a snorkeler on the surface close up with Coral

What Is Snorkeling And How Does It Work?

Almost everyone has heard of snorkeling. It’s one of those sports that pops up in vocabulary a lot but most may never have investigated.

Suddenly a holiday comes around and snorkeling is on the menu of options to try. Any picture advertising it looks fun, but if you don’t participate in any water sports then it could seem confusing.

If you’ve never tried it you probably have a load of questions, some of which may be based upon a misconception, so taking a step back, what is snorkeling and how does it work?

Snorkeling is a recreational activity involving swimming along the surface of the water. The snorkeler will be equipped with a mask (for underwater visual clarity), a snorkel (for indefinite breathing while face down), and a set of fins (to propel a snorkeler faster or swim more efficiently).

While it can look complicated, it doesn’t need expertise or professional training. It can easily be done by a beginner, and you can make it as easy as you wish it to be in terms of physical exertion.

It’s a great activity which is enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities so if you’re considering giving it a go then I’d say go for it, and only push yourself as far as you are prepared to go.

This article is intended as a bit of a primer on snorkeling. It’s intended to take you on the journey of learning what it is, and what it isn’t, as well as how it’s performed.

As with any physical activity based in water, there are dangers but they can be easily managed with some common sense and following a few rules.

a female snorkeler around fish in shallow water

The Basic Concept Of Snorkeling

A snorkeler will normally start on the surface of the water. The basic position is lying face down, pointing in a safe direction of travel slowly kicking the fins with the arms trailing, only being used for minor course changes.

The mask gives a seal to the face keeping air trapped in front of your eyes allowing clarity of vision underwater. A snorkel will be in the mouth and the tube attaches to the mask straps so that it points upwards into the air.

Breathing underwater can now be done indefinitely.

Kicking the legs now moves you forward, which is normally done with fins. The fins allow for more efficient swimming so a snorkeler uses less effort.

The snorkeler can wear a flotation vest that assists in buoyancy if they are not a strong swimmer.

The snorkeler moves forward allowing the visual wonder of the underwater world while breathing through a tube. Head movements can be made and still the snorkel will remain a passageway for air.

Whilst it is done on the surface, a snorkeler can dive beneath the surface by taking a breath and holding it before dipping beneath the surface to be nearer the aquatic life.

When returning to the surface, the snorkeler has a few options.

They can break the surface and breath normally. They can also remain face down and expel the lungful of air which ejects the now filled snorkel to clear it before commencing breathing. In effect, they have not left the water to breathe.

A final option involves a more advanced snorkel with a purge valve that allows water to be expelled into the sea without a forceful blast of air.

a female snorkeler close up near the surface

Snorkeling is very beginner friendly, and anyone comfortable around water can take up the sport. Anyone from young children to retired couples can participate. All that’s required is a very basic level of fitness and assessing the conditions against your experience in the snorkeling environment.

As an activity, it’s one of the most enjoyable out there. The locations are generally stunning, and it’s easy to do as a rewarding experience. Scuba diving requires more technical skill, so snorkeling is a great introduction for those interested in swimming amongst the corals and turtles.

If you are confident in the water then you can start with a trial and error method, and if you aren’t then maybe take a quick course run by a dive school.

You can learn basic skills easily and grow comfortable in the water with equipment either way.

The Basic Equipment Used In Snorkeling

While there are pieces of equipment that assist a snorkeler, the basic equipment comes down to 3 items.

They are the fins (flippers), mask (goggles), and the snorkel (flexible breathing tube). Often these items are known collectively as the fins, mask, and snorkel kit. Or an FMS kit for short.

Mask – The mask acts like glasses for the underwater world. There is a variety of different styles, colors, and shapes, but they are all designed with the basic function of allowing a snorkeler to remain face down in the water and see clearly.

The most important factors surrounding a mask is that it must be comfortable, and provide an airtight seal around the face.

