The ultimate beginner’s guide to snorkelling

So, you’ve booked your holiday of a lifetime, there’s beautiful beaches, clear waters and perhaps even a reef – this is the perfect time to grab your snorkelling gear and go exploring! But you’ve never snorkelled before…

There’s a very simple art to snorkelling but nonetheless, it is an art, so for anyone that is yet to take their first snorkelling plunge (and we will presume that you are as you as you’ve wisely decided to read this post) don’t fear! We’ve created The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Snorkelling just for you.

This snorkelling guide will have you effortlessly snorkelling and exploring reefs like a fish (or a mermaid/man if you’d rather) in no time!

First thing’s first – can you swim?

Yes? Good, okay. Then next let’s determine how strong a swimmer you are.*

Those who are less experienced or confident swimmers, such a children, elderly or those who can’t remember the last time they last dipped a toe in some water (aside from the bath) this might include you too.

The general setting for a good snorkel is the open ocean. This can be a short swim out into a quiet bay just offshore or it can be a beautiful spot in the middle of the ocean with a tour boat. Both of these locations can have currents, waves and potentially sticky situations! Meaning you should never go out alone, always ensure you have a buddy or a guide.

If you’ve classed yourself as a strong or confident swimmer then skip right ahead! However, if you’re being totally honest with yourself and you aren’t sure, consider the following – how much are you willing to spend on a tour that you might struggle to enjoy? Instead, why not get to grips with the basics before you head offshore, renting equipment is usually very affordable and practicing with the snorkelling gear near shore before going out into the middle of the ocean is a much better idea. Should you then decide, after a few short swims in the shallows with your new snorkelling gear, that you’re ready for the plunge – that’s fantastic. You’ll be all the more confident to do so.

However, boat trips usually cater for a range of capabilities and they may expect you to swim a considerable distance, so it might be advisable to ask for a float to aid you. Even if you do think it’s excessive it won’t deter from your experience and will ensure that you enjoy it comfortably and confidently with that bit of extra support. Having worked daily on these tour boats you can take it from us that a lot of people use them and have an equally fulfilling experience – more so than they would have without it!

*If the answer is no and you can’t swim we’d advise that, although you can use a float to stop you from sinking, the currents can be strong and this could potentially be more dangerous than no float. We met many people that decided to learn how to swim and snorkel in one boat trip and it wasn’t much fun – for them or us! So, what we’re kindly suggesting is – don’t go snorkelling if you can’t swim and always be careful when using inflatables in open water.. you might find yourself out of your depth far more quickly than you’d think.

Now that we’ve decided you’re ready to snorkel, let’s get down to the details which,  if you get them right will make the experience all the more enjoyable!

Choosing the right snorkelling equipment:

To buy or to hire?

We all love to own our own gear and look the part on holiday; well, this is your time to shine after all. You may, however want to consider hiring some gear initially, to test out whether you like the experience before you invest in your own equipment. For those who see this as a once in a lifetime experience – in the literal sense – then hiring gear is the perfect option for you (even though we’ve no doubt you’ll be hooked by the end of it).

Finding the right fit and putting your snorkelling gear on correctly is pretty vital if you’re going to have a good time out there; trust us when we say there’s nothing worse than having a leaky mask.

To get the right size and shape mask for your face follow these steps:

  1. Sweep away or pull back any hairs from your forehead.
  2. Take the mask and place it on your face without putting the strap over the back of your head.
  3. Once you’ve got the eye piece against your face, just make sure it’s not dropping below your top lip, but sits on the bit between the bottom of your nose and your top lip – it needs to create a seal. Guys, if you have a moustache or stubble you’ll need to either put vaseline on it to create a seal or, have a shave.
  4. Then inhale gently through your nose and briefly hold your breath whilst you let go of the mask with your hands – remember the strap should be loose and not on your head.
  5. If the mask suctions to your face when you let go, BINGO! It fits – you’re basically a snorkelling Cinderella – now off you pop to find Prince Charming in the ocean! Don’t forget to start breathing again please and catch your mask as it drops off your face!
  6. If your mask doesn’t stay on your face, try again making sure no hair was caught in the mask and you took a big inhale through your nose to vacuum the seal onto your face. If you still have no luck, try a different size or style of mask.
  7. When you put your mask on properly for the water, be sure not to over tighten it – this will only cause the rubber to warp around your face and create ridges which will let water in, it should simply fit comfortably; the pressure of the water on your face will secure it more tightly once you’re in. Ideally you shouldn’t end up with goggle marks when you take your mask off, if you do, it’s too tight.

