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Snorkeling is considered an easy and fun activity that is doable without any special training or certifications. However, there are some minimum requirements everyone should be aware of to avoid getting into dangerous situations, and one of the most important is the ability to swim. In this article, we discuss the safety aspects of snorkeling for non-swimmers and give you some tips on what you can do if are not fully comfortable with swimming in open water but still want to explore the wonders of the ocean. Let’s dive in!
Can you snorkel without knowing how to swim?
The answer to this concern is complex. Technically, snorkeling is just like floating horizontally on the surface of the water and requires little actual swimming, so even non-swimmers can do it. However, this activity is done in bodies of open water and therefore has some potential hazards ever for those who are good swimmers, but the risk level is significantly higher for those who are not comfortable enough with swimming in the ocean or in rivers.
Don’t let others convince you that it is fully safe to go snorkeling if you don’t know how to swim but learn to evaluate your individual situation. Yes, you don’t need to be an Olympic-level swimmer for snorkeling but you need to be aware of the hazards and be able to decide that given the actual weather and water conditions and your own abilities, is this a safe activity to do or not.
Why is snorkeling dangerous for non-swimmers?
As long as there is water, drowning is a possibility. According to CDC, not being able to swim or having weak swimming skills is still the leading cause of fatal drownings.
Here are the main factors (predictable and unforeseeable) that can lead to life-threatening situations while in the water and if one barely knows how to swim or cannot swim at all, the risk of a fatality is highly likely.
Open water fear
Lack of water safety and experience causes panicked feelings. This is when the ‘fight or flight’ instinct kicks in and your brain alarms the nervous system that you are in danger resulting in fast, gasping breaths and promoting the inability of making logical, clear decisions.
If panicking, a weak swimmer can drown in even three feet deep water 10 yards from the shore. This can happen even to good swimmers (for example when the sea gets suddenly rough) but more likely to those who are not comfortable in and around water.
Even the best-fitting and most tested gear can suddenly fail when snorkeling; your masks can start fogging, your snorkel tube can get filled with water and you can even lose your fins due to a broken strap. Such happenings require practice to be handled safely, otherwise they might pose a risk of fatal incidents.
Weather and water conditions
Depth, low water temperatures, fast-changing conditions in terms of waves, wind, currents and tides put non-swimmers at high-risk. To minimize the chance of drowning due to environmental circumstances, having strong swimming skills and using appropriate gear (for example a wetsuit in cold water) as well as safety accessories (like a signaling buoy) are crucial.
Snorkeling happens in natural, open waters where various injuries can happen. It is essential to know what to do and how to get back to the shore if you get injured by hitting an underwater object or the reef, stepping on rocks or getting entangled in marine debris. Such situations are a lot more difficult to solve for those who are struggling with swimming.
Encountering dangerous marine animals
While exploring the ocean and its fish and corals, you will inevitably meet creatures that are venomous, can sting or bite. In case of touching a stinging jellyfish, being circled by a curious shark or attacked by an aggressive fish, it is essential to be able to leave the water as quickly as possible to prevent the situation from getting serious and to get medical help if needed.
Getting stuck in the water
It can happen even to good swimmers that they get disoriented, drift far from the shore or can’t exit the water where they initially planned. In such cases, finding a way to leave and make it back to the shore takes effort.
This can be challenging even for the experienced, but if a weak swimmer realizes that she/he cannot get out of the water, it can throw her/him into panic mode quickly.
Tips for weak swimmers to increase safety while snorkeling
The fact that you are not a good swimmer yet should not hold you back from exploring the underwater world, just follow these safe snorkeling practices:
Do not snorkel solo
Snorkeling in the open ocean can expose you to many surprises like an unexpected injury, drifting too far from the shore, developing cramps or just simply getting tired. Such situations are usually not life-threatening but a lot easier to solve if you have a buddy with you who is more experienced.
For newbies and weak swimmers, the best is to snorkel in a group. Sign up for a tour led by a local guide or find fellow snorkelers you can join to; this will give you increased safety, and you will make new friendships too!
Get good quality gear
Investing in high-quality snorkeling equipment is a sure way to enhance your safety out of several reasons. Well-made products fit better, are more comfortable to wear and are less likely to break so the chance of finding yourself in risky situations due to a leaking mask or broken fin will be a lot lower.
