12 Dangers of Snorkeling and How to Stay Safe

Snorkeling can be one of the most fun and relaxing water sports available.  It is a visual opportunity for discovery in one of nature’s most beautiful spaces to explore.  However, before diving in, it is essential to know how to enjoy this endeavor safely.  

What are some dangers of snorkeling? Some of the risks that come with snorkeling include:

  • Sun damage and overheating
  • Dehydration
  • Exhaustion and cramps
  • Man-made and natural obstacles
  • Drowning
  • Equipment failure

Water alone has its inherent dangers, yet currents, reefs, distractions, and gear can add to the hazard if you aren’t prepared when snorkeling.  Hopefully, the below list will help to minimize the risk involved and allow you to get the most fun out of your leisure.  If anything may threaten your enjoyment, you can learn about it here, as well as correct ways to avoid it.

Is snorkeling dangerous?

Snorkeling is generally a safe and gratifying activity when modest precautions are adhered to.  However, if you suffer from certain health concerns like asthma, seizures, heart issues, or panic attacks, it’s always best to consult with your physician before going in the water.

As with any sport, the dangers can be curtailed through preparation.  Make sure you have the proper gear with the correct size to fit your body.  A few lessons and practice sessions in a pool or other calm water will also help to prepare you for the real thing. I’ve also posted on why you may want to carry an emergency whistle.

But let’s get to our list!

12 Dangers of Snorkeling & How to Stay Safe

The following is a list of the most common dangers of snorkeling and how they can easily be prevented: 

The Sun

The sun is a risk with any outdoor activity. However, often when splashing around in cool water, we tend to forget the damaging effects of too much sun exposure.  The sun can be damaging no matter of age or skin color; the length of exposure determines the risk. However, fair-skinned people are generally at higher threat of harm and should take greater precautions.

Sunburn is never pleasant, but longer exposure could even lead to sun poisoning; this could cause blistering of the skin, headache, fever, swelling, and even nausea and dizziness.  The effects of sun poisoning can last ten days to two weeks, which would ruin anyone’s trip to the beach.

The use of sunscreen is highly suggested, preferably a water-resistant sunscreen.  You should also reapply regularly according to product recommendations. Wet suits or UV shirts from Amazon can also protect against the damaging effects of overexposure to the sun.  

Eye injuries are also a concern when discussing sun damage.  Overexposure to UV rays can cause harm to the eye’s cornea, or blurry vision.  For that reason, it is important to have sunglasses with good UV protective lenses for use any time you are not in the water. 

Overheating

In the vein of sun exposure, it is also important to talk about how the body can become overheated; this isn’t normally what you would consider when participating in a water sport, but a very real possibility.

The further south you go, the warmer the water temperature will grow; this opens the body up to the potential for overheating.  Also, if you choose to wear a wet suit for protection against other risks, the body could potentially heat up faster.

Overheating causes an increase in blood flow to the skin, which causes the heart to have to work harder; this can also cause dizziness and nausea, neither of which you would want to suffer while underwater.  Overheating could also lead to heatstroke, which is dangerous enough on dry land but could be even more deadly in a watery environment.

It is important to take frequent breaks while diving in warmer waters and be aware if you feel that you are getting overly hot.

Dehydration

Getting enough water is something that tends to slip your mind when involving yourself in water activities.

Swimming probably works more of the body’s muscles than any other outdoor activity, making the act of snorkeling is a rigorous exercise.  As such, the body needs to stay hydrated; and you don’t want to be sucking down the saltwater.

Just be sure to take plenty of freshwater along with you on your outing, and even though you may not feel thirsty, stay hydrated! Sports drinks are a good alternative, as well.

Exhaustion

Snorkeling is a demanding activity.  It is also filled with sights and experiences that will cause you to lose track of how fatigued you may be getting. I’ve written about the reasons it is more fatiguing than you might expect.

Exhaustion can set in before you know it, and out on the water is the last place you want to get fatigued, especially if you are far from shore.  Take plenty of breaks while swimming, and always save enough energy for the swim back.

It is very important, as well, that you are getting the right amount of sleep before engaging in snorkeling.  You also should be in reasonable physical condition before you take on a activity like this.  If you aren’t used to regular exercise, then you may experience earlier fatigue in the water.

Cramps

Muscle cramps can be very dangerous in the water, and especially in the ocean.  The waves are harder to fight against, and painful cramps could have you struggling to move.

Cramps will occur more often in fatigued muscles, so taking steps to avoid exhaustion will pay off here too.  Not getting enough to drink can also result in cramps, so staying hydrated will help.

