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What Is Snorkeling – Basics Explained By A Pro Snorkeler

Snorkeling -observing the underwater world while swimming at the surface of the water using a snorkel mask, a breathing tube, and flippers- is one of the most versatile beach activities since it can be done by (almost) anyone in many places, including salt and freshwater.

Anett Szaszi - Snorkel Around The World

Written by Anett Szaszi

Anett is a certified scuba diver, freediver, and an expert in snorkeling with more than 10 years of experience. She fell in love with the ocean while snorkeling in the Red Sea on a vacation to Egypt back in 2008. Since then, she has been traveling to discover the world’s best snorkeling spots and sharing her experience and tips to inspire others. Find her photos on @anett.szaszi Instagram too!

It is not only a water sport to keep you active and in shape while on vacation but also an excellent way of connecting with nature and learning about marine life. To start snorkeling, no special training or certification is needed; anyone with some swimming skills and water comfort can learn how to snorkel in a relatively short time and following some basic safety rules, even beginners can experience underwater wonders such as swimming over coral reefs or observing sea creatures such as turtles, manta rays and tropical fish in their natural environments.

Whether you are thinking about trying snorkeling for the first time or have already gained some experience and want to know more, here’s what you need to know about this fun water sport.

What Is The Concept Of Snorkeling?

A snorkeler snorkeling in the Ocean

Snorkeling is one of the most trending leisure beach activities for discovering the underwater world and making a nature connection. Stating the popularity of this water sport, according to a recent report, nearly 8 million Americans have gone snorkeling.

However, you may be curious to know exactly what people are doing when they head into the water wearing snorkeling equipment if this is an activity that you’ve never been formally introduced to before! So, let’s clarify the concept of How does snorkeling work?

Snorkeling is the practice of swimming either on or through a body of water wearing a mask, breathing tube, and fins. It gets its name from the fact that the breathing tube used during this activity is called a snorkel.

The use of a snorkeling mask makes the snorkeler see underwater; breathing through a snorkel tube helps exploration without the need to constantly bob back up to the surface to take a breath, while the fins ensure more efficient propulsion, effortless swimming, and great maneuverability.

Do I Need A Certificate For Snorkeling?

No special certifications or training are required for snorkeling. You do not need a snorkeling license. This common water sport is mostly enjoyed at the water’s surface. If you can swim, no special skills need to do it, just learning and practicing the right snorkeling technique.

Although it is not a requirement, snorkel courses are available. For example, SSI (Scuba Schools International organization teaching scuba diving and freediving, this is where I did my Open Water Diver course) offers a Snorkel Diver Program where you will be introduced to basic skills and equipment. Moreover, most dive centers also offer ‘quick trainings’ where a scuba instructor or snorkel guide teaches the basics of snorkeling for beginners.

History Of Snorkeling

person holding snorkel and mask

There’s some debate over when snorkeling was invented, but it may date back to ancient times!

In his writings, Aristotle references divers using instruments for breathing that resemble the trunks of elephants. Farmers in Crete may have used hollowed-out reeds for primitive snorkeling 5,000 years ago.

It’s known that the first patent application for a swimming breathing device was filed in 1929 by Barney B. Girden. Another patent filed by Joseph L. Belcher in 1932 described a breathing apparatus that delivers air to a submerged person by suction from the surface of the water through hoses connected to a float.

Throughout the next few years, the first swimmer’s mask with integrated breathing tubes was created which eventually became known as the snorkel by 1950.