An ill fitting mask that leaks water prohibits any activity. If you do nothing else for snorkeling preparation, make sure the mask fits comfortably and performs its function. It’s no fun at all so get this bit right above everything else.

The mask should seal comfortably around the face as the skirt (the material that makes contact with the skin) forms a seal. You should be able to see clearly with a good field of vision, while not having to constantly press the mask ‘onto’ your face.

The airspace in the mask is considered low or high volume. The air compresses at depth so a high volume mask is OK for snorkelers. Low volume masks are more for freedivers and scuba divers.

a female snorkeler face to face with a turtle

Underwater clarity is achieved by the layer of air between the water and the eyes. Light enters the iris as it would above the surface of the water.

A mask should cover the nose. This is why swimming goggles are unsuitable for people diving at depth. The increasing ambient pressure as you dive deeper pushes the mask onto the face.

This can be countered by allowing a small amount of air out through the nose to equalize the pressure. Or breathing in as you ascend to achieve the same effect.

Snorkel – The snorkel is the tube that makes it possible to breathe while you are face down in the water.

There are various styles of snorkels to make the experience both more pleasant and easier.

In its purest form, they can be very simple plastic tubes that J-curve around the face so that the mouth can grasp the mouthpiece, go through a mask attachment strap with the tube breaking the surface so a snorkeler has access to air.

It’s only purpose is to allow face down breathing indefinitely.

The simplest snorkel is a plastic tube, bent into the correct shape with a mouthpiece. You simply attach the snorkel to the mask so that there is adequate flexibility to get the mouthpiece into the mouth comfortably.

Technology has moved on though and dive shops have a range of semi-dry snorkels. The snorkel top contains a splash guard to angle and channels the water away from the tube. This means clearing the tube is easier.

With the classic and the semi-dry snorkel, a diver submerging will fill the snorkel with water. An air bast upon returning to the surface will be needed to clear the tube of the water obstruction.

a female snorkeler in shallow water over corals

Fully dry snorkels are increasing in popularity on the market. The top of the snorkel has a float valve closing off the top of the snorkel as you submerge. You can’t breathe underwater, but when you return to the surface the valve opens and breathing can be resumed easily.

It has the effect of stopping a snorkeler accidentally swallowing water and works well for those who do it frequently.

Some snorkels also come with a one-way purge valve. This is on the bend of the snorkel near the mouth. They allow a snorkeler to exhale and push the water in the tube back out into the ocean without resurfacing 

Fins – Fins are the ‘flippers’ that attach to the feet that aid movement through the water.

While fins aren’t ‘essential’ for snorkeling they add so much to the experience that most people use them as standard. Simply put, they make propulsion through the water much easier.

You can put much less effort into a kick to move at speed. If you are kicking profusely without fins and trying to breathe you expend much more energy and thus tire more easily. It also limits your time underwater.

Fins will extend your physical endurance, allow you to swim faster if necessary, more efficiently as standard, and assist breathing efforts.

Once you become used to fins for snorkeling you will find you can fight currents easier, and swim much more efficiently. You can also easily keep up with aquatic life.

They can also extend the coverage of the area you wish to snorkel.

a set of snorkeling fins from above

Swimming underwater with fins becomes much more enjoyable.

Fins come in adjustable open format or full foot so there are styles for everyone.

Most people who enjoy snorkeling wouldn’t consider going out without fins. There are safety issues as it allows people to fight against tides and currents to get back to safety.

How Do You Snorkel?

One of the reasons people try snorkeling is the low barrier to entry. Almost everyone can give it a go.

With your first experience of snorkeling you are likely to find your comfort levels, and preferences. This will allow you to pick which equipment you prefer to use when purchasing.

Nevertheless, starting snorkeling is fairly straightforward.

Become comfortable in the equipment – The very first step is to become comfortable in the equipment.

Make sure the mask is prepared and seals comfortably on the face. If you breathe in through the nose and cause slightly negative pressure it should stay on the face without a strap. This is a good seal.

