First Time Snorkeling: What to Expect and How to Prepare

Snorkeling is an amazing way to explore the ocean. You can see wildlife up close in a way that rivals even the best aquariums. But if you’ve never snorkeled, the idea of it might be daunting. Even if you can swim well in a pool, the idea of putting on a mask and fins in the open ocean is likely new territory.

If you are new to watersports in general, you may feel a little anxious your first time snorkeling. Practicing in shallow water and learning about your mask, fins and snorkel before your first trip are the quickest ways to get comfortable.

Although anyone can snorkel, it’s important to prepare so that you can get the most out of your experience. To start, you should understand how people learn to snorkel in the first place. Pregnant women may want to read my advice first.

Does snorkeling require training?

First, let’s define what we mean by “training.” To some, training might be a formal course or something where you take lessons over the span of a month or two until you get a certificate. To others, training might mean putting in a reasonable amount of research and practice before going out and snorkeling in the ocean.

For this article, training is the latter – researching the gear, techniques, and safety precautions in addition to practicing in a controlled environment like a pool.

Unlike scuba diving, snorkeling doesn’t require you to take formal courses or get a certification. However, that doesn’t mean you can just throw on any old mask and fins you find and go into the water. 

A snorkeling lesson can go a long way in helping you safely explore the ocean. Snorkeling lessons from an experienced snorkeler can teach you:

  • Safety protocols, such as hand signals
  • What creatures are in the area you’re snorkeling in and whether to avoid them
  • How to dive deeper in a safer way
  • How to safely hold your breath
  • How to improve your swimming based on your current skill level

As you can with anything you’d like to learn these days, you can brush up on these skills through online research if you don’t want to pay for a short lesson. We’ll get into what you should prepare and research later in this article.

Can you snorkel without training?

As you can likely tell by now, you can go snorkeling without going through a long certification course. But there are two big reasons why you shouldn’t snorkel without researching and practicing it first. 

You might put yourself in danger. 

Even if you buy the right gear or have strong swimming skills, you might not understand some of the nuances involved in snorkeling.

Drowning is a very real risk that you take when you snorkel. Nearly half of all tourist deaths in Hawaii are from drowning, many of which happened while people were snorkeling.

Knowing how to recognize if someone is drowning and how to save them can literally be the difference between life and death.

Specific snorkeling environments also vary, which can put you in danger. For example, there might be an area that looks like it has calm currents, but it might be prone to sudden changes in weather that can catch you off guard. Researching your ideal location thoroughly can prevent this.

Lastly, not doing adequate research might lead you to get hurt by an animal in the place you’re snorkeling. The vibrant colors and shapes of reef animals aren’t just for show – many of them are big warning signs against predators. Creatures like the lionfish, for instance, can sting with venomous barbs if disturbed.  

You might harm the environment. 

Many resources for snorkeling focus on the swimmer themselves and not necessarily the environment or the animals where they’re snorkeling. If snorkelers aren’t careful, they can damage delicate ecosystems.

For instance, you might see a lot of starfish or small creatures. Taking one with you isn’t a big deal, right? Wrong: ocean ecosystems, especially in coral reefs where many people snorkel, are extremely delicate. Even if it seems like it won’t do harm, it might.

A primer from a local guide can also help you understand the natural behaviors of sea creatures where you’re snorkeling. Without training like this, you might not realize that something an animal is doing is actually a sign of them being stressed.

Also, since so much of snorkeling is done around coral reefs, not understanding your environment could do significant damage. Even a brush with a fin could hurt coral. Coral reefs are incredibly important and increasingly endangered. Training or researching how to snorkel in reefs will preserve them for future generations to explore as well.

You can practice and master the side leg kick in shallow water to keep your fins from bumping. And you can get great photos and videowithout poking into coral overhangs.

Is snorkeling hard to learn?

Like most new activities, there’s a learning curve to snorkeling, especially because it involves skills that you likely already know how to do in different contexts. For instance, if you know how to swim, you know how to take breaths as you do and how to kick your feet to move forward. 

Snorkeling involves both of those things, but you need to learn how to do them with a mask on your face and fins on your feet in open water that might have mild waves.

There are several great resources that make learning to snorkel easy once you know what to look for, as we’ll get into below.

How to Prepare For Your First Time Snorkeling

Now that we understand why preparation and training are key to have a good first-time experience with snorkeling, how should you prepare?

