I have a water phobia. A completely and utterly debilitating fear that originated from a childhood near drowning incident. True story. I even look at bathtubs and Jacuzzis as if they were deathtraps filled with sharks. Sadly, my fear has kept me out of the water for complete decades and I’ve missed out on so many water-related events and activities. It wasn’t until I visited Hawai’i with my second and much younger wife, following her and her bikini like a lemming over a cliff, did I finally overcome my unreasonable fear of water by doing the unbelievable—snorkeling in the actual ocean.
Well really, it was snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, safe, bathtub warm water that felt more like snorkeling in the shallow end of the pool—only with entire schools and families of fish. So what I’m about to relate to you, my advice and tips, are from an absolute beginners perspective; a ground zero snorkeling novice.
Tip #1. Start with where you are comfortable. This can be a lake or even a pool, as long as you’re comfortable and feel like those around you are competent snorkelers. Taking myself as an example, I stood ankle deep in sand and ‘snorkeled’ by simply lowering my head below the surface of the water. Not quite snorkeling, but it was a mini-baby step that I needed to take. Surprisingly, as soon as my mask was below the surface of the water, a yellow fish was waiting and staring right back at me. I laughed so hard I had to remove my mask.
Tip #2. Make sure your equipment is comfortable. There is nothing like having a snorkeling mask pinch your face like a vice, while simultaneously leaking. It will ruin your snorkeling experience. Promise. When you try on a mask for the first time, imagine having to wear it for the next 2 hours. Are there pain points? Does it fit snugly but not too tight? In my experience, it’s worth bringing your own equipment and investing in a nice mask, versus renting used equipment. Would you wear wooden shoes? Would you lie on a bed made of nails? The answer is no. Comfort is important with snorkeling.
Tip #3. A quick way to test comfort and mask seal is to press the mask against your face and forcefully inhale through your nose. The mask seal should be secure enough that it no longer requires you to hold it against your face.
Tip #4. Fins are not always necessary. If eventually you plan on snorkeling in open water, then purchase fins as they dramatically increase speed and agility. But if you plan on your first snorkel adventure being like mine, safe and shallow, then a mask and snorkel and a good attitude are all you need to have a great time.
Tip #5. If you decide not to buy, or forget your fins, wear protective footwear. Water socks, reef shoes (called Tabi’s in Hawai’i), Vibrams five-fingers, or even a light pair of sneakers will be enough to protect your feet from sharp reef. Reef cuts on your feet can take months to heal, and if you are unfortunate to step on a spiny urchin, healing time can take even longer.
Tip #6. Buy a picture book on Hawaii marine life. Below the oceans surface is an entirely unexpected world. In healthy reef systems, even the rocks are alive and the perfect ecology and balance of the reef is mind blowing. I love knowing what I’m looking at, and have found the simple knowledge of names of fish, coral, and their collective purposes dramatically improve my snorkeling experience. Additionally, there are dozens of websites that have great images and descriptions of native marine life.
Tip #7. Prep for your pre-ocean adventure by trying on your mask. I wore mine for the first time in the bathtub. Checked my seals, wiped the interior of my mask down with an anti-fog solution (or you can use saliva). Found the straps sweet spot (normally at your heads widest point), adjusted tension and just got comfortable with the snorkel in my mouth.
Tip #8. Never leave home without your snorkel buddy. Don’t be deceived by the warm water and white sand beaches of Hawai’i. Ocean conditions can change with extreme rapidity, and it’s best to always come prepared and have a second pair of eyes. It can save your life.
Tip #9. Always use the ocean adage, ‘If in doubt, don’t go out.” If you are not absolutely certain of currents, tides, waves and other ocean unknowns, stay on shore. In Hawai’i many beaches have lifeguards who are all amazing watermen / women. Don’t be afraid to ask about conditions.
Tip #10. Relax. Take deep breaths and mentally relax all your extremities. You’ll find it amazing how your body will naturally find it’s own natural buoyancy without you having to do a single thing. Floating face down in water with a snorkel in your mouth is a somewhat awkward position and will take you a few minutes to acclimatize, but you will.
– Vic Dinovici works in Hawaii for Hop Tours. This premier tour company is based out of Honolulu. They offer daily snorkeling tours out of Hanauma Bay.