What about getting the correct snorkel?

When it comes to your snorkel, they generally come in an adult or child size and there’s not much more to it. Sure there’s ones with fancy valves and they come in different colours, but the key to these is simply knowing how to use it properly, which we will get to shortly.

Fins – does one size fit all?

The trick is simply getting your fins in the right size, they may seem slightly tight on land but bear in mind you’ll be in the water and you don’t want them slipping off or rubbing if they’re too loose.

A trick here is to pop the fin on your foot and stand up, then keeping the ball of your foot on the floor, bend your knee and raise your heel off the floor, if your heel stays in the fin – you’re good to go! If it comes off, you need to try again with a smaller size. At the same time, the foot should be comfortable in the fin pocket. If it’s too tight you could end up with foot cramps or blisters.

Bear in mind that foot sizes don’t translate exactly across countries and different brands of fins.

To Wetsuit or Not to Wetsuit?

Depending on where you are in the world, you may or may not need a wetsuit or exposure protection. This depends mostly on the temperature of the water and how susceptible you are to the cold. Bear in mind that you’ll be in the water for a while – half an hour or longer, and you’ll be moving very slowly. Water conducts heat away from the body much faster than air does, meaning that you become cold more quickly. Find out the temperature of the water where you are by asking local guides and whether or not they would recommend wearing a wetsuit, rash vest or just your swim suit. If you’re on a tour and a wetsuit is required, they’ll most likely have them available to hire. A proper fit is required in order for the wetsuit to be more effective, it should be tight so that when you enter the water, a thin layer of water is held between your skin and the inner layer of the wetsuit. This layer of water is then warmed by your body heat, and this in turn insulates and keeps you warm in the water. if the wetsuit is too loose, it won’t hold in that layer of water and you won’t stay insulated! The sizes of hired wetsuits are generally pretty simple – S, M, L etc. so start by picking one that coincides with the size of clothing you usually wear.

Where to snorkel:

If you are new to an area, which is most likely the situation you find yourself in on holiday, the local information centre will be able to provide you with the best snorkelling spots and recommendations for tours. This is the smartest and safest approach to venturing into open water you’re unfamiliar with – whether you’re a novice or not.

How to use your snorkel to swim like a fish (or a mermaid/man if you’d rather!):

Firstly, your snorkel should be attached to your mask with a clip, which hooks on to the strap of your mask. Once you’ve got you mask on and correctly fitted, pop your snorkel in. Get used to it in your mouth, the plastic bit should sit between your teeth but your shouldn’t need to bite onto it – it’s simply there to stop the mouth piece falling out, not as a pacifier! Your lips should be around the mouth piece – intuitively you’ll probably do all this without the need for those instructions. Breathe in and out of your mouth a couple of times and then – in you go!

It’s a good idea to slide into the water in any situation as with a big splash you’re likely to scare away lots of the marine life, this also keeps you in control over when you put your head in the water – avoiding any water going into your snorkel. Then you simply need to pop your face in the water and breathe through your mouth.

Getting used to the snorkel:

The key thing to remember is that it really isn’t as difficult as you might anticipate, simply remember to breathe in and out of your mouth (not hard to master because you’ll soon realise there’s no way of breathing through your nose even if you try) and keep you head face down in the water. As long as the snorkel is above the water you’re going to breathe easily.