The body also needs salt to guard against this condition, but that still does not mean to go gulping down mouthfuls of saltwater if you can help it!  Most sports drinks on the market are infused with a healthy amount of salt that will aid in preventing cramps.

A lack of carbohydrates can also lead to muscle cramps, so make sure that your diet is a healthy one before taking on the physical exertion of snorkeling.

Snorkeling can include free diving to get a closer look like this woman is doing

Cables, Wires, Nets, and Fishing Line

Much of the dangers in our seas are man-made.  Littering and careless fishing habits have attributed to many of the threats in our waters. These are also major threats to the underwater environment as well.

Shipwrecks and other accidents on the ocean also create debris that washes up near the shores, and into the areas that we go snorkeling.

It is always important to keep your eyes open and be aware of your surroundings when snorkeling.  Also, snorkeling is best enjoyed through observation and not by poking and prodding around in the sand to see what you can dig up.

This kind of activity can easily result in cuts, snags, and scrapes. ALWAYS BE A NO TOUCH SNORKELER. Even a small touch can damage years of coral growth. Leave the marine environment as you found it so the next person can enjoy it.

It is very easy to become tangled in fishing line left on the sea bed; this could immobilize a diver, or trap you under the waves.  Fishing line can be floating in the water as well, so don’t get so distracted that you aren’t attuned to what is going on around you.

Coral and Sharp Rocks

Ocean floors can often contain many geographic hazards, such as sharp rocks.  Brushing up against these surfaces can cause some pretty nasty gashes if you aren’t careful, so keep an eye out for rocks on the seafloor and always be aware of your surroundings. 

Coral is one of the ocean’s most beautiful sights, and one of the reasons that many enjoy snorkeling in the first place.  Still, the beauties of coral reefs come with perils that need to be respected.

The coral itself is fragile, so coming into contact with it can break the coral and kill it.  Coral is a living organism, after all.  Some coral, like fire coral, can cause major stings.

Not only that but often, coral is harder than it looks and can cause abrasions to the skin.  In some cases, coral can even have poisonous properties, and if contacted by the skin or, if it were to cause abrasion, could cause severe pain, fever, or irritating rashes.

Let’s also not forget that coral is often the habitat for many different species of fish and other sea wildlife.  Some of this wildlife is also toxic to humans and may be able to sting.  Stings from some of these animals can have similar effects to the ones discussed regarding coral and can be extremely unpleasant, possibly causing your vacation to be cut short.

Marine Life

The seas are teeming with marine life and, like coral, could be a chief reason for the gratification of snorkeling in the first place.  Though sea life is wonderful to behold in its natural environment, it does come with dangers if you don’t practice extreme care.

Of course, the first thing that usually pops into everyone’s mind when talking about dangerous marine life is sharks; this may surprise you, but shark attacks on humans are extremely rare.  As a rule, if you aren’t doing anything to agitate a shark, they will most likely simply avoid you.

However, avoid wearing flashy jewelry or any other shiny materials such as this could look like a glittery fish scale to a shark.  They are predators and will scope out something they think is a meal.  Some have also received accidental shark bites due to feeding other fish in the presence of sharks. 

Here is the disclaimer, though; if you see a shark, it is safest just to get out of the water. However, I don’t practice that, having dived with sharks numerous times.

Some other marine life that may pose a threat are:

  • Jellyfish/Portuguese Man o’ War – The Man o’ war is a group of organisms that is closely related to the jellyfish.  Both the jellyfish and the Portuguese Man o’war have long tentacles with stinging cells that are very painful when contacted.  Though neither is aggressive, an unaware snorkeler can still accidentally become tangled in these tentacles.  A good defense against these creatures is a wet suit.
  • Stingrays – These are not aggressive animals, but when cornered will attack humans.  Their barbed tails contain extremely painful venom.  Stingrays will also bury themselves under the sand to camouflage themselves, or to forage for food.  This action makes them easy to overlook, so stepping on, or placing a hand on them is a common mistake made by snorkelers that will most often result in a sting.  
  • Sea Urchins – Sea Urchins are also not an aggressive species.  However, they are covered with spines, and some Sea Urchins inject a painful venom through these spines.  An unsuspecting diver may touch or bump against these spines and get a big surprise.  They can even penetrate the wetsuit of a diver that is not aware of their surroundings.
  • Barracuda – Much like sharks, these are predatory animals that do not normally attack humans.  Also, like sharks, they could mistake shiny materials for fish scales, prompting an attack.  Barracudas have many very sharp teeth that could inflict serious injury should a diver be bitten, so steer clear and do not feed other fish in their presence. 
  • Lionfish – These are stunning fish covered with colorful, featherlike quills.  You may be tempted to touch but, if you do, these quills contain a powerful neurotoxin that is exceptionally painful and could cause allergic reactions.  The colorful quills also do a good job of camouflage in coral reefs, so accidental contact is possible.  
  • Triggerfish – Most fish are very skittish and flee from humans, and this is the case with some species of Triggerfish.  However, other species, like the Titan Triggerfish, are highly aggressive and will defend their territory.  They do have teeth and will bite and butt at intruders.
  • Lobsters/Crab – For the most part, a diver will have nothing to fear from Crab or Lobsters.  Yet it is important to mention that these animals have strong pinchers that will cause a lot of pain if you accidentally touch them, or happen to corner one.
  • Remoras – Again, usually, a diver will not have to fear these animals.  They hitch-hike on other aquatic animals like sharks or sea turtles.  However, when not attached to another animal, they are always on the hunt for a host and will try to cling to anything moving.  They are mostly just annoying to divers, but their sucker type mouths can cause a scrape if they can attach themselves to a body.

