Evolution has not been kind to those of us who secretly wish they were a mermaid. We can’t breathe underwater, and yet that’s where the most interesting fish and stunning coral reefs are! We’ve got to settle for masks and snorkels.
Most of us watch from the sandy shores with a little trepidation before we take the plunge and learn how to snorkel. In fact, some of us never make the plunge into the ocean out of fear of not knowing what we’re doing – or fear of some Kraken rising from the depths to consume us.
However, for those of us that do want to jump into the ocean’s most interesting depths, we usually start with learning to snorkel. This is the most accessible and most enjoyable way to enjoy interacting with the fishies. Once you learn how to snorkel, you can progress to freediving and SCUBA diving!
Even though snorkelling is quite easy, doesn’t mean there isn’t a little preparation and skill that goes into it. I have floundered in the shallows all too often from silly errors. That’s why you’re here though: to get the insider scoop on snorkelling!
I’ll walk you through how to avoid the silly mistakes and get you stoked and inspired to push your snorkelling journey to the most exotic corners of the globe. So let’s dive in and cover snorkelling 101: the beginner’s guide to snorkelling.
Why Learn How to Snorkel?
You, as an air-breathing landlubber, have to problem solve if you want to see the mysteries of the ocean up close. Learning how to snorkel is your first port of call into opening up a new world. From scouting soft coral reefs to swimming with sharks in the Bahamas, the adventures that the underwater world opens up are endless!
Plus, if you are a little afraid of learning to snorkel: all the more reason to do it! I think it’s good to have a little caution going into a new hobby, but at a certain point, you’ve got to say f**k it and overcome your fears.
Once you start snorkelling, other water-baby activities start to open up to you. You can learn to freedive, or learn to SCUBA dive, and enjoy getting deeper and deeper.
You end developing this immense respect for the power of the ocean. Having grown up snorkelling and living the boat life, I find that the ocean takes on a mythical role in my life. It’s the one place I come to push myself while relaxing.
You gain easy confidence when you spend your free time pushing yourself physically swimming and snorkelling. Plus, it’s an awesome way to stay fit on the road.
So not only does this hobby encourage you to get out of your comfort zone, but it also introduces you to a whole new world! It opens up the doors to hobbies like freediving that will improve your fitness and confidence. And on top of all that, learning how to snorkel will take you to some truly exotic travel destinations.
Think azure waters, white sand beaches, gropers the size of a small person, and even pigs running around in the shallow waters! Snorkelling is THE way to upgrade your travels!
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5 Steps to Snorkelling Like a Pro
Now, snorkelling is not an overly difficult skill! But it can also be deceptively easy. If you put an ill-fitting mask on and go gung ho into the water, flailing about and splashing to the maximum… you’ll quickly run out of energy and think snorkelling isn’t for you!
After a while, you will get the hang of snorkelling at the surface and then the next gumption trap will appear. What next?
Next, you upgrade your skills. Learning how to snorkel underwater will improve your experience. The closer you can get to those cheeky crayfish the better, right?
So here we go! 5 simple ways to learn to snorkel and how to snorkel without swallowing water.
1. Get Good Gear
Yes, you’re only as good as your technique. But you’re also only as good as your gear. You can be the most streamlined snorkeller in the world – if your mask is leaking, you’re going to have a shit time!
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy the most expensive, top of the line stuff. In fact, most of my snorkelling and dive gear is second hand. But the most important thing is that the gear fits.
First of all though, what gear do you need for snorkelling?
- A mask. A well-fitting mask should stick to your face as you inhale without the strap on. I prefer the wide, single-lens masks but this is just a personal preference. Many people will find silicon ‘skirts’ (the outside of the mask) to be more comfortable. Though again, this is preference. The most important thing is that your mask fits you properly and doesn’t leak. The customising of other features will come as you become more experienced.
- A snorkel. This is the bit that allows you, the air-breathing mammal, to still breathe with your face in the water. Paying a little extra and getting a silicolne snorkel that fits well in your mouth is well worth it. One with a purge valve that helps keep saltwater out of your mouth is a good bonus too – though I still think a good fit is key.
- Set of fins. I would recommend a pair of short fins when you first start snorkelling. They will be a little easier on your leg muscles, but you won’t have quite as much speed as long fins. To begin with, you should start with plastic fins because they can withstand getting scratched up. If you move into freediving, then getting lighter carbon long fins will be the way to go.
- Wetsuit/rash shirts. Whether you’re in warm waters or frigid waters, you need to suit up – but for different reasons. If you’re in cold waters, you need much more thermal insulation. Therefore, you go with a thicker neoprene and maybe even gloves and booties under your fins. In warmer waters, it’s more about sun protection, so less neoprene and maybe even just a “middie” i.e a wetsuit with only half arms and legs.
A bonus bit of gear? Environmentally friendly sunscreen. No, you don’t want to be exposing yourself unprotected to the sun’s rays all day, but you also want to be mindful of the reef health. Many of the chemicals in sunscreen are damaging to coral reefs – especially at a popular spot where hundreds of people a day might be swimming and shedding sunscreen!
