Tips on snorkeling

By Lew Toulmin

by Lew Toulmin, (First of two parts, jump to part 2)

Many cruise and expedition passengers enjoy snorkeling off beaches, Zodiacs or dive boats. Snorkeling is an easy sport and provides fantastic views of beautiful coral and fish. The sport is open to swimmers of any age. I have seen snorkelers from ages five to 85 enjoying themselves on cruises.

The sport is so easy that I, myself, thought I knew it all, then I met the master snorkeler and diver Dr. Jack Grove, an expert on the fish of the Galápagos, a fellow of the Explorers Club and one of the founders of Zegrahm Expeditions (192 Nickerson St. #200, Seattle, WA 98109; 800/628-8747, He gave me so many snorkeling tips that my head, not just my body, was swimming. Now I can pass them on to you, to make your snorkeling experience more safe, enjoyable and accessible.

Buddy system and safety

• It is likely you will ride to the beach or snorkel site in a Zodiac or dive boat. Get into the boat with a “clipper grip,” one in which you reach past the crewman’s hand to grasp his wrist. He, in turn, grasps your wrist, thus if either of you falters and lets go, you are still attached and the chances of a fall are minimized.

Use the “clipper grip” on land or sea whenever safety or stability is a concern. Shown here is the left-handed grip, but use whichever hand is the strongest for you. Photo: Toulmin

A clipper grip is MUCH stronger than a simple handshake grip, which should never be used. Utilize the clipper grip in all situations at sea or on land where support is needed or safety is an issue.

• Before stepping into a Zodiac, put a damp towel on the gunwale (the inflated tube that forms the side of the boat). Step onto the towel (being helped by a crewman using a clipper grip), then step lightly into the center of the Zodiac, onto the floorboards.

Time your move from the parent craft to the Zodiac, dive boat or tender very carefully. Observe the swell and follow the crew’s directions. Swells can vary from nothing to up to several feet.

When moving across the Zodiac or dive boat, keep your body weight low by crouching. When moving along the length of the Zodiac, slide your behind along the inflated tube gunwale.

To exit the Zodiac in a beach landing, slide up to the front of the craft, face the rear of the vessel, away from the beach, swing one leg over the tube gunwale, then the other leg. Time your alighting so that you step on the beach between the breaking waves.

• Always snorkel with a buddy, and keep an eye out for him or her. Agree on a “snorkel plan,” follow it, and stay right beside each other. A typical snorkel plan could be something like this: “We’ll swim up into the current for 200 yards for about 20 minutes, while we’re fresh, then drift down-current for 15 minutes to the take-out point, by which time we’ll be tired.”

The best type of footwear

It may seem strange to talk about footwear — other than fins — in snorkeling, but it is important to protect your feet from coral in the water and from glass on the shoreline.

Leave your flip-flops, open-toed sandals and “reef walkers” at home. The first two don’t protect your toes, and the latter are usually so rounded on the bottom that they make it easy to sprain your ankle. (I did this in my first five minutes of wearing reef walkers in Bequia, West Indies. It ruined my whole vacation, since I almost was unable to walk for a week.)

Pick a shoe that has a wide, flat bottom and has substantial protection for your toes and all around your feet. Wear these shoes on the beach, on the parent craft and in the snorkel boat until just before putting on your fins.

Running shoes that are made completely of man-made material and, thus, won’t rot are ideal. Look for shoes that say “waterproof” and have drain holes and mesh sides or lots of protective straps. Many snorkelers like the Keen brand of shoes.

For socks, get some 2mm-thick neoprene ankle booties (available at any dive shop) and wear them inside your shoes and inside your fins. This will help keep out the sand, pebbles and most of the water, keep your feet quite comfortable and give you more protection against fire coral.

• Fins provided by on-site operators are usually sufficient for casual snorkelers; thus, you won’t have to lug awkward fins on the plane. However, you may wish to bring your own fitted fins if you have bunions or oddly shaped or oddly sized feet. Or you can purchase small swim fins, only about three inches longer than your feet, and take them along on the trip.

When snorkeling off a beach, carry your fins into the water with you. Sit down in waist-deep water on the sand, put on your fins and swim away. To get out, reverse the process. Don’t try to walk on the beach or in shallow water with your fins on. You could easily fall.

In a dive boat, put your fins on last, then slide gently over the side into the water, holding yourself away from the boat.

To get out of the water, hold onto the ladder off the side of the Zodiac or boat and take off your fins one at a time, holding each tightly and reaching up and placing it in the bottom of the boat. Then climb up the ladder into the boat.

Snorkels and snorkeling techniques

An inexpensive, 15- to 25-dollar snorkel is sufficient for the casual user. But buy your own and take it on the trip. A snorkel supplied by a local operator may not have been disinfected, and a previous user may have had a bad cold.

Get a snorkel that is curved, with a bend near your mouth so that it doesn’t pull on your mouth or on the face mask head strap. The snorkel should have a clip that attaches to the head strap so that the snorkel doesn’t flop around without support. Make sure that the clip attaches securely to the face mask strap but is detachable without having to pull the face mask strap out of the corner of the face mask.

When using the snorkel, don’t bite down on it; just hold it firmly in your mouth.

While snorkeling, don’t touch any corals or fish. Swim at least six feet above any coral heads below. (But be aware that objects look closer under water, so what you think is six feet could be eight to 10.)

Don’t drift backward; you might run into some coral.

Swim with a life vest or a “noodle” if you are at all nervous about your swimming ability. Stay away from jellyfish, some of which have long, almost invisible tentacles. Stay away from all boat propellers, even if they are not turning.

For the best views of those glorious fish and coral reefs, look “down sun” (with the sun behind you), but don’t cast your shadow over the object you’re viewing. Float flat in one spot for a while and study what’s going on below.

Get a local fish field guidebook and learn to recognize some of the fish you are seeing. Study fish behavior such as territoriality, camouflage, feeding, “cleaning stations” (where little fish clean the gills of big fish), mating and reproduction.

Learn some of the snorkelers’ sign language for underwater communication. The one you’ll use the most is three fingers thrust forward like a trident. It means “W” and stands for “Wow!”

Next time — tips on eye and skin protection and looking like a snorkel pirate! ITN

Lew Toulmin has snorkeled off of six of the seven continents. He is the author of “The Most Traveled Man on Earth,” available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping from The Village Press (13108 Hutchinson Way, Silver Spring, MD 20906; www.themost

(Continue to part 2)