Floating weightless in water with 80 feet visibility can be both relaxing and awe-inspiring. You get to see bright corals and marine life, from the familiar to the most unusual. Snorkeling at night is a completely different experience than day snorkeling. You can visit the exact spot you saw in the daytime, and the experience will be incredibly different. And exciting. But there are a few key things to consider before heading out at night.
There are 5 essential tips to night snorkeling.
- Use a tour guide the first time
- Use a flashlight and wear a glow stick
- Learn about taking good photos in dark
- Predetermine your communication plan
- Focus on what’s in front of you
Planning ahead for certain periods of the year or days of the month when the moon is NOT out makes for great bioluminescent viewing. Night snorkeling has some challenges and requirements. Though it may seem similar to day snorkeling, it’s harder to determine direction without the usual visual cues at night.
5 Essential Tips For Night Snorkeling
Essential tips about night snorkeling that will make the experience the best that it can be.
1. Use a Tour Company or Guide
There is a lot more going on at night under the sea, and you don’t want to miss any of it. By using a guide or paid tour, you get the best possible first experience.
There are several reasons a tour guide is in your interest. First, this is a new experience for you. Even if you’re an avid snorkeler, this is different. None of the usual markers or indications of where you are can be seen at night. Disorientation happens much quicker at night.
Second, there is a TON to see. Because we are vision-focused, there is an excellent chance you might miss that spiny lobster or that shy octopus simply because you aren’t used to looking for them.
A good guide will be able to point out things to you, ensuring that the experience is one that you never forget.
Third, particularly if this is a bucket list thing for you, a paid tour will enable you to get the best discount on the equipment you choose to rent rather than by. Some include the equipment as part of the cost of the tour. Others do charge extra, but it tends to be a nominal amount. Additionally, they will generally have a boat so you can get out to the best areas for snorkeling.
On that point, they KNOW the best areas, so you are more likely to see what you’re interested in.
I want to talk about how you will use your flashlight to get your best experience.
First, these are nocturnal plants and animals. Don’t shine your light right at them. I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate your buddy shining his flashlight in your eyes when you’re trying to find and eat dinner. Neither do they.
Instead, you want to sweep your light toward the ocean floor or alongside coral reefs and rocks. This will give you ambient lighting to see by, without distressing those exact living beings you are having the privilege of enjoying.
Second, turn on your flashlight BEFORE entering the water. You don’t want to be in the dark and fumbling around looking for the switch. You also don’t want to be in the water and then realize your battery is dead. Turn it on first, test it out while you’re still dry, so if batteries need replacement, you can handle it immediately.
Third, there are occasions you may want no light. I know that sounds crazy, right? However, if you’re lucky, you may get in an area that has bioluminescent plankton. Oh, the joy and beauty!
If that happens, you will want to turn your flashlight toward your body, blocking as much ambient light as possible. Or cover the lens with your hands. Give your eyes a few minutes to adjust while floating in the dark. Then look around for small floating bioluminescent plankton.
Bioluminescent plankton are amazing! Swirl your hand or arm through the water and watch the stars or blue tendrils form. These little chemical powerhouses react to the movement of the water. While you’re at it, take a look to the sky. If you’re out to sea on a dark, moonless night, the number of starts you can see is amazing. You may be able to see the central dust cloud of the Milky Way as a bonus. Many people in suburban settings have never even seen this.
Please note, I did NOT say to turn off the flashlight. Again, you don’t want to risk being unable to turn it back on or the battery failing at an inopportune moment. Simply putting the lit end up against your body should reduce the light enough for you to enjoy the beauty.
Taking pictures or video of your underwater adventure is almost as important to you as the adventure itself. How else can you show all your friends the great time you had and make them jealous?
However, underwater photography at night is completely different than the same thing during day light hours. It requires a special finesse, but if done correctly, it will give you unbelievable shots and colors you simply don’t get when the sun is up.
A special camera is not necessary. You can use your regular dive camera or GoPro. It is the lighting that is special. Water actually absorbs light. It seems like a simplistic statement, perhaps, but are you aware that almost all sunlight energy is absorbed in the initial 10cm of water (source)?
Within 10m of the surface, you will have lost all of the color red. Because it is a low energy color, the light that provides the shade red dissipates quickly.
