Snorkeling seems like a pretty basic, self-explanatory activity: float, breathe, observe. After attending a snorkeling course, however, I quickly learned that there’s still a lot to know about the popular ocean exercise. Here are a few vital pointers I picked up in the class as well as a few snorkeling tips for beginners looking to expand their horizons.
Becoming Familiar with Your Equipment
Before getting in the pool, our instructor took a look at the equipment my coworker and I had brought with us. He helped us correctly put on our gear, noticing the absence of a few necessities (I’d gone on a trip recently and used my fins without booties—apparently, your fins aren't supposed to cut into your heels). He also helped me fit and defog my snorkeling mask which I had pulled way too tight on my face. We hadn’t even gotten to the basic instruction and I was already realizing I may not have known as much as I thought.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a class prior to buying your snorkeling gear so you can figure out what you like. Most likely, your instructor will have a few options for you to try on to see if you prefer a wet or dry snorkel, split or regular fins, etc. Test them and see which ones you have a preference for. You can get familiar with the equipment and then go about making a more informed purchase.
Learning Snorkel Basics
During our class, our instructor got us familiar with a few snorkeling basics. The first thing we learned was how to breathe properly. Since I was already comfortable breathing through my snorkel, the next step was to learn to hyperventilate. While it sounds like the kind of panicky breathing we associate with anxiety attacks and brown paper bags, it’s more about taking a few slow, deep lungs full of air before diving down, effectively lowering the body’s carbon dioxide levels. Make sure you only take a few breaths, however, because if you hyperventilate too much, you risk blacking out upon surfacing.
We learned hyperventilation in preparation for our next lesson: skin diving. Skin diving is the practice of diving down under water to get a closer look at whatever might be down there. In the abstract, it’s some kind of sea life. In practice, it was pool diving toys. Diving down takes a little practice, but it’s accomplished by bending your body down in the water while straightening your legs in the air, their weight taking you underwater. Once your legs are submerged, you can kick your fins to take you to the bottom, equalizing the pressure in your ears if necessary (plugging your nose and gently blowing air from your lungs). As you return to the surface, let your body rise naturally, kicking as little as possible to save energy.
Another basic technique I learned was surfacing properly by rolling your head to the top of the water instead of kicking towards daylight and lifting your head out completely when you get there. If you roll your head to the surface instead of taking it out of the water, you’re not dealing with keeping that extra weight afloat, forcing you to kick to avoid taking an unnecessary mouthful of water. Since your snorkel will probably have some water in it, clear it by pinching the plastic tubing on the side closed with your fingers and blow a quick burst of air and the water should go out the purge valve on the snorkel (if you have one). Repeat if it’s not fully clear, breathing around the remaining water.
Handling Stressful Situations
Any time you're in open water, there's a likelihood that something may go wrong. Our instructor gave us a few tools to implement so that we don't panic if we're ever in such a situation. In those dire moments when you’re getting tired and are afraid you might not make it back to shore, there’s a technique that will help you save your energy. In anticipation of potential bouts of exhaustion, we practiced inflating our lungs and floating with our head in the water, breathing through the snorkel and immobilizing our limbs. While looking lifeless in the pool, we were actually experiencing moments of rest, not having to kick or paddle to stay afloat. This can be used intermittently to catch a breather between pushes to get back to shore in a bad current or to conserve energy between tiring dives while snorkeling.
Clearing out our masks was another vital tip we practiced, in the likely chance they get filled with water. We simulated this by pulling the mask away from our faces slightly until we got that obnoxious stream of water flowing into the bottom half of the goggles. To push the water out, all you have to do is blow a burst of air out of your nose and the water gets pushed through the bottom. Now, if I ever get a goggle leak while diving underwater, I know how to clear it without having to surface or remove the mask completely, which leads to fogging and decreased visibility.
For anybody learning how to snorkel or wanting to spend some serious time in the water on their next beach-based vacation, taking a snorkeling class is a good idea. Even though I had been before, I still learned some tips that will benefit me greatly on my next trip. If you don’t plan on taking a course, jump in the pool and try out a few of these techniques before hitting the open water. Not only will they enhance your experience, they might save your life.
Big thanks to Doug, our knowledgeable instructor who had some great diving stories to share and Adventure West Scuba in South Ogden, Utah for being so accommodating.