide that you can view and print from our friends at the Kohala Center, an environmental education center in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. The guide also has a handy fish guide in it.

More Snorkeling Tips