The Ultimate Guide to Snorkeling

Whether you’re an advanced swimmer or simply enjoy spending time in the water, snorkeling is a great way to go a step further and explore the underwater world, without the interruption of having to come up for air. It’s easy and safe enough for people of almost all ages and experience levels, and this guide will give you all the information you need to get started safely, make the most of your experience, and keep going!


What Is Snorkeling?

If an activity that involves breathing under water seems intimidating at first, snorkeling is a good way to test the waters without going too far out of your comfort zone. Essentially, snorkeling is nothing more than the act of breathing through a curved tube – a snorkel – while being submerged and face-down under water. Add on a mask to help you see clearly and a pair of fins for efficient movement through the water, and you’re ready to go.

Without the heavy and sometimes complex equipment required in other forms of underwater exploration, snorkeling is an easy and relatively low-cost of way of seeing marine life – fish of various shapes and sizes, colorful corals, sponges, and much more – in its natural environment.

Snorkeling requires you to stay fairly close to the surface of the water – making it an ideal activity for beginners or those weary of swimming too deep – so that the top end of the snorkeling tube remains in the air, while the other end is held in the mouth. This allows you to keep your face submerged and continue to view the attractions of the world below the surface of the water.

While breathing through your mouth can seem unnatural in the beginning, as can the mere act of inhaling while under water, give it a go calmly and you’ll find snorkeling can be not just an exciting experience but also a wonderfully relaxing and tranquil one!

A. How Is It Different from Scuba Diving and Free Diving?

While snorkeling is dependent on drawing air from above the surface and using it to breathe normally under water, scuba diving and free diving work differently.

Scuba diving (deriving from the acronym for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) involves divers carrying their own supply of breathing gas with them in lightweight, pressurized tanks while swimming under water. This allows them to go far below the surface of the water for extended periods of time, and explore deeper areas more closely. Being a deep water activity, scuba diving requires a fair amount of training and safety precautions.

Free diving is different from both scuba diving and snorkeling in that it requires the diver to hold their breath while under water. Though it does not require any breathing equipment, it is important for free divers – particularly for those who dive deep – to have a certain level of fitness and swimming skills.

Both free divers and scuba divers may use snorkeling tubes as part of their gear, but for them it is an additional accessory that allows for breathing in fresh air near the surface or conserving the compressed air in their tanks, while the essence of the activity takes place deeper. For snorkelers, the tube is at the core of the activity.

B. A Brief History of Snorkeling

Variants of the snorkeling tube have been in use for over 5000 years. Archeological evidence suggests that farmers diving for sponges off the island of Crete used hollow reeds to prolong their time under water as early as 3000 BC.

Aristotle’s writings from the 4th century BC describe divers who used straight, hollow tubes – which he compared to the trunks of elephants – to draw air from above the water’s surface. Incidentally, it is Aristotle’s pupil Alexander the Great who is credited with supporting the creation of the first diving bell, another early invention that allowed divers to breathe below the surface by using air trapped in a pocket created by a large bell-shaped object.

The first evidence of curved devices being used for this purpose is from China from the 4th century AD, when hollow rhinoceros horns allowed divers to look downwards or ahead while being submerged under water.

These early versions of snorkeling as well as diving persisted through the years across continents. It isn’t until the 16th century that the first evidence of the modern snorkeling tube appears, and the great Renaissance artist, scientist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci may be who we have to thank for it! His sketches reveal his designs for a mask with two long tubes distinctly bending away from it, the openings of which were kept above the water’s surface with the help of a buoyant, bell-shaped float.

Amongst his many designs and inventions, da Vinci even sketched webbed gloves, which can be seen as precursors to the snorkeling fins in use today.

The word ’snorkel’, which derives from the German word schnorchel – slang for nose or snout – was first used around the time of World War II to refer to the airshaft of submarines. It isn’t until 1951 that the usage of the word in English can be found with its current meaning. Coincidentally, it is also around this period that snorkels as we know them today – lightweight, J-shaped tubes – came into use.

