How to Snorkel -- A Beginner's Guide to Snorkeling

Two Snorkelers in the Water at Ginnie Springs
Florida's Springs Provide Great Snorkeling

Learning how to snorkel is fairly easy, assuming you're already a pretty good swimmer. If you can drink through a soda straw, you can probably mouth breathe through a short tube. And mouth-breathing through a short tube while you're face is in the water is, well, snorkeling.

Oftentimes, in my observations at least, a big reason people want to learn how to snorkel is to prepare for some upcoming trip to the Florida Keys, the Caribbean, or some other part of the world where snorkeling is a big attraction.

A School of Sergeant-Majors on a Key Largo Coral Reef
Snorkeling in Key Largo is the Best

Whatever your reason, I've included information on this page designed to help you get started enjoying the amazing world to be found beneath the surface of this planet's waters, especially here in Florida, where we have great expanses of blue ocean waters, some living coral reefs, and an abundance of crystal karst springs.

Fair Warning :-)

But before proceeding with this info on how to snorkel, I must warn you. You just might get hooked on snorkeling. Plus, from what I've observed, the simple act of snorkeling often leads to more complicated things--like SCUBA diving. :-)

A Diver Boards a Boat in the Florida Keys

Go down that road and the next thing you know you'll be taking SCUBA lessons, buying expensive gear, skipping work and heading off with your like-minded new dive buddies to places you've probably never heard of in search of your next adventure high. :-)

It can all start with learning how to snorkel, so...if you're really sure you want to proceed...keep reading.

Snorkeling Gear

Good quality snorkeling gear tends to function better than cheap gear, making learning how to snorkel easier. So as not to take away from this page's focus, I'll be adding a page devoted specifically to snorkeling gear.

In the meantime, check with a reputable dive shop for equipment and advice on equipment.

You don't have to spend a fortune, but my advice would be to stay away from the very cheap stuff.

One recommendation I will make...for maybe 15 years I've used a Tusa Liberator mask with my own prescription lenses in it, and I love it. In fact, that's me wearing it the photo above. It's easy to adjust and has never leaked or given me any other problems. You might like it, too.

Getting Started

Probably the best place to learn how to snorkel is in the controlled environment of a swimming pool. Here, you can practice with a mask and snorkel until you get the hang of it.

Using the Mask and Snorkel

To start, put on your mask and snorkel, but forget the fins and other stuff for the moment. For now, let's focus on using only the mask and snorkel.

Proper Adjustment

Make sure your mask strap is properly adusted. If it's too tight, you may end up with pressure marks from the mask forming a ring around your face. Besides, it will be uncomfortable. If it's too loose, water will leak in between your mask and your face."

Preventing Fogging

To prevent mask fogging, you can use a commercial solution for that purpose, or simply do what almost every diver since Jacque Cousteau has done, and spit in your mask, covering the interior of the lenses with your saliva. Then, slightly rinse out the mask, but don't rinse it too much or you'll wash away all the saliva. For some reason, saliva has anti-fogging properties, so this works pretty well, especially if the mask's interior is dry when you do it.

Breathing Through the Snorkel

Having donned your mask and snorkel, put your face in the water and breathe through the snorkel until you become accustomed to it.

Now, start swimming around a bit, breathing "defensively" in case you duck your chin or perform some action that would allow water to enter through the snorkel's tip.

Be ready to stop breathing the instant you sense water may have entered your snorkel. In such case, you'll need to clear your snorkel, either by blowing forcefully through the mouthpiece or by taking the snorkel out of your mouth and tipping out the water.

With a little practice, you'll soon catch on to using the snorkel, although you may suck in water a time or two before you do. Don't be discouraged, just keep at it. You probably didn't learn to ride a bicycle without a fall here and there. In the same vein, you probably won't have an error-free experience whenlearning to use a snorkel.

Clearing the Snorkel

Once you learn how to snorkel on the water's surface, you'll probably want to dive down underwater, either just for the fun of it, or to check out something below. To clear water from a regular snorkel, you have two options:

  1. Saying the word "Two" at the same time, blow a quick and hard blast of air through the snorkel upon surfacing, clearing your breathing tube, as does a dolphin or a whale does.

  2. or

  3. As you swim towards the surface, face upwards, and with snorkel barrel pointing somewhat downward, blow air into the snorkel. A fairly gentle blast may do it. Then as you continue to surface, the air in the snorkel will expand--Boyle's law in action--causing the snorkel to clear. This is an easy method you might like.

Dealing with Pressure Changes

Anyone who knows how to snorkel should understand the effects of pressure changes on the body. As you dive down underwater, the surrounding pressure builds up because now not only do you have the weight of air in the atmosphere pressing against you, you also have the weight of whatever water is above you pressing against you. For the most part, because your body's air spaces are soft and flexlible, this pressure increase is unnoticeable and is no problem. Air in those spaces is simply compressed to equal the surrounding pressure.