Work on your swimming. 

This is one of the biggest keys to having a great time snorkeling. If you’re a strong swimmer with experience swimming in the ocean, you likely won’t have to put in as much time on this one. But regardless, you should make sure you practice in a controlled environment wearing gear.

Dive In suggests focusing on the freestyle stroke, as you’ll use your legs in a similar way when you snorkel. But you can also just casually float along when snorkeling and take in the sights. It isn’t a competition. But having the swimming skills may get you out of trouble in rare instances.

You should also get accustomed to swimming with fins, as the added weight of them can tax your legs much more than swimming without them. No one wants their snorkeling time cut short by getting tired! In general, making sure you’re in good enough shape will make your experience less physically tiring.

Your local pool is a great place to work on your skills. Be sure to practice the following:

  • Keeping your fins underwater as you move
  • Swimming with your fins for long durations of time
  • Using your fins to move at different speeds
  • Fluttering your feet from the hips instead of the knees to avoid fatigue

Depending on your location, you can snorkel using a flotation device like a life vest. 

Learn how to breathe.

For a newbie, learning to breathe with the mask is one of the biggest challenges. Sometimes your mask will fog up, or water might splash into your snorkel. The idea of sputtering around, trying to get seawater out of your mouth might put you off snorkeling, but luckily, breathing with a mask just takes a little practice.

Your mask allows you to breathe through your mouthpiece while sealing off your nose. You can practice this on land, though ideally, you can practice in a pool.

The biggest key is to relax and breathe steadily. More advanced snorkelers can practice holding their breath to dive deeper, but as a first-timer, you should just focus on the basics. You’ll still have a great time even if you can’t dive as deeply as someone else. 

Scope out a good location.

Location is a major key to your success when you first start to snorkel. Though you may choose a location based on the kinds of animals you’d like to see, the ocean itself should also be considered.

Here are a few things to considering when finding the perfect location for your first snorkeling adventure:

  • Snorkel in calm waters: choose a location without a lot of waves or strong currents, as they make snorkeling more taxing
  • Start from the beach: beginners often do better when they can start from the beach instead of jumping off a boat in the open water
  • Find a sunny spot: pick an area that has sunny weather so you can see all the wildlife

No matter what your skill level is, always make sure you’re with someone when you’re snorkeling; they can save you if something goes wrong and can point out things you might miss on your own. You can even snorkel at a beach with a lifeguard if you’d like to be extra cautious.

Here’s a great breakdown (from tropicalsnorkeling.com) of how to assess your snorkeling location. If you are interested in the Bahamas, I’ve posted a few great sites and some booking info in my post Is it safe to snorkel in the Bahamas.

Spoiler: yes, and it is beautiful. I’ve swam with sharks many times. They are magnificent creatures vital to our ocean’s ecosystem and crucial to the entire planet. They aren’t the dangerous man-eating savages portrayed in movies and TV. Shark attacks are much, much less likely than being in a plane crash or struck by lightning.

Find the right gear. 

Finding well-fitting gear can mean the difference between a great time and a terrible one. An ill-fitting mask can leak, and fins that are too big can slow you down.

There are two options when it comes to obtaining your snorkeling gear – buying and renting. Since many first time snorkelers might not want to invest money in a hobby that they’ll only be able to do on vacation, renting will likely be your best bet as a first-timer.

The downside to renting is that sometimes, the gear won’t be as high quality as the kind you buy on your own. Other people will have used it, which might mean the masks are warped or just scratched up. But thankfully, once you know what to get, you can make sure it works for you regardless of the shape the gear is in.

Whether you decide to rent or buy, here are the things you’ll need:

  • A mask
  • A snorkel
  • Fins
  • A wet suit or rash guard (optional, but recommended)
  • A reef-safe sunscreen
Pair of masks showing different types can fit different people

A Mask

Your mask is one of the most important things to get right when you snorkel. Without finding one that fits well, you could end up with a face full of water, which no one wants. Luckily there’s gear for faces and heads of every shape and size.

Adventure in You suggests holding your mask to your face, taking in a breath through your nose, and seeing if the mask stays attached without your hand there to help. If it stays on your face, it’s a perfect fit. If it doesn’t, try another one, especially if you’re renting.

Sometimes prescription lenses are available for your mask, which are a great option if you don’t wear contact lenses. The least expensive option, in this case, is a drop-in lens. We cover all types of masks including prescription lenses in our choosing the right mask post.

