Beginners at snorkeling not only learn to wear and use equipment, they also deal with claustrophobia, the lack of swimming ability and a deep-seated fear of water. Adapting to an aquatic environment, however temporary, needs both physical and psychological skills.
Many people assume snorkeling is so easy that little or no instruction is needed to master the skill. This simply isn’t true. In addition to learning the fit and use of equipment, many snorkelers must deal with more sophisticated issues: long term fear of the water, feelings of claustrophobia or lack of swimming ability.
Snorkeling is perhaps the easiest method of immersing oneself in a true wilderness environment. It’s safe, easy, enjoyable and relaxing. Clearly, a little snorkeling instruction can be invaluable in developing calm confidence in the water. Scuba divers, too, can benefit by honing their skills; relaxation in the water is a shared goal. Whether you are a novice or an expert, the following tips should prove useful in your snorkeling activities.
Quite often, becoming comfortable in the water involves as much psychology as physical skill development. On land we can breathe through our nose. With a mask and snorkel breathing is by mouth only. When we place our faces underwater, all our well-earned survival instincts are saying, “Don’t do this, silly. I need air to live!”
As a child, I remember practicing breathing through a snorkel while watching television. Even after mastering calm, even breaths in a swimming pool, I had to literally force myself to inhale, against my better judgment, during my first forays into the open sea.
Begin by learning how to use the equipment. When you put on your mask for snorkeling, be sure it seals well around your entire face; brush all your hair back and, if you’re wearing a bathing cap, be sure it doesn’t interfere with the mask’s edge. Condensation may form on the inner surface. Fortunately, mask clouding is easily avoided by swishing a little saliva or commercially available anti-fogging solution on the inside of the glass before going in the water each time. Sometimes new masks have a protective film that is best removed with a very light abrasive. Some people effectively use toothpaste. It’s best to avoid putting suntan lotion on your nose or face when snorkeling because the water can occasionally flush some into your eyes.
Your snorkel essentially transfers your mouth to the back of your head permitting you to breathe while floating face down in the water. This is a novel experience for most of us. It may help to first use the snorkel out of the water, progressing to a pool or calm, shallow water as you become more comfortable.
Beginners are encouraged to develop their skills by deliberately flooding their masks and snorkels while still in shallow water. Dip your head down until you hear and feel water entering the snorkel. How do you clear the water from a flooded snorkel or mask? When all else fails, a mask and snorkel come off as easily as they go on. There are, however, other more commonly used methods. For the snorkel, exhale a burst of air through your mouth, breathing in cautiously at first to make sure you’ve forced all the water out. To clear a flooded mask, place your hand on the upper edge of the mask, tilt your head back at a 45 degree angle, or turn your head sidewise, and blow air through your nose until the water is eliminated.
Fins are great in the water, but awkward as snowshoes on land. If you’re going to a snorkeling area from a calm beach, try putting on your fins in waist deep water. Snorkeling companions can help one another maintain balance. On boats, fins are usually put on at the dive platform and taken off before climbing up a ladder. While fins can facilitate fast swimming, their greatest asset is increased efficiency. Used gently, they let you glide nearly effortlessly along the surface, keeping your body in a relaxing horizontal position. Not only does this help keep your snorkel above water but it keeps your face looking down comfortably. Remember to look where you’re going every now and then to avoid bumping into a boat, parts of the reef or your friends!
Rather than zoom around the entire area, many snorkelers find that once they locate an interesting area, a shallow coral head for example, they actually see much more by floating quietly in one place. Many reef creatures rely on cryptic coloration for survival and are only noticed upon careful observation. If you relax in one place, small fish and other reef life become accustomed to your presence, realize you are not a link in their food chain and come out of hiding to resume their normal routine.
With fins, propulsion is by easy, gentle kicking. You rarely need to use your arms – let them rest comfortably by your side or float one in front of your head to act as a bumper. To move through the water kick with your knees and ankles loose. Gently lead your fins up and down and allow the pressure to flex your joints. This lets your muscles expand and contract, promotes muscular respiration, diminishes lactic acid buildup and makes your legs far less susceptible to cramps.
Once you’re comfortable on the surface, you may wish to swim down and take a closer look. Many of the most interesting aspects of the reef are small. Tiny translucent shrimps and crabs dwell safely in the protective tentacles of large anemones and little fish often hide in coral crevices. Venturing into the underwater world isn’t difficult but it takes some practice.
Here’s how: Relax at the surface, breathing normally. Take a breath and hold it. Bend at the waist so your head is pointing down, lift your legs above your head and use your arms to help start your downward motion, then continue by kicking your legs. Now the most important part: equalizing your ears. As you swim downward and before you feel any pressure, put a hand to the nosepiece of your mask and squeeze your nostrils closed. At the same time, try to gently blow some air through your nose – of course, no air should come out because of your squeezed nostrils. This will equalize your ears. Continue to equalize your ears as long as you descend. If you feel any pain, come up and try again. Equalizing your ears is a necessary part of freediving and, when done early and often, will prevent any pain or damage to your eardrums. Sometimes sinuses may be congested, especially if you have a cold or allergies. This can hinder equalization and be dangerous for your ears. Over the counter medications can help if taken as directed before snorkeling.
While underwater, stay relaxed! The more relaxed you are, the longer you can stay down. When you ascend, look up and watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. Upon arrival at the surface, clear your snorkel with a burst of air, then cautiously breath in. Your freediving skills will improve with practice.
Relaxed snorkelers stay underwater longer and more thoroughly enjoy the experience. One easy relaxation technique is the development of an even, regular breathing pattern in the water.
Probably the most important responsibility is to listen to and abide by your personal limitations. Much will depend on water temperature, surge or current conditions, how much sleep you may have had the night before or how much snorkeling you’ve already done that day. Individually, each of us knows best what our limitations are on any given day and we must be responsive to those messages.
With relaxation in mind, another precaution is simply to move slowly. Most injuries are caused by reflex actions that bang extremities into relatively immovable objects: boats, reefs, piers, etc. Incidentally, even small scrapes in the tropics, especially coral cuts, can become easily infected. Be sure to clean all cuts very thoroughly and apply a little antibiotic cream to help them heal more quickly.
While many people measure snorkeling skills by how long they can stay in the water, how fast they can kick, how deep they can freedive or how long they can stay beneath the surface, the real measure of skill is the ability to remain relaxed. Don’t get discouraged if it feels a bit awkward in the beginning. Set your own pace. Like many other skills, snorkeling requires training and the more you do, the better you will get. Developing and maintaining a calm, easy demeanor in the water will be your best key to unlocking the treasure chest of fascinating mysteries contained within the underwater world.
In upcoming issues I will examine these and other snorkeling techniques in greater detail but, until then, I hope that these tips will prove useful in furthering your snorkeling enjoyment.