Today, the comfort of snorkeling equipment and the ease of using it have made it one of the most popular recreational water activities. No longer restricted to sponge farmers, fishermen, and inventors, there are approximately 20 million snorkelers across the world , exploring the wonders of the underwater world!

Is Snorkeling for Everyone?

Almost anyone can learn to snorkel. Its proximity to the surface of the water and essentially non-strenuous nature mean that it is suitable and safe for nearly everyone.

Do I need to be a good swimmer in order to snorkel?
No, you do not need to be an advanced swimmer, but it is important to be comfortable with being in the water before you snorkel. Floating face-down should be an easy task and you should not feel panic if the need for coming up for air arises. Diving masks may let in small amounts of water through the seal, and if there is excessive splashing or if you tilt your head too low, snorkeling tubes may fill up with water. While it is easy enough to clear the tube by exhaling sharply or by returning above the surface and releasing the water, it is important for you to be able to handle these situations without panicking.

I wear glasses/contact lenses, can I still go snorkeling?
Yes. If you wear contact lenses, you can easily continue to wear these along with your diving mask while snorkeling. While there is a chance of water entering the mask and washing out your lenses, it is unlikely.

Avoid wearing glasses under your mask even if there seems to be enough space. While there are snorkelers who do this, the probability of your glasses shifting and causing discomfort is high, and the smallest leak of water inside your mask can add to this. A pair of disposable contact lenses is usually a more comfortable option. Alternatively, you may want to invest in a prescription snorkel mask.

In some cases, as this detailed piece on vision under water explains, the combination of a regular, non-corrective mask and the water itself may do the trick, so do make sure you really need it before purchasing any prescription mask.

Is it safe for children and the elderly?
Snorkeling is safe for people of all ages as long as they are comfortable in the water and have complete control over their mobility.

You can teach your children snorkeling even when they are as young as 5 or 6 years old. With patience and close supervision on your part, snorkeling can be a safe and truly thrilling experience for kids. There are also kid snorkel sets that are tailor made for children.

Can people with health conditions and pregnant women go snorkeling?
While it is generally safe for pregnant women and people with mild health conditions to snorkel close to the surface of the water, a doctor should be consulted beforehand. Diving deep should be avoided.

In most cases, not only is snorkeling safe, but it also has plenty of physical and mental health benefits that add to its appeal.

Do I need any certification in order to go snorkeling?
No. Unlike scuba divers, snorkelers do not need any certification. All you need is the right equipment and a good destination, and you can begin your snorkeling experience!

How Do I Find the Right Snorkeling Equipment?

If you are planning on snorkeling for the first time, you may want to sign up for a guided excursion or trainer who provides you with all the equipment and instructions you need. Whether you opt for this, or are keen to snorkel independently and buy your own equipment, it is important that you understand all the gear you are required to wear, and that you are able to make an informed decision when checking whether a piece of equipment is safe and suitable for your own needs.

The equipment involved in snorkeling is usually fairly simple, but selecting and using it well can maximize your enjoyment of the experience. Doing your research beforehand can increase you comfort and allow you to focus all your attention on the wonderful world underwater.

A. The Essentials

The two absolute essentials for snorkeling are a snorkel and diving mask. A pair of fins is usually included in the list because of the immense value they add to the experience, though it is possible to snorkel without them.

A snorkel is a lightweight, curved tube, typically J-shaped or L-shaped, and made with rubber or plastic. It generally measures about 30 centimeters in length, and has an internal diameter (called a bore) between 1.5 and 2.5 centimeters. One end of the tube is fitted with a silicone rubber mouthpiece, and it is the act of breathing through this while submerged in water that makes snorkeling what it is. This means it is well worth your while to choose a snorkel with which you feel comfortable, and to understand all its features before you begin.