Benefits Of Snorkeling

In addition to offering a fun outdoor adventure, a snorkeling excursion is also great for the body and mind. Let’s look at briefly some fantastic benefits of snorkeling:

  • Burns Calories: Snorkeling is a great way to stay active. Many people love the fact that they can feel cool and refreshed while working out in the water. It’s possible to burn up to 300 calories per hour while snorkeling.
  • Improves Breath Control: The proper breathing needed for snorkeling trains the snorkeler to pay attention to every breath. The rushed, short breaths people tend to take while feeling frazzled during a busy day won’t work when breathing through a snorkel tube! A great benefit of regular snorkeling is that you learn how to breathe slowly and evenly, which can benefit your overall well-being.
  • Supports Joint Health: Unlike land sports, snorkeling is a low-impact activity that allows you to keep active for a long time without stressing your joints.
  • Boosts Mood: There is something peaceful and meditative about snorkeling! Many people find that it helps them achieve calmness and clarity.
  • Offers Incredible Views and Lets You Connect With Nature: Snorkeling opens up a new world by allowing snorkelers to be submerged in underwater ecosystems with corals, sponges, fish, and various marine species that aren’t visible from above the water.

What Gear Do I Need For Snorkeling?

masks, snorkels and fins in the sand

A snorkeling journey starts with having comfortable, fitting gear. Luckily, snorkeling requires little equipment; basically, you will need only these essentials:

  • Snorkeling mask: this can be a traditional single-lens or two-window mask or full face snorkeling mask. Such new masks come with an integrated snorkel, but using them needs attention; learn about their safety concerns and proper use before buying one. If you wear glasses, there are masks with corrective prescription lenses.
  • Snorkel tube: from classical “J” snorkels to dry snorkels that prevent water from entering the tube, there are endless choices to choose a snorkel. The most important is picking an ergonomic one that won’t cause discomfort.
  • Fins: technically, it is not essential to have snorkeling fins, but I strongly recommend using them because swimming without fins can make you tired or drift away if you get caught by a strong current. Fins make you swim more efficiently and maneuver better. The best snorkeling fins for average snorkelers are medium-long fins with medium-stiff blades.

Besides this basic snorkel equipment, here are some additional gears to make your underwater experience safer and more enjoyable:

  • Rash guard/UV protection clothing: to protect yourself from sunburn and avoid accidental contact with jellyfish, I recommend wearing long sleeve high SPF shirts and pants when snorkeling.
  • Wetsuit: a wetsuit is used when exploring brisker waters. Of course, it depends on your personal preferences if you use one, but generally, you need a shorty when the water is between 24-26C/75-78.8F and a full-length wetsuit when it is colder than 23C/73.4F.
  • Snorkel vest/life vest: an inflatable snorkel vest is one of the most used accessories for snorkeling. It is a floatation device that helps with buoyancy control and ensures that you stay afloat if you can’t continue swimming.
  • Dive flag: a high visibility floating surface marker helps indicate your position and provides a resting place if you tire.
  • Underwater camera: when you are comfortable enough in the water, don’t miss out on recording your adventures; get a waterproof camera or a GoPro so you can re-live your best underwater moments even at home!
  • Sunscreen: sun protection is essential when spending time near and in the water; however, be sure your sunscreen is not harming marine ecosystems!
  • Snorkel bag: the easiest way of storing and carrying your gear is getting a snorkel bag. Mesh bags offer quick draining and air-drying, while waterproof bags are practical when transporting your wet gear home.

If you’re snorkeling with an agency, you’ll likely be provided with gear. However, due to personal hygiene and fitting, I always recommend carrying and using your own gear!

Do I need Weight For Snorkeling?

snorkeling while using a weight belt

No, you do not need a weight belt for snorkeling, especially if you are a beginner or someone who is comfortable in deeper water only when wearing a snorkel vest. The purpose of a weight belt is to help you move downward with less physical energy and to compensate for your buoyancy so you can preserve your breath.

Therefore, for a beginner snorkeler who is just learning what is snorkeling, how to do it, and most probably, struggles with buoyancy, using a weight belt is not only not recommended but can be dangerous. A person who has strong water comfort, some breath-holding skills, and is comfortable to “free dive” to get closer to marine life for observation or take pictures may use one.

How To Start Snorkeling

woman snorkeling in the sea near rocks

So now that you know what snorkeling is, what gear you need and why is it a fantastic beach sport, you will probably ask how to begin with this activity.