Where you can have a problem, however, is with rigid air spaces inside your body, like your inner ears and sinuses. (I've even heard of problematic air spaces in people's dental work.) Since you gulped air at the surface, the air pressure inside these rigid spaces remains at whatever the air pressure was at the surface. As you descend, the increase in the surrounding pressure starts to squeeze against these cavities, causing pain and sometimes damage.

The only way to solve the problem is to equalize the pressure inside your ears and sinuses. You can often equalize the pressure in your inner ears by swallowing, or holding your nose and swallowing. This action forces air compressed to surrounding pressure from your soft, flexible lungs up through your Eustachian tubes and into your inner ear. If it works, problem solved!

If it doesn't work, try wiggling your jaw while blowing GENTLY through your nose and swallowing. Also, try ascending a few feet to let some pressure off your ears, then try to equalize.

Most people can learn to equalize their ears. A few may have some structural or other problem that prevents equalization. But just because you can't equalize the first time you try, don't worry. Most people can with practice.

In fact, when I go for a few weeks without snorkeling and equalizing while snorkeling, my ears seem to be harder to equalize. Some days, I realize it's just not going to happen. My ears won't cooperate. Maybe they're slightly congested, I don't know. All I know is when I push air, it doesn't get through to my inner ear. On other days, it's easy to equalize.It's probably all related to temporary ear congestion. Just be gentle with your ears, and use good sense. Otherwise you can damage them.

Sinus congestion can be another issue facing snorkelers. If your sinuses are congested, it may be possible to open them upwith medication, which may or may not be a good idea. Your medicated sinuses may decide to stop up again while you'reunder pressure, so that when you surface the expanding air now trapped in your sinus will cause you painful problems.

Once in a great while, when my sinuses are clogged, I still snorkel on the surface. I just don't dive down.

Shallow Water Blackout

If you engage in breath-hold diving--which just about everyone who snorkels does--please be aware of shallow-water blackout. This can happen to anyone who holds their breath too long underwater.

But it happens most often to those who hyperventilate before descending. Hyperventilation, in this context, means the practice of unnecessarily hard and rapid breathing before a dive. Such action drives down blood carbon dioxide levels, without significantly increasing blood oxygen saturation--a prescription for disaster.

Why? Because, for normal, healthy people, it's not the lack of oxygen that makes you want to breathe, but the build-up of carbon dioxide in your blood. If you blow the carbon dioxide level too low to start with, it can't rise high enough to trigger the breathing response before you run too low on oxygen. Result? You black out.

I highly recommend you watch this excellent short video on shallow-water blackout that explains the phenomenon very well. This information on potential danger is not designed to scare you out of snorkeling, but to inform you so you can enjoy your water activities with increased safety and confidence.

Using Fins

Fins--only newbies call them "flippers"--aren't absolutely necessary. Think of all the video clips you ever sawabout Pacific pearl divers. They didn't use fins.

Without fins, an overhand crawl stroke or a breast stroke can work well. With fins, however, you can swim comfortably with your arms at your side. With a camera or something else in your hands, fins are just the thing. I like fins especially in the open ocean where there can be swells and a strong current. They provide more power in the water.

Diving Knife

A stainless steel knife is a good piece of safety equipment. The thought of getting tangled in a web of discarded monofilament line or some kind of netting concerns me more than sharks, barracudas, and other sea life. At least with a good blade, you have a chance of cutting yourself free.

Snorkel Vest

Some people like a safety vest that can be inflated by mouth if necessary. With no air in it, you can dive underwater.But if you get tired, or otherwise have a problem that prevents you from swimming, you can blow air in your vest and float.

Wet Suit

A thin-skin wet suit can protect you from exposure to sun, cold, jellyfish, rocks, and other things. I've had one foryears, and I use it quite often--not all the time--but often.

Dive Flag

A dive flag lets boaters know to keep a safe distance. In Florida, boaters are required to stay 300 feet away from a dive flag, unless they're in a river, inlet, or navigation channel. There, the required distance to maintain is 100 feet.

Two Snorkelers Stand on the Concrete Jetty Next to the Lake Worth Inlet
Always Use a Dive Flag When Snorkeling Near Boat Traffic

Use your flag. Danger from boats is, in my opinion, often much more a concern to snorkelers any thing else. Boaters don't always respect dive flags, but it still makes sense to have one.

Knowing how to snorkel can add lots of enjoyment and adventure to your life. Once you're ready to "blow and go" you'll find a world of snorkeling opportunities here in Florida. Enjoy.