So do yourself – and the planet – a solid and get some environmentally friendly sunscreen.
2. Have Good Technique
Once you’ve got some good gear, it’s time to get your technique down pat. Good technique will mean you can stay in the water longer and feel stronger as you do it.
The trick to snorkelling is slow, even breaths. You want to be horizontal in the water and looking directly down so that your snorkel ends up at a slightly forward angle. This prevents a lot of water from coming into your snorkel.
If you do get water in the snorkel, simply exhale forcefully to expel it. If you get water inside your mask, the best thing to do is press your fingers against the top of the mask and exhale forcefully. Your fingers will keep the seal of the mask intact at the top, forcing the water to be pushed out.
Pro tip: Using mask defogger (yes, your spit does count as mask defogger!) at the beginning of a dive will help prevent your mask from getting cloudy as you dive.
3. Practise Somewhere Calm
With the good gear and basic techniques down pat – it’s time to get practising! There’s nothing more exciting than actually getting in the water and starting to snorkel. I would suggest going slow and starting somewhere calm, though.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be a pool; you could be in the Caribbean Islands and notice some particularly still, beautiful water. Get dressed, dive in, and start to snorkel. You might not see much on your first dive, but there’s always something interesting to note!
The best part about practising somewhere calm is that you can respond to any gear hiccups and fine-tune your technique without consequences.
That way when you’re hitting an epic coral reef for the first time, you’re ready to adjust to any swell or changed conditions that might come up! You’ll be more relaxed and better able to enjoy the epic experience at hand.
4. Learn to Duck Dive
So you hit a beautiful coral reef while backpacking Mexico. You saw some incredible manta rays – and even a whale shark!
But it was all from the surface. You really wanted to get closer. And as you’re travelling in Mexico, you want to enjoy the cenotes and other diving opportunities more fully. To upgrade your snorkelling skills, it’s time to learn to duck dive.
It’s really two skills: the duck dive itself and holding your breath/equalising as you descend. You will need to spit the snorkel out of your mouth before you go underwater!
To duck dive, you want to get your body vertical first (head down, obviously) and then your legs. As your legs hit the water, start kicking: hard. The first 10 metres of water, you’ll be fighting against your own buoyancy to get deeper but you’re able to overcome this with strong kicks and remaining as vertical as possible.
This is where those long, powerful freediving fins might come in handy! The other skill is equalising as you descend. The difference in pressure even in relatively shallow water can irritate your ears.
To equalise, try either the Val Salva manoeuvre or moving your jaw while swallowing and ‘pushing’ air toward your ears. It takes a little practise but once you’ve got it, you’ve got it!
5. Progress to Freediving
As you keep travelling Central America and beyond, you might find that snorkelling keeps taking you on more adventures! You’re duck diving down and watching turtles and swimming slowly past schools of beautiful fish.
But as the ocean is want to do, it’s got you needing more. You’re here wishing you might be reborn as a fish so you can just cruise all day in the water. Or maybe you’ve got the sneaky idea that you might want to become like the barracuda and become a predator of the reef and learn to spearfish.
Either way, you want to go beyond snorkelling and learn how to freedive. I think that freediving stands apart from SCUBA as a low-cost way to enjoy the ocean. You don’t need heaps of gear; just fins, mask, wetsuit, and weights (for freediving).
This keeps the ocean accessible and enjoyable for everyone. Freediving is also environmentally more friendly than SCUBA. That aside, I think the progression from snorkelling to freediving is a natural one, and one full of mental health benefits. The core concept of freediving is the breath-hold.
Freediving introduces a little more risk than snorkelling, so always dive with a buddy and take your cues from the experts. But once you’ve got breath-holding techniques under your belt, the ocean becomes that much closer to feeling like home.
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3 Best Places in the World to Snorkel
Well, well, well, you’ve got the gear and you’ve got the techniques. Now you need to get inspired and get out there! There isn’t a shortage of epic places to explore in this world, but some are more suited to snorkelling than others.
I think the best snorkelling includes coral reefs and amazing encounters with sea life. This is why I feel it’s important to remind y’all that animal tourism is not cool… Yes, let’s go snorkelling and admire the sea life. But there’s no need to touch the animals or disturb them in any way. Remember, when we go diving we’re in their home. Not the other way around.
But most of you know that already! You’re just here to swim amongst the glimmering blue waters and enjoy the experience of snorkelling!
#1 Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
Ahhh, in my opinion, the holy grail of snorkelling. This picturesque reef isn’t quite as famous as the Great Barrier Reef but it is equally as stunning! When you arrive in the main “town” along the reef you’re immediately struck by the remote, beach town vibes. This is the real Australia up here!
The main beach is a stunning strip of white sand that runs into turquoise waters. You can walk from the beach straight into the reef! Soft corals, turtles, numerous fish, stingrays, and occasionally even manta rays. The amount of diversity and the incredible visibility so close to shore easily makes this the best place in the world to snorkel.