Let’s see briefly the basic steps of how to start snorkeling:

Get your gear: Getting your snorkeling accessories in your hands a few weeks before your planned underwater adventure is smart because you’ll have time to ensure everything fits comfortably. It’s also helpful to spend some time getting familiar with your gear on “dry land” to allow your body to get used to the feeling of the equipment.

Choose a safe place to practice: Don’t just leap into the ocean when snorkeling for the first time. Start in shallow water to get a feel for the equipment. If possible, practice in a pool before you head to the beach; ask a friend, a dive instructor, or a snorkel guide to learn how to snorkel.

Make a plan: It is important to know the layout of the snorkel site, including where you will head, where you will turn around or loop back, and where the entry and exit points are. Make sure you have decided on a plan of where and how long the snorkel session will be and agreed with your snorkel buddy/ies.

You should also agree on a plan in case someone is to get lost or if they need to exit the water. Make sure that you have told people on the shore/boat where you are going and when you plan to be back. It is important to stick to this plan.

Enter the water and practice the right snorkeling technique: While you don’t need special training to become a snorkeler, learning how to snorkel (using your mask, breathing through the snorkel and swimming efficiently with fins) takes some practice.

Master your snorkeling skills in safe, shallow waters before hitting deep, open water. Knowing how to properly use your gear and troubleshoot common snorkeling mistakes such as mask fogging, water entering the snorkel, or having leg cramps are important skills in order to have an enjoyable and safe snorkeling experience.

Skin Diving vs. Snorkeling

Skin diving is an advanced version of snorkeling that uses almost all the same gear. While snorkelers stay just under the water’s surface, skin divers dive down while holding their breath, usually up to 30-50 feet for up to 30-60 seconds at a time, depending on their skills and the conditions.

These short dives are conducted for everything from snatching fish to taking photos. The big difference is that you won’t wear a snorkel vest when skin diving and may use a weight belt.

Snorkeling vs. Scuba Diving

Most people usually sign up for a scuba diving course after falling in love with the underwater world during snorkeling. (I did the other way around, but there are always exemptions, aren’t there?)

So, how does snorkeling work differently from scuba diving? Scuba diving allows you to go deeper and spend more time underwater using special equipment, most importantly a BCD, regulator and a tank.

Indeed, diving takes your underwater adventures to the next level; however, keep in mind that it requires more gear, a certification, and good health, so all in all, it is more expensive and complicated than simply putting your snorkel, mask and fins on and jumping into the water.

Tips For Beginners

There are many useful advice I can give to a newbie that I’ve learned over the years, but essentially, the most important steps for beginner snorkelers are all about getting comfortable in the water and using the equipment properly, as summarized here:

  • Make sure that you buy good quality snorkeling equipment, all pieces fit well, are in good condition and you can properly use your gear before you get in the water.
  • Brush up on your swimming skills before you get into deeper water. You can’t snorkel if you can’t swim. While you don’t need to be a strong swimmer to snorkel, solid basic water skills are essential! If it’s been a while since you’ve gone swimming, you can improve your swimming skills with some swimming lessons before a vacation involving snorkeling.
  • Practice in protected waters first. This can be a pool or a shallow lagoon where you can safely master basic snorkeling skills.
  • When snorkeling for the first time in open water, choose a protected, current-free place. The best is to stay in designated areas, with lifeguards present if possible.
  • Know your own limitations; do not go snorkeling if you feel unwell. While snorkeling is generally safe for everyone, it can become dangerous for people with medical or health conditions, making them vulnerable in high-risk situations. Confirm that you have the physical fitness to safely snorkel before participating in this activity.

Basic Snorkeling Safety Rules To Follow

couple prepares to go snorkeling

All general beach and water safety rules for swimmers apply to snorkelers too, but snorkelers also need to be aware of specific marine hazards and underwater risks and how to avoid them.