Adjust the snorkel and the mouthpiece to the correct positions so that everything feels natural.

Breathe in and out a few times and check you are comfortable with all aspects so far.

a woman snorkeling underwater looking at tropical fish

Face in the water – When you are out into some depth of water where you are safe, get comfortable, kneel if you have to, and lean into the water so you are face down, with the snorkel pointing into the air.

Spend some time getting used to breathing through the snorkel tube, and testing for leaks.

You can even submerge slightly to fill the tube with water and make sure you can blow the obstructing water out the tube.

Get used to the equipment and breathing, as well as check the mask seals for leaks.

Let yourself float – Roughly pointing in the right direction slowly let yourself float so you are horizontal on the water surface.

The direction you are pointing shouldn’t have varying depth the very first time if you are not confident. If anything goes wrong you can simply stand up.

Keep breathing through the tube, and get comfortable with the position of snorkeling and breathing. Move your head a bit as if you were observing activity beneath the waves.

a female snorkeler in shallow clear water near a beach

Start finning – Once you are fully ready, make slow kicks to get used to the fins.

Stay horizontal keeping the fins beneath the water and kick slowly until you can pace yourself. Keep your hands either by your sides trailing or hold them in the small of your back.

Now it’s just a matter of practice.

The Basic Skills Needed To Snorkel

Snorkeling is quite easy for most people. Not too many people have an issue starting to learn. While it is a physical activity you can make it as light an exercise as you wish.

There are no time limits and it’s not an endurance test. You can stop any time you like.

Nevertheless, there are a few skills or knowledge that make snorkeling easier and safer the first time you go.

Swimming – As an aquatic sport, obviously the better you are as a swimmer the easier you will find snorkeling.

Technically you can snorkel without knowing how to swim, although it’d be sensible to stick to very shallow areas and make sure you have people around you, as well as wearing a snorkeling vest.

Being a strong swimmer helps immensely, as well as allowing you to dive beneath the waves.

a lone woman diving in shallow water

Basic fitness – The fitter you are, the more you might enjoy snorkeling straight away. You will have better endurance and so have more time to enjoy the underwater scenery.

You don’t have to be super fit or anything, just basic functionality. Generally, if you can walk OK, you should be OK snorkeling.

Ability to put you face in the water without panicking – It will be exciting for most, but for some, it can be claustrophobic.

Make sure being face down in the water doesn’t give you any issues before you embark on any adventure.

Awareness – This comes in many forms, but some common sense helps. Often the novice snorkeler starts in an open ocean and hasn’t been subject to the concept of riptides or currents.

These are quick moving bodies of water that are so powerful that you cannot swim against them, even with fins. Their locations are normally known, so if you want to snorkel for the first time, it’s best to do it in an area with lifeguards.

Not only can you ask them about the dangers, but they have access to rescue equipment. The main strategy against a riptide is to swim perpendicular to the direction of the tide to get to slack water.

a female snorkeler admiring a turtle

Final Thoughts – Parting Waves

Many people fear the open ocean, and snorkeling is an excellent way to enjoy the aquatic in an easy, fun, and enjoyable way to experience the wonders of the aquatic world.

There is no professional body associated with the sport, and it’s easy enough to learn by just donning the gear and giving it a go if you are naturally confident in the water.

If you aren’t confident, just make sure you are with people and play it safe by not straying out of the shallows. Wearing a floatation vest helps.

With the right equipment and attitude, you can take a glimpse into a world that seems so natural yet so far removed from normality. Many of the finest snorkeling locations in the world are just teeming with life, both plant life, and fish.

As well as turtles.

The variety and color can leave you with life changing memories.

Aquatic wildlife is amazing to watch. From turtles giving you a swim past to the fish who come close to see what you are, and watching them unfussed by your presence is very special.

So if you travel frequently, or live near a beach, it’s easy to have a fantastic adventure by learning to snorkel. The world is full of endless possibilities, so why not enjoy them, even if they are underwater.

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