But if you get a craving for a snorkelling experience of a lifetime, you need to take a whale shark tour. You will be able to snorkel with the largest fish in the sea in warm, clear waters. The Ningaloo is seriously blessed with marine life and experiences. Because along with whale sharks, it’s not unheard of to see massive manta rays or green turtles either! This is on top of 250 species of coral and over 400 species of marine life that also call the Ningaloo home.
#2 Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galapagos Islands are a biodiversity hotspot. Not only this, but the warm, clear tropical waters make it a perfect snorkelling destination! When I went through here while sailing across the Pacific, I experienced some of the best snorkelling and diving of my life.
Like the Ningaloo, you don’t have to go far offshore to swim with some of the most epic marine life, like the green turtles and even sea lions! The sea lions are especially playful with the snorkellers so, as long as you remain respectful, this can be an especially unique experience.
Up there with other unusual species that you might be able to see snorkelling here are marine iguanas and penguins! This is alongside the 450+ tropical fish that inhabit the Galapagos Islands. The legendary land life of the Galapagos also makes the trip out here extra special.
While the trip to the islands themselves isn’t exactly cheap, you can combine it with a backpacking Ecuador excursion – which most certainly is affordable! You can enjoy a budget holiday with a twist by adding the Galapagos to your itinerary.
#3 Isla Holbox, Mexico
Diving and snorkelling in Mexico will forever hold a special spot in my heart. The cold water cenotes are a world unto themselves! They will always live up to the hype of tour guides.
But, I’m a warm water baby at heart and so I’ll always be attracted back to the balmy beaches of Mexico’s coast. Isla Holbox is a laid back destination on the Yucatan coast of Mexico. And I can assure you: the snorkelling here is epic.
I snorkelled with whale sharks here, as well as dipping into to say hello to the fish of the coral reefs closer to shore. Come sundown, not only are those sunsets super fucking sexy, but you can swim with bioluminescence. It might not strictly be a snorkelling experience, but it’s something that you should definitely add to your ocean bucket list.
Isla Holbox itself has a more chill vibe than some of the more touristy spots in Mexico like Cancun. I think this is the icing on the cake of a perfect snorkelling trip: you want to be relaxxxxxxxed!
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A Little Safety Goes a Long Way
Snorkelling is not a dangerous pursuit, but the truth is you can drown in knee-deep water, so it pays to be a little safety conscious.
The biggest threats to snorkellers are ocean rips and currents. To the uninitiated, the ocean can change from a pleasant, mirror-like surface to pulling you out to sea in a matter of moments. If you don’t know what a rip is, or how quickly weather conditions can change, you can be in for a nasty surprise.
Perhaps even more important than gear and technique is knowing about rips, tides, and ocean currents.
Some other snorkelling problems can be solved by having correct fitting gear, but beyond that, there are two extra safety tips I’d recommend for your peace of mind.
Dive With a Buddy
Always dive with a buddy! This is especially important for freediving where you are pushing your limits by breath-holding and you need someone to be able to pull you out if you do experience a shallow water blackout.
Even when snorkelling where you don’t face that risk, there’s always the chance that ocean conditions will change and that swell or currents will start to pose a risk to you as you snorkel. Having a buddy there can make life a lot easier!
Plus, it’s nice to be able to share these epic experiences with someone else.
How to Snorkel with Insurance
I’d strongly suggest getting some travel insurance before your trip. If something does go wrong, it’s nice to know that your back is covered! The Broke Backpacker is the first to admit that sometimes when you travel, things go wrong! And World Nomads has had our back through it all.
They’re an easy to use platform with reliable coverage. Their customer service is good, and you can go about your trip with ease knowing that if shit hits the fan they’ve got you covered!
ALWAYS sort out your backpacker insurance before your trip. There’s plenty to choose from in that department, but a good place to start is Safety Wing.
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Final Thoughts on Learning How to Snorkel
If it’s not obvious by now, I think you should give learning to snorkel a try! It’s an inexpensive way to get in touch with the ocean and open your travels up to a whole new, exotic world.
Snorkelling involves a lot of swimming which keeps you fit on the road. Plus, it leads to all kinds of other amazing water baby activities like freediving and spearfishing. Snorkelling is a portal into a whole new underwater world. For me, the ocean has become my go-to happy place largely because I’ve been snorkelling and diving my whole life.
So once you’ve got some good gear and a good technique down pat, it’s time to get inspired and get snorkelling while travelling! There are some truly stunning places filled with manta rays, whale sharks, turtles, and sea lions.
Remember, the ocean is good to those who are good to it. So practise responsible travel and keep your distance from the incredible sea life and try to wear environmentally friendly sunscreen.
Other than that, enjoy the majesty of ocean life that opens up to you once you learn how to snorkel!
And for transparency’s sake, please know that some of the links in our content are affiliate links. That means that if you book your accommodation, buy your gear, or sort your insurance through our link, we earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you). That said, we only link to the gear we trust and never recommend services we don’t believe are up to scratch. Again, thank you!