While some variation in dimensions is common, the tube of a snorkel should never exceed more than 40 centimeters as this would allow you to go to a depth at which the lungs cannot draw in air from above because of high water pressure. The inner diameter should be neither much wider than the norm, as this would result in increased respiratory dead space and repeated inhalation of previously exhaled air, nor should it be much narrower. While a narrower diameter would reduce the amount of exhaled air trapped in the tube, it would also make the process of breathing itself more strenuous.

A basic snorkel simply comprises of a tube and mouthpiece, and usually a clip to secure it to the diving mask. If you are interested in something a little more advanced or for greater comfort and convenience, there are several additional features you can look out for.

Snorkels may come equipped with an emergency whistle, an extremely useful safety feature especially if you are not intending to stick close to a group.

A device fitted in several mid-range snorkels is a splash guard or wave deflector, which is attached to the top of the tube and minimizes the amount of water that may enter from above the surface. A complementary feature is a sump at the curve of the tube, which allows water that does enter to collect in it without blocking the airway. Additionally, a non-return valve and purge chamber can assist in easily dispelling the collected water while breathing out. While exhaling forcefully even without these devices can replicate the same process, it would certainly require more effort.

The quality, adjustability and comfort of each of these features can vary with different snorkels. While a simple model may be sufficient if you are trying the activity for the first time or for a short duration, you may want to consider more advanced snorkel gear if you are more invested in the activity.

For more detailed information on choosing the right snorkel, check out the video below:

Note: While this video mentions the CE mark that can be found on all certified products in the UK and EU, it is also found on many products from other countries including the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Different product certification marks may be more widely accepted in other countries.

Diving Mask
Given that the purpose of snorkeling is to observe what goes on below the surface, a good diving mask is essential in ensuring you are actually able to see clearly underwater.

Unlike a pair of swimmer’s goggles, a snorkeling mask is one that encloses the eyes as well as the nose, and is required for staying below the surface for extended periods. This additional feature not only reminds you to breathe in through your mouth, but more importantly, helps equalize the pressure around the mask by allowing for some exhaled air inside it.

A diving mask may have a single lens or separate lenses for each eye. These are made of tempered glass, which is much stronger and less likely to break into small shards than regular glass. Never buy a diving mask with regular glass lenses, as if these break, they can splinter into small, sharp shards and cause serious injury to your eyes.

An important aspect of finding the right mask is making sure the seal or skirt is of good quality, as this is what keeps the water out of your eyes. Look out for masks with double skirts made of silicone, which are softer against the skin and more long lasting than their neoprene counterparts. The retaining straps which hold the mask to your head are also usually made of silicone, ensuring a snug fit.

It is essential that you are comfortable in your diving mask, so make sure you choose one that fits well! You can try on a mask before buying it by holding it to your face and inhaling slightly through your nose. This creates a vacuum and allows you to see how the mask would feel under water. More importantly than looking out for any additional features, make sure that the shape and size of the mask feel comfortable, and that it seals well.

Like snorkels, diving masks may also come with purge valves to help dispel water that may leak in. If your seal is good, though, this feature may not be necessary at all. Alternatively, some snorkelers actually prefer allowing a small amount of water to swish around their mask as it can help in clearing the lenses instantly if they fog up.

If you have tried snorkeling and are unable to get used to breathing through your mouth, you may want to invest in a full face mask like the Tribord EasyBreath. As the name suggests, these cover your eyes, nose, as well as mouth, and allow you to breathe normally as you would above water. They contain separate channels for inhaling and exhaling, and so ensure that you always breathe in fresh air. They also reduce the chance of getting facial cramps when snorkeling for long periods, as they don’t require you to bite down on a mouthpiece.

Various other specialty masks are also available, such as those which contain ear muffs and integrated cameras. If you have any special requirements for health or recreational purposes, it may be convenient to find devices for these that are integrated with your mask, and minimize the amount of equipment you need to carry.