It’s likely, however, that in your excitement, you might twist your head, or duck your head a little further down into the water than you realise and get some water in your snorkel. This could be a little or a lot of water, either way don’t panic – you’re in control.

If it’s a lot of water, at this point it’s advisable to simply raise your head out of the water and take the snorkel out of your mouth to drain it. If you’re choking slightly or feel a bit panicked or out of breath just simply float on your back until you’ve regained your ocean chi!

Perhaps it’s just a little bit of water annoyingly gurgling around at the bottom of your snorkel. If so, then you can either do as advised prior or, if you’re happy to keep your head in the water, simply exhale sharply between your teeth with pursed lips making a ‘T’ (TUH!) noise. This should force the water out of the valve at the bottom of the snorkel or out of the top. Once you’ve practiced this you’ll be able to clear your snorkel at any point with this technique meaning you’ll never need to miss a moment under the water!

Getting used to your fins:

Another tip is to try and make sure your fins are below the water as much as possible. Fin slapping on the top and splashing as your swim will probably scare a lot wildlife away or cause it to seek shelter. This can be hard to master initially, but if you’re aware of it you’ll soon figure out how to minimise the splashing! The best way to snorkel is to go SLOWLY, this isn’t the Olympics! The main objective is to see and take in as much marine life as possible whilst causing the least amount of disturbance to the environment.

Being Ocean Smart:

A good idea, where possible is to initially stay near the boat or shore as you need to get used to your fins and snorkel. A lot of people can get a cramp after a minute, this can be because the water is a bit chilly or the fins can cause them to use muscles they wouldn’t usually.

Also make sure to get your bearings before you go snorkelling away from shore or your boat, find a reference point you can keep track of and it’s advisable to keep popping your head up and checking where you are in reference to where you started. If you are on a guided tour, it is best to listen to your guide’s briefing and stay with the group! You don’t want to miss out on any of the action, as the tour guide is most likely to see and spot way more things than you will initially, more so you don’t want to find yourself disorientated. If you’re on your own use your common sense, find yourself a buddy and don’t drift too far away from the boat, we have had brilliant snorkels simply off the  back of the boat and swimming around it. If the conditions are rough make sure you stay near the boat and get out of the water if you should feel uncomfortable, if there’s a big swell or rough weather it’s unlikely the visibility will be very good in any area, so it’s definitely not worth taking the risk for.

Being Ocean Friendly:

For your protection and the protection of the ocean and all its inhabitants, look and don’t touch the wildlife. It’s all there for your viewing pleasure but it is vital not to disturb the environment. It surprises people and it surprised us too, that we would visit the same fish in the same spots almost every time we snorkelled a location – fish have their homes and communities, much like we do. Touching them could transfer bacteria that they can’t cope with and most likely stress them out. Coral is also a living organism, one that is vital for the protection of its inhabitants; allowing reef ecosystems to flourish and remain balanced. All these beautiful living things have a home and much like us, they’d prefer visitors not to come through and disturb them. Also, there are many types of coral that can sting on contact with human skin, causing rashes, infection or worse. Coral is also very sharp and can cut skin very easily, so it’s best not to touch anything! Always be aware of where your limbs and fins are to avoid contact with the coral and marine life to avoid damaging it and yourself. Coral is extremely fragile and one clumsy fin kick can destroy years of growth!

With conservation in mind, it’s worth noting that any good tour operator will also respect these restrictions and look to protect and preserve the ocean and its inhabitants. It is wholly possible to have as much of an engaging and astonishing interaction whilst still protecting the wonders of the ocean.  It’s important not to support tour operators who encourage tourists to hassle or handle wildlife, or disturb or damage any habitats for their own gain. With a small amount of research prior to your trip, you can have a once in a lifetime experience and support the conservation and protection of these wondrous environments, so they may thrive and be enjoyed for centuries to come.

We’d love to hear if our Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Snorkelling has helped you or if you’ve got any other great tips for snorkelling!



All images and content are our own, please contact us if you’d like to know more!

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