This is why many photographs of water deeper than 10m seems to be heavily blue. Those fish, invertebrates, and corals aren’t actually blue, that’s simply the primary color left in the wavelength. Read my guide to Snorkeling with a GoPro or Using a GoPro for Scuba to get tips and tricks for underwater imaging. And if you don’t want to commit a lot of money to a camera you only use occasionally, I chose a few of the less expensive models and rated them in this post.
Now, you’ve removed even that little bit of light from your snorkel adventure. How are you possibly going to get decent video or pics? Your trust flashlight to the rescue!
Again, you don’t point that light directly at what you’re photographing. Off to the side, if possible, will give you the best results.
You don’t want to use your flash, as it will give you a “white spot,” which is probably not the look you’re going for. It can also reflect off the particles suspended in the water, reducing the focus on your target.
Using the ambient lighting, you will be AMAZED at the colors that pop in front of you at night. Deep reds, vibrant yellows, forest-worthy greens are all waiting to knock your eyes out of your mask! Since the white light is closer to the subject of your attention, you don’t lose all of that wavelength energy.
Another key to night photography is to get as close as is reasonable and safe. Again, this has to do with light: the further the light source, the more diluted the lighting itself. Pics or videos from 12” to 18” will come out best. Remember the no touch rules though. No photo is worth damaging coral for.
For most snorkelers or divers, hand-signals are the communication we are taught and know. Hand signals don’t do a lot of good in the dark.
Your light will become your primary communication tool.
Before entering the water, you and your buddy(ies) should have established your communication plan. It is a key part of planning the dive or snorkel trip.
There are a couple of options you can use. First, you can point your flashlight at your own hand, to illuminate it and allow your buddy to see the hand signal.
This will work, but only if your buddy is fairly close.
Second, you can use the flashlight itself to make the signal. For example, you can sweep the light in a large “O” to signal OK.
This won’t do much good if your buddy is focused on that squid on the ocean floor and not looking at you. To get his/her attention, sweep your light beam across his/hers. Since their eyes are focused on their light, that should get the attention you need.
If you’re so far apart, they can’t see that, then you’re not practicing good safety. Or maybe you have teenagers with you. Just kidding. Sort of.
You can also use your flashlight to signal waiting boats, to let them know you’re ready for pick-up or use the strobe feature to let them know you have an emergency. Particularly if you lost your whistle or didn’t get one.
5. Focus on what’s in front of you
While snorkeling during the day, we tend to look all around us. We want to see everything possible. That’s not how it’s done at night.
Look around you, but you’re not going to see as much. It’s dark out there, and your dive light or torch won’t give you the level of visibility you’re accustomed to in daylight hours.
Instead, you want to focus your attention directly in front of your flashlight. That’s where the light is strongest, and that’s where you’ll be able to see the most.
Sweep your dive light around rocks to see lobsters. Look across the ocean floor to see octopi, squid, and cuttlefish. These are all things you probably miss during your day dive/snorkel.
Also, the coral is probably “blooming.” That’s right; those fairly dead-looking coral come out at night to party! The tentacles of the living coral burst out to filter feed. They will wave at you with brightly colored arms and dance in the slightest current.
You don’t want to miss that looking around in the dark, do you?
Some people tend to get a little claustrophobic in the ocean at night. There is nothing out there at night that isn’t there during the day. The only difference is that you can’t see them as well.
My wife, a very experienced diver and a national level competitive swimmer when younger, gets claustrophobic when snorkeling or diving at night. She was completely surprised the first time it happened. She grabbed my arm and knocked my regulator out of my mouth when a shadow swam by. It was an uncontrollable instinct.
Her advice is to stop for a minute, calm down and take some deep breaths to relax. This also goes back to point #1. Start with guide or group night snorkel for extra safety.
Sharks sightings may be more common at night, but if you aren’t looking, you will miss them. Sharks have an undeserved reputation with most people. Less than 10 shark attack deaths occur worldwide annually. And usually it’s a surfer that gets mistaken for a seal by a great white shark.
Yet humans are slaughtering them at a rate of over 100 million per year for shark fin soup, souvenirs or “fun.” If you have a chance to see a shark on a snorkel trip, consider yourself lucky that you’ve experienced something many people don’t understand or ever will do. And with none of the risk that the media hype and Hollywood have falsely created.
There are some pretty obvious equipment needs during the night than during day snorkel ventures. There are also some less obvious concerns. Let’s take a quick look at these before continuing on with our essential tips.