Snorkeling Fins

While you can technically go snorkeling without a pair of snorkeling fins, most snorkelers consider them to be an essential part of their gear because of the efficiency and comfort they provide to the experience.

The large surface area of fins will reduce the effort required to float or swim for extended periods, and can give you added speed with less splashing. Fins also protect the feet from stray objects and coral, which is particularly important if you plan on leaving the surface to swim deeper or if you are swimming in very shallow reefs.

There are many varieties of fins in the market, but a standard pair consists of separate, buckled, open-heeled paddles for each foot. Closed foot fins are also easily available, but these do not allow for wearing any kind of snorkeling boots. While scuba divers and free divers necessarily require open-heeled fins to accommodate thermal-insulating boots in the cooler depths of the water, for snorkelers who stay at the surface, it is largely a matter of personal preference which of the two to opt for.

Split fins, rather than undivided paddle fins, can provide more speed and power to your stroke, yet they can also be less precise in their movements. A good quality split fin tends to be more expensive than a paddle fin of similar quality, so you may want to avoid these unless you are specifically aiming for higher speeds while snorkeling.

Children and adults may be tempted to try snorkeling with a mono-fin or mermaid fin – a single fin attached to both feet. While it is possible to use these safely, they require major changes to your swimming style and severely limit your mobility, so it may be best to avoid them entirely.

The most important aspect of selecting a pair of fins is to see how comfortably they fit or buckle around the ankle, as a bad pair may cause soreness or limit your movements. Additionally, make sure your fins are fairly lightweight as this reduces the effort required on your part to move your feet.

B. Looking After Your Essential Equipment

Once you have invested in your own snorkeling essentials, it’s a good idea to follow some simple practices to maintain and look after them.

Always rinse your equipment with fresh water thoroughly after using it, as dried saltwater can cause erosion over long periods. Once you have washed away the salt, sand or any debris that may have stuck to your gear, clean each item individually.

To clean your mask, rub a small amount of soap or toothpaste on the lens with your fingertip in order to remove any grease, and rinse again with freshwater. Using toothpaste to clean your mask can also reduce the likelihood of it fogging up while you are in the water, and eliminate the need for buying defogging solution. Make sure not to use your fingernails as these can cause scratches and reduce visibility the next time you use the mask. Use a soft towel to wipe it dry.

Your snorkel can be cleaned by washing it in a bucket of freshwater and dish detergent and allowing the solution to pass through the tube. Alternatively, you can soak the snorkel in a solution of warm soapy water for half an hour. In either case, follow up by rinsing it thoroughly under running water. Before using your snorkel again – or even before using a new one – you may want to kill germs by giving it a good rinse with some mouthwash.

Fins can also be cleaned using freshwater and dish detergent, with the added help of a scrub to remove anything that may have stuck to them. Be careful not to hurt your hands while doing so and look out for sharp bits of coral!
Store your equipment away from sunlight, heat and fumes as these can cause damage of various sorts, particularly to parts like the seal and mouthpiece that are made of silicone.

Avoid storing or packing your equipment under other heavy objects, and as far as possible, avoid bending anything. This will reduce the risk of damaging or tearing your gear.

Remember that damage to your equipment may be nearly imperceptible, but can impact functionality in the water. Always test your gear properly before you use it again, even if you have been taking good care of it!

C. Additional Snorkeling Gear

With your basics – snorkel, mask and fins – in place, you’re ready to begin snorkeling. However, there are several devices and add-ons that you may want to consider for enhancing your experience.

A simple buoyancy vest may help you immensely, particularly if you are not a very confident swimmer. A brightly colored snorkel vest also serves the purpose of alerting others to your presence in the water. Alternatively, a foam ’noodle’ placed below the hips can help you stay afloat more effortlessly. While some find these products restrictive as they make it difficult to go below the surface even for very short stints, they may be very useful if you find it hard to float or swim unassisted for long periods.