Here are the golden rules of snorkeling safety:

  • Check the weather forecast before getting into the water. Clear, sunny days create ideal weather conditions, but you can go snorkeling at night too given safe, calm conditions. Storms can bring winds and heavy rains that can cause waves to swell. While snorkeling in light rain is generally considered safe, storms that bring wind and lightning can put you in danger!
  • Stay close to the shore; only go as far out as you feel safe swimming back.
  • Always snorkel with a buddy or join a group excursion.
  • Avoid mixing snorkeling with alcohol.
  • Avoid snorkeling on a full stomach to prevent cramping.
  • Never touch corals or disturb marine life; always keep a safe distance to avoid physical injuries or attacks.

What Are The Best Places To Go Snorkeling?

Snorkeling is great for enjoying an underwater adventure in nearly any body of water that’s considered safe for swimming! People snorkel in freshwater bodies and oceans all over the world!

Ocean environments are the top choices for adventurers seeking to explore reefs that are teeming with corals, tropical fish, crustaceans, and marine mammals.
The Great Barrier Reef, the Florida Keys, the Red Sea, The Maldives, The Caribbean region, and Indonesia are considered some of the best places for snorkeling.

You can even snorkel in fresh water, including lakes and rivers. Although freshwater flora and fauna are not as colorful as the ocean, I’m sure you will encounter many exciting creatures if you explore such places.

Some of the most popular freshwater snorkeling spots are the Florida Springs, the Mexican Cenotes, The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary at Lake Huron, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore at Lake Michigan, Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe, and lakes in the European Alps.

Tips To Choose The Right Snorkeling Location

Every snorkel spot is different so you should do some research before entering the water to confirm whether the location is safe for snorkeling. Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing a snorkel spot, regardless of which country you are in:

  • Is the spot popular with other snorkelers?: If it is a popular snorkeling spot, chances are it is a safe place to snorkel. It also means there are probably lots of exciting things to see there! Ask around for popular snorkeling spots and head there. This will ensure that you are snorkeling around other people which will provide safety in numbers.
  • Research the snorkel site: You should check if a snorkel spot is prone to strong currents, has an easy entry and exit point, and if it has hazards such as sharp rocks, rocky overhangs, boat traffic or dangerous marine animals. If you are worried about any of the above, avoid snorkeling there! When unsure, research online or ask locals!
  • Check the conditions: Before actually entering the water, check the wind and weather forecast. Even a safe snorkeling spot can become unsafe when strong winds, currents or big waves hit the area creating uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous conditions. Avoid snorkeling if a thunderstorm is expected.

Usually, shallow lagoons are ideal for snorkeling because they are protected and clearer than open water. That means you can enjoy observing the underwater landscape and marine life safely. If there is a designated snorkel area, it is always the safest to go there snorkeling.

What Can You See While Snorkeling?

coral reef near seashore

What you’ll see while snorkeling varies based on which snorkeling locations you pick. Ocean environments provide the most exciting snorkeling experience where you can expect to see vibrant coral reefs, colorful tropical fish, sea stars, sea cucumbers, sea clams, sea snails, and slugs.

At such places, often stingrays, turtles, eagle rays, octopuses, and lobsters can be observed too, while there are places where you can easily encounter sharks, dolphins, manatees, or even filter-feeder giants such as manta rays or whale sharks.

Remember that marine encounters are never guaranteed. Certain species can be observed only at certain locations and times of the year, so if you are dreaming about a special encounter, research the best place and time to make it happen.

Also, choose responsible tours that do not chase or disturb marine life, just respectfully observe them.

observing a sea turtle while snorkeling

Conclusion – Final Thoughts On Snorkeling

Answering the question of what is snorkeling, learning the basics, and getting to know some safety tips should help you to feel prepared to snorkel for the first time. This water activity is gaining popularity with good reason; it is easy to learn, enjoyable, cost-effective, and can be done by (almost) anybody and at more places you could ever imagine, not only in salty water. Are you ready to swim among colorful coral reefs, tropical fish, encounter turtles, dolphins, and many more cute marine animals, get your gear in hand and start planning your snorkeling vacation!

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