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Flashlight or Torch
Yep, went with the most obvious first. It’s dark at night, and you’re going to need a flashlight. But not just any flashlight will do.
Obviously, it needs to be watertight and corrosive resistant. You are also going to want something with a really outstanding battery life. Can you imagine how bad it would be to begin your night and have the batteries fail just after you get wet?
I carry 2 flashlights during my night dives. Whether I’m scuba diving or snorkeling, the light concept is the same. I can’t see what I’m there to see if my light fails. Having a backup is an inexpensive enough way of guaranteeing my trip won’t end in the dark. I started this when the kids were young in case one dropped their light. Then it became habit.
Dive lights are not horribly expensive, yet it is an investment I suggest you hold off making initially. If you aren’t sure how you feel about night snorkeling or if this is a kind of a bucket list, a one-time-only deal for you, just rent a flashlight from a local dive shop. One might be included in the tour price.
One of the best is the Volador Diving Flashlight. It is rechargeable and offers 1000 lumens, which can light up to 80 meters, depending on water conditions.
Other features include a magnetic on/off switch in the rear and high-low-medium-strobe capabilities. It has a 1 to 1.5-hour continuously-on battery life and is certified down to 150m, though obviously, you won’t be snorkeling that deep. The price is mid-range, somewhere around $50.
Less expensive, but still a decent light is the Goldengulf Cree XM-L2 LED diving flashlight. Brightness is around 1000 lumens, maximum. Its stated Irradiation range is 100m, depending on water conditions. This one offers a 3-4 hour continuous-on battery life and is certified down to 100m. This is priced around $35.
My kids love to play with our dive lights when we go houseboating at a lake, and we keep two on our runabout in case we have to get in to fix something underwater at night. This has been true since they were 10 years old, and they are set to graduate college this year. The flashlights have never been replaced. That’s a good return on investment if you ask me.
This may not be as obvious as a flashlight but is every bit as important. Without good visibility and light, a whistle may be the best communication tool you have. It’s inexpensive, easy to use, and I don’t need to tell you how well sound carries over water.
Should you have an emergency, be unable to locate your boat, or lose your buddy, your dive whistle could literally be a lifesaver.
Snorkel Vest or BCD
I am very well aware that not all divers or snorkelers choose to use a vest. Unless you are scuba diving, it isn’t a necessity, but it certainly is the smartest choice.
When snorkeling at night, there are several reasons for using a vest or BCD. It can be used to locate you by your guide, especially if made out of bright colors or if it has a reflective stripe. Most night trips, guides will give you glow sticks attached over your shoulder to keep track of you.
Theoretically, you could also attach the same thing to your snorkel, but should you get caught in a riptide or somehow get tossed around, you’re more likely to lose your snorkel than your vest.
During the day, you can see where everything is around you. You aren’t carrying extra equipment like a flashlight and, if you drop something, you can absolutely see where it went.
At night, all of that changes. If for no other reason, wearing a snorkel vest or BCD when night snorkeling also gives you somewhere to hang some of that extra equipment. Lost equipment is expensive and unnecessary. Having a well-organized snorkel vest is a good way to reduce that risk.
Neoprene or Wetsuit
Depending on your location, another piece of equipment you may not have considered is the need for a neoprene top or lightweight wetsuit.
Many people choose to snorkel without either of these during the day. After all, it’s warm, and the sun is shining on you, who needs the extra heat?
Again, all that changes during a night snorkel. Air temperatures can drop 20°F or more after the sun goes down. Though water temperatures don’t tend to have such a high degree of fluctuation, you will undoubtedly feel the difference.
Additionally, there are different critters active in the sea at night than during the day. Some of these have spines. Spines you may not be able to see in the dark. An extra layer of protection against them can’t hurt. But always remember to avoid contact at all times when possible, because reef and coral life is easily damaged or killed by the lightest contact.
How heavy do you need? It depends on your location and the ambient water temperature.
There are some basic rules of thumb you should know when considering a wetsuit or neoprene option. Based on physical comfort, if the water is less than 72°F, you are going to become uncomfortable. The longer you are in the water, the more uncomfortable you will be.