The important thing to remember, when encountering sea life, is to be aware of your surroundings, keep your hands to yourself, and do not feed the fish!

Boats and Buoys

Objects on the surface of the water pose a threat to snorkelers as well.  Since much of the fun of snorkeling is gained from observation while treading the surface, you need to be aware of boats and buoys.

Buoys are a permanent staple near the coast, and you might think they would be hard to miss.  They are usually anchored on the seafloor with the buoy floating on the surface.  The chains and the buoys themselves are often made of steel, thus making them easy to strike with your head when flipping on the water’s surface.

If you are swimming at a fast pace, you may not see these items until it is too late, so again it is important to be aware of your surroundings.

Boats pose a dangerous threat as well.  A swimmer just under the surface is hard for a boater to see, so swimming with a dive flag can aid in visibility for any boats that may be in the area.  It is also a good idea to snorkel only in areas that are specifically designated for the sport.

Drowning

Drowning is a risk with any water sport, but snorkeling can be especially dangerous in this respect when you are breathing through a tube that becomes submerged.  

Practicing with snorkeling gear before going in the water could familiarize you with the way the snorkel works.  Classes are also available to teach you the proper breathing techniques when snorkeling.  Some snorkels are also equipped with “dry tops.”  This means it has a one-way valve that closes when you dive under, or if a wave crests over the top of the snorkel.

If your snorkel is not a “dry top,” then familiarization with the techniques for keeping water out of the snorkel is a must.

Equipment Failure

The equipment you use for snorkeling has the potential for error, just like any equipment.  However, when in the water, this can be catastrophic.

Some charter snorkeling businesses rent equipment.  Though most of the time this is safe, it is still a good idea to have your own equipment.  This way, you know the exact condition of everything you use, you know that it fits you, and it is always better to know who used it before you.

Goggles can also fog up or leak underwater.  Always ensure that the goggles fit properly.  You can also purchase an anti-fogging agent to put on goggles, but an inexpensive solution is a mixture of baby shampoo and water applied to the lens.

Currents

There are currents present in the ocean, unlike any other body of water.  Being ready for the changes in water currents can ensure a safe swim.

You can’t always see the way the currents are acting from the surface.  When waves move into the beach, the subsequent motion of the water will create an undertow, or flow on the ocean floor, moving back out to sea.

Knowing how the currents work in the ocean can go a long way toward keeping you safe while snorkeling.  Knowledge from the locals can provide useful information on how water currents behave as well.  Most importantly, though, be prepared for changing water direction while you swim.

How dangerous is snorkeling?

Snorkeling can be one of the most enjoyable experiences you can have in the water.  All things considered, it is a safe sport that can be adored by the whole family.  People can get into trouble, though, when they are ill-prepared, or fail to apply simple safety precautions and common sense.

Like many sports, it is as safe as you make it.  If you are alert and aware of your surroundings, respect nature and cautious of the mistakes of other people, then snorkeling is as safe as any water pastime. You can better prepare by reading our beginners guide.

Is snorkeling alone dangerous?

It is always recommended to snorkel with at least one partner.  Two sets of eyes are always better than one when it comes to conditions that have hazardous potentials.  Partners may see things that you miss, and the best practice is to have someone who can watch your back.  

If you were to get into some kind of unsafe situation, a partner could be there to give aid.  Many of the hazards that have been covered here could be circumvented with the help of a diving partner.

The bottom line is that snorkeling alone may not be overly dangerous, but can be made much safer if you do not go alone.


Sources:

https://www.liveabout.com/dangerous-fish-and-sea-animals-2962964

https://www.streetdirectory.com/etoday/the-dangers-of-snorkeling-ejouao.html

https://www.tropicalsnorkeling.com/first-time-snorkeling.html

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Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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