A Snorkel

Snorkeling without a snorkel is just swimming – obviously, this piece of equipment is required! Your snorkel will attach to your mask, so sometimes, they’ll come as a set. If not, we have some recommendations.

There are three different kinds of snorkels, and each one has its pros and cons:

  • The basic snorkel: A “j” shaped breathing tube
  • The semi-dry snorkel: The shape of this snorkel deflects water from splashing into your snorkel, unlike the basic snorkel
  • The dry snorkel: this option is great for beginners who are worried about water splashing into their snorkel and causing discomfort. It prevents water from entering your tube at all.

Regardless of the snorkel you choose, make sure the mouthpiece is comfortable. If you have to clench your jaw to keep it in place, you’ll probably come back from your excursion with a headache. It should rest in your mouth with a relaxed jaw, but should also have a piece to stop it from popping out unintentionally.

Fins

Just like shoes, your fins should fit right in the Goldilocks zone – not too small but not too big. Fins come in closed heel and adjustable heel types. Closed heel fins cover the foot completely, which prevents them from falling off. Adjustable heel fins have a strap to adjust the fin to your foot. 

There are also short and long fins. Short fins are more portable and are good if you’re not planning on swimming too far. Longer fins (10 options) help with deep diving. With either, practice swimming with them and notice how much space they take up to prevent yourself from bumping into anything delicate or dangerous. A lot more on fins in another of our posts.

Choose a comfortable set of fins for your first snorkeling trip

A Rash Guard

Rash guards can help protect you from the sun and from anything else that might brush against you as you snorkel. Even if you’re not prone to burning, the sun can still damage your skin if you’re exposed too much. 

When you’re snorkeling, your delicate back is exposed, and you might not be keeping track of how long you’re underwater, meaning you might not reapply sunscreen in time.

Rash guards come in all kinds of colors and sizes. The snorkelers guide has a great breakdown of all the reasons why you should invest in a rash guard instead of just wearing a t-shirt. 

Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Even if you invest in a rash guard, you’ll still need to apply sunscreen, namely one that’s safe for coral reefs. Though it feels nice, excessive sun exposure can lead to premature aging and skin cancer.

Two chemicals that were commonly used in sunscreens, oxybenzone, and octinoxate, are potentially harmful to wildlife underwater. A reef-safe sunscreen uses alternative chemicals that are better for the oceans. Many states, like Florida and Hawaii, are banning the sale of sunscreens that have those chemicals.

To be sure your sunscreen isn’t causing significant damage to the reefs or wildlife you’re admiring, look for a sunscreen without the two chemicals listed above or a mineral sunscreen like this from Amazon.

Practices that Can Improve Your First Snorkeling Experience

In addition to everything mentioned above, there are two key things that’ll make your snorkeling experience better: clearing your mask of water and defogging it.

Even if your mask is a good fit, you might get some water leaking inside of it. It’s simple to clear it, but there are several steps. This Kraken Aquatics blog post is a great guide so you can practice clearing it before you get into the water. 

Your mask can also fog up, which will definitely impact your snorkeling experience. You can prevent it from fogging by using an anti-fogging solution, or, if you don’t have any, spitting into your mask and swirling it around. More details on defogging can be found on Tropical Snorkeling.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Once you’ve found the right gear, take some time to practice in a swimming pool or on a beach before you start. It won’t guarantee that you’ll be an expert the first time you’re in the ocean, but it’ll help.

You should practice:

  • Swimming with all your gear on, as mentioned in the section above
  • Clearing your mask of water or fog
  • Diving deep
  • Spatial awareness while swimming

Final Thoughts

Though snorkeling is fairly straightforward, preparing for your first time snorkeling properly can make it a fun, memorable experience.


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Sources:

https://www.divein.com/snorkeling/

https://panamajack.com/blogs/tips-n-tricks/7-tips-for-a-first-time-snorkeler

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

https://www.tropicalsnorkeling.com/prevent-snorkel-mask-fogging.html

https://www.adventureinyou.com/travel-tips/beginners-guide-to-snorkeling/

https://www.sandals.com/blog/snorkeling-tips-for-beginners/

https://dtmag.com/thelibrary/snorkeling-tips/

https://dipndive.com/blog/top-5-snorkeling-tips-for-beginners/

https://www.consumerreports.org/sunscreens/the-truth-about-reef-safe-sunscreen/

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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