Here is an general table guide from evo to help you determine your needs.
|Water Temperature (F)||Wetsuit thickness||Suit type|
|72° +||N/A||Rashguard only|
|65° to 75°||0.5mm to 1/2mm||Top or shorty|
|62° to 68°||2mm to 2/3mm||Spring suit or full suit|
|58° to 63°||2/3mm to 3/4mm||Full suit + boots|
I doubt you’re going to snorkel at cooler water temps, but if you do, I highly encourage you to check out appropriate gear before beginning.
Like your dive light or torch, a wetsuit is another item you can consider renting from a local dive shop. Personally, I have found them in the $10-$15 range. However, sizes may be limited, particularly if you are a larger or smaller person. Additionally, some people find the idea of wearing a used wetsuit unappealing.
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Visible Flora and Fauna
In the ocean, night-time is feeding time. It’s also when bioluminescence can be observed. Dark nights without moonlight work best. And certain areas have greater activity during specific seasons or days of the month.
There are also many specialty trips that are best experienced at night. For example, Kona, HI has lights set up underwater that attract plankton close to shore at night. Many shops there offer night diving and snorkeling trips where they provide flashlights to attract even more plankton.
Special Night Snorkel Trips
There are some very special night snorkel options that I want to share with you. Some are so unique that, if they aren’t on your bucket list, I bet they are after I tell you about them!
Manta Ray Snorkel in Hawaii
This is the epitome of why snorkeling at night is awesome! Imagine for a moment; you are floating in the ocean, the cool water surrounding you while the waves gently bob you up and down. Then, in the light of your torch, you see this majestic 20’ wide manta ray dipping and weaving around you. Can you even imagine the awe and peace such a sight provides?
Off the coast of Kona, such an adventure awaits. Honestly, the rays are a little smaller there, averaging about a 12’ to 19’ wingspan, but that’s still worth seeing.
Lights have been placed on the ocean floor, which in turn brings in the plankton. The mantas arrive at night to feed. It’s impossible to describe in words, really. Beautiful creatures weighing 1,000 pounds just swimming right against you as graceful as an eagle flies.
Snorkel tours run about $100 to $150 per person. They generally include an educational presentation on the manta. Divers get an early evening dive with eels and sea snakes, a snack break, and then the night dive.
Bioluminescence in Cancun
Though bioluminescent plankton can be found in many different places, there are a plethora of locations in and around Cancun that offer the experience on a predictable basis.
Particularly in an around the Great Mayan Reef, these plankton abound almost year-round. Additionally, you’ll probably see octopi, moray eels, squid, and crabs. In other locations, you may find rays and turtles. Eagle rays are particularly common in this area. One note though, currents in this area can be strong and may shift quickly. Your tour guide and boat captain will know these things. I don’t recommend trying it on your own.
Because of that, this snorkel trip is almost always done with a paid tour or guide. Prices run $80.00 to $100.00 per person and generally will include pickup and drop off from your hotel, all equipment, and in many cases, after adventure cocktails.
I can offer from personal experience that you need to ask your tour booking rep how many people will be traveling with you. Try to find a small tour of 6-12 people and avoid the 50 person buses in Cancun. As a matter of fact, ALWAYS avoid the 50-person buses in Cancun for any adventure. Having visited nearly 20 times over the last 12 years, every activity is better with a small group, usually at the same price.
In the Keys, you’ll find a slightly different night snorkel adventure. Unlike the specific tours mentioned above, there is no unique draw, just a wide variety of underwater sights that come alive after the sun goes down.
Along the shore, there really isn’t a lot to see, but get on a tour and prepare to be blown away.
Amongst the shallow reefs in the area, the party is just getting started. You may even get to see a luminescent squid or two, along with the other wonders we’ve already discussed.
Pricing is very dependent on season, location, and operator. The best bet is to visit the Chamber of Commerce site for your vacation destination and research from there.
I hope you’ve learned a little something about the great experiences of night snorkeling. And hopefully I’ve both talked you into giving it a try and given you tips to help make it more fun.
As you’re a snorkeler, you already have a love of the ocean and marine life. This is an opportunity to expand that love to other species and sights you otherwise may never get the chance to know.
Though day snorkeling is great, night snorkeling adds a whole new dimension to the snorkeling experience. It will give you a different perspective on the ocean and its inhabitants.
If you night snorkel in an area you have previously day snorkeled, you will be amazed at the transformation and differences from your daytime visit. The differences are like…well…night and day.
Give it a try next time you have the chance. Get out there and explore. Stay safe and have fun.