Neoprene dive boots are frequently worn with open-heeled fins to protect the feet and keep them warm, while a thinner version of these – neoprene socks for snorkeling – serve the same purpose with closed foot fins.

If you go snorkeling in cooler waters, look into wearing a wetsuit. Not only do these keep your body warm, but they can protect you from stings and scratches from stray objects and jellyfish. Wetsuits provide a small amount of additional buoyancy and make it easy to stay afloat, but can also be worn to dive in deeper waters.

To add even more adventure to your snorkeling experience, you can find several waterproof gadgets like an underwater camera for snorkeling and flashlights.

It’s easy to get carried away with all the fun equipment and gadgets that can be used underwater, but remember that carrying too much with you while snorkeling can be tiresome. Don’t lose out on the tranquility of the experience by over-equipping yourself!

What Precautions Do I Need to Take While Snorkeling?

While snorkeling is a harmless and easy activity, there are several simple precautions you can take to ensure you have a comfortable and safe experience.

  1. Practice breathing through the snorkel before using it in the water for the first time. Once in the water, practice clearing water from your snorkel by exhaling sharply or simply resurfacing and emptying it. Since it is highly likely that you will get some water in the tube at some point while snorkeling, this process should be comfortable and easy to do even if your snorkel is not equipped with a purge chamber.
  2. Remain close to the shore before venturing in farther waters the first time you go snorkeling. This means you might want to avoid a snorkeling tour that involves you entering the water from a boat rather than from the beach. If you are not a very confident swimmer, keep this in mind each time you snorkel.
  3. Make sure your mask and fins are comfortable and well-fitting.
  4. Avoid going snorkeling alone, even if you are a good swimmer and are comfortable with the activity.
  5. Avoid snorkeling in crowded places or those with boats and other water sports. Being partially of wholly submerged below the surface, you may not be clearly visible from a distance to sail boats, jet skiers and other vessels in the water. To minimize the risk of collisions and injuries, you can also wear a brightly colored vest.
  6. Make sure you are properly hydrated before long snorkeling sessions to reduce the risk of cramps and dehydration.
  7. Don’t forget to use plenty of waterproof sunscreen. The back of your legs, neck and your back will be more exposed to the sun while you snorkel, so pay special attention to these areas. Avoid using sunscreen on the parts of your face where your mask seals, as it can increase the chance of water leaking through.
  8. You may require a bandana or swimming cap to protect your scalp from the sun as well as to keep your hair away from your mask and snorkel. Put those in your snorkel gear bag
  9. Do not touch any marine life. Not only will this reduce the risk of scratches, stings or bites, it is also the ecologically responsible thing to do. If you are snorkeling in coral-rich areas, wear protective gloves and boots/socks to avoid injuries from accidental contact.
  10. Avoid standing, even if you are in shallow water as it increases the risk of hurting your feet, damaging your fins and harming the marine life. Standing can also disturb the sand and sediments below, and reduce visibility under water.
  11. Though it may take you a short while to get used to snorkeling, it is a fairly intuitive activity. Stay calm, aware, and float slowly to have the best possible experience!

What Makes for a Good Snorkeling Destination?

Technically, you can snorkel in any body of water, but there are several features you can look for in a destination to see if it’s conducive to a great snorkeling experience.

  1. Look for spots where the water is clear. There isn’t much point to snorkeling if you can’t see very much below the surface!
  2. Choose a location that is not crowded. Make sure no other water sports are taking place in the vicinity. This is important not only for your convenience but also your safety.
  3. Find s snorkeling spot where the weather and water is calm and currents are minimal. Once again, this is important for your enjoyment as well as your safety.
  4. Shallow waters (ranging from 1 to 4 meters deep) are ideal for snorkeling, as they allow you to observe underwater life and the sea or ocean floor up close. While snorkelers do sometimes dive in deeper waters, this requires additional skills and training.
  5. Warm waters are most comfortable for long periods of snorkeling. If you do decide on a location with cooler water, make sure to wear a wetsuit and protective boots and gloves.
  6. Look for spots where you can find interesting marine life, but don’t limit yourself! While colorful coral reefs and tropical waters with exotic fish may be what first come to mind when thinking of snorkeling, there is a wide variety of species that you can look out for. From sea turtles to manatees, dolphins, penguins, stingrays, manta rays and even whale sharks, there may be a range of worthy attractions near your holiday destination or home. Diverse flora or distinctive geographic features can also make for a unique experience!