If you need help on how to choose equipment, you find many related posts in our snorkel gear guides.
Use safety accessories
If you don’t know how to swim or are not comfortable in large bodies of water yet, consider using additional safety accessories, which can be:
Before any physical activity, it is important to warm up. If you are not a regular swimmer, doing a warm-up and some stretching exercises is essential since you will work those parts of your body that you usually don’t which increases the risk of muscle and joint injury.
Perform a few exercises at the beach; a few minutes of arm circles, torso twists, air squats, triceps extension and quad pulls will help get the blood flowing throughout your body so you can swim with greater ease.
It is important for non-swimmers to prepare mentally for their first snorkeling excursion, not only physically. A lack of mental preparedness can result in panicking and in mishaps with the equipment.
Non-swimmers or those who never swam in open water before can experience anxiety and stress-related symptoms like increased heart rate, shaking, and even the feeling that you can’t breathe. Therefore, learning to remain calm, relaxed and overcome the fear of swimming is essential. The best way of this is to do a few basic exercises in a swimming pool or in shallow water supervised by your snorkel buddy, a supportive person or a lifeguard before jumping into deep water
Choose a safe location
Water conditions are the most important to check. While some are very confident swimming when the sea is choppy, a person who cannot swim well should not enter the water when it is rough. Water movements can affect underwater visibility too making your snorkeling experience not only unenjoyable but also dangerous by increasing the risk of hitting underwater objects.
Never underestimate the power of the ocean and know where and when is the best time to go snorkeling. Choose a sunny, wind-free day and look for a location with calm, shallow waters.
First time snorkelers are recommended to snorkel from the shore and try boat snorkeling only when they are more experienced and are comfortable swimming in deep water. Also, make sure not to swim into areas where there is or heavy boat traffic which is usually around marinas and fishing piers.
Check for underwater hazards
Less experienced water explorers should avoid areas with dangerous marine animals or where there is debris present. You do not want to find yourself running from a curios sea lion or getting entangled in a ghost fishing net when you are still struggling with your swimming skills, so make your research and/or ask around if there is any potential hazard you need to be aware of at the place where you want to snorkel.
How to prepare for your future snorkeling trips
There are many ways one can increase the level of safety for your future snorkeling excursions even when you are not near the ocean. If you think your skills are not good enough, consider the following:
Take swimming lessons
Basic swimming skills can be life-saving, no matter whether you are planning to do water activities or not. To prevent tragic accidents, children can start learning water survival skills and the basics of swimming around the age of one.
If you did not learn how to swim as a kid, don’t be afraid to take swimming lessons as an adult; it is a great way of keeping your body healthy and taking a break from the hustle and bustle of life. You will be surprised how big improvement you can achieve just after just a few sessions with a professional instructor so on your next vacation, your safety level in the water will be a lot higher!
No matter how effortless snorkeling looks, swimming out in the sun can be very tiring, especially if there are some currents and waves or you are not used to regular physical activity.
Tiredness increases the risk of accidents and injuries, so if you are planning to engage in snorkeling and swimming, it is recommended to start working on your base fitness level by practicing any steady physical activity that helps build endurance and stamina such as jogging, running or cycling.
Learn how to use your gear
Having good quality gear is just the first step towards a safe snorkeling experience. You also need to know how to use your equipment and what to do in case of failure so a fogging mask or a flooded snorkel won’t pose a risk to you.
Practice snorkeling in a pool
Learning how to snorkel in the sea where the conditions are not constant and there might be underwater hazards can be stressful. For some, even getting the face wet causes stress; the solution is not using a full-face snorkel mask as many people think but overcoming your fear so you will not panic if your head gets (intentionally or by accident) underwater.
A swimming pool provides the best-controlled environment so if you have access to one, practice there. When you know how to put on and remove your mask, how to breathe through a snorkel and kick with your fins in the right way while remaining calm and relaxed, then you can safely move to open water.
Being a non-swimmer does not mean you cannot do snorkeling but it requires some preparation and planning. Being aware of the potential hazards, knowing how to read weather and water conditions and how to evaluate your own capabilities is crucial to stay safe. If you enjoyed your first-time snorkeling experience and decided to practice this enjoyable water activity frequently in the future, taking swimming lessons and learning how to get comfortable in various water conditions must be a priority for you.
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