There is plenty of easily accessible information on the top spots for snorkeling across the world, and if you are a big enthusiast, such information may guide the choice of your next holiday destination. You may even want to opt for a specialty excursion centered entirely on snorkeling or sign up for an extreme-snorkeling trip to an unconventional destination like Antarctica! If you have an Asian itch, try out snorkeling in Thailand. If, however, this is not an option for you or if you are simply looking to try it out for the first time, don’t be discouraged. You don’t necessarily need to travel to a faraway, exotic location, and with some research you may be able to find a good spot for snorkeling closer to your home or pre-decided holiday destination.

Once you are familiar with your destination and have gone snorkeling in the day, you could even revisit the same location at night. Snorkeling at night can transform the same area into a completely different ecosystem, and can be a truly magical experience, but try it only if you are a confident swimmer and are very familiar with your surroundings.

The marine life that emerges at night is usually very different from that of the daytime. A host of nocturnal fish, shrimps, lobsters, and more are visible only at night, and in some locations, you may even encounter some bioluminescent fish or plankton. If you choose to snorkel at night, don’t forget your waterproof flashlight and an emergency whistle. While it’s best to keep your flashlight on at all times to avoid getting disoriented, you can try turning it off for a brief period if you are lucky enough to come across bioluminescent phytoplankton. These tiny creatures are normally found in large swarms or ‘blooms’ that light up when disturbed by movement, providing a unique experience for anyone swimming through.

Watch the video below for a quick glimpse into night snorkeling:

To make the most of the destination you choose and whichever time of day you prefer to explore it, you may want to spend some time getting to know the marine life you are likely to encounter. Being able to identify the species you see can provide an added dimension to your experience. Books on identifying fish as well as marine plants and animals are widely available, and once you have decided on your location, you can look for guidebooks specific to the region.

What Are Some Activities I Can Take Up After Mastering Snorkeling?

While snorkeling is a great recreational activity in itself, there are several ways of taking your underwater experience a step further. Getting comfortable with snorkeling is a great way of getting used to the idea of being and breathing below the surface, and trying out new activities may now feel less intimidating.

  1. Once you are able to snorkel comfortably, you may want to try free diving. This doesn’t necessarily imply going down to extreme depths, but can even involve holding your breath to swim a few meters below the surface and observing marine life up close. By keeping your snorkel in your mouth while diving, the experience of being underwater remains uninterrupted even as you return near the surface to breathe in. However, this does increase the risk of inhaling water, so do not try it uninstructed.
  2. Scuba diving is another underwater activity that may seem more accessible after you have spent some time snorkeling.
  3. If you are into snorkeling and athletics in a more intensive way, you can find information on various water sports that are played around the world.
  4. Underwater photography is something else you can try easily if you are comfortable snorkeling. There is plenty of information and inspiration available to help you get started!
  5. If photography underwater seems a bit fiddly for your liking, you may prefer to film your experience instead. Keeping the video rolling can allow you to remain focused on the marine life rather than watching it through a lens. You can always edit the footage later if required.
    Remember that while some high-end cameras and GoPros can produce excellent results, you don’t necessarily need to buy one to photograph or film while snorkeling. Check out this video for tips on how to film underwater with your phone:

Like many other activities, there are various levels at which you can get involved with snorkeling and the underwater world. Interesting equipment and complementary activities may add to the excitement, but snorkeling in its simplest forms can be just as magical. Find what works for you, and enjoy the experience!