Going snorkelling when on holiday is always good fun but to get the best out of it (and to stay safe) we need to look a little more deeply; you’ll be surprised at just what’s involved. Let’s take a look at what’s needed in the form of equipment and how to set it up.
If you intend to go snorkelling often, buy a reasonable mask. It is important that you choose a mask that fits properly or you will have problems later on; this has no connection to the price of the mask whatsoever. The correct way to fit a dive mask is to fold the strap in front of the glass out of the way, then place the mask gently against the face and breathe in through the nose; if the mask fits properly it will ‘suck’ to your face and you can let it go. No air ingress past the seal should occur and the mask should not drop off until you breathe out through the nose; under no circumstances should you try and seal the mask by tightening the strap. Now put the mask on properly with only light pressure on the strap just to keep it in place and make sure that the mask is comfortable; if everything is good, the mask is fine. Before using the mask initially, rub toothpaste (abrasive type) all over the inside of the glass with your finger and rinse clean; the abrasive in the toothpaste will remove the film left on the glass by the manufacturing process and will greatly reduce ‘fogging’ on the inside.
Boots & Fins
If you are snorkelling in the sea the best fins to use are ‘open water’ fins; you’ll need a pair of wetsuit boots to go with these. The wetsuit boots should always be worn on a beach when snorkelling as you never know what’s under the sand (rusty tin cans, fish hooks, broken glass) and there are large blood vessels in the feet. It may seem a little over careful but I’m sure you don’t want to spend most of your holiday at the hospital and on crutches!
There are two types of snorkel, the standard tube and the ‘all singing, all dancing’ self-drain type; either type will give you good service providing you know how to work them properly. Fit your chosen snorkel to the mask strap on the left hand side; the side is relatively unimportant but it’s normally on the left because if you are scuba diving the regulator normally comes in on the right. The snorkel should be positioned (against popular opinion) so that the top of the snorkel is about horizontal with the ground when you are looking straight ahead; this will then point downward at about 10 degrees when looking up during ascent. This is more important with a standard tube snorkel otherwise it won’t clear efficiently while ascending and will then require a bigger blow to clear on surfacing.
This is more important than you may think! To snorkel properly you will need to be neutrally buoyant; if this is the case without a weight-belt you are extremely lucky. You can find out if you are neutrally buoyant by this easy method. Put all of your snorkelling gear on and get into water where you can’t touch the bottom, stay upright and hold a normal breath (about half way); the water should be at eye-level (half-way up the mask) when you are perfectly still. Remember, you will be more buoyant in salt water than in fresh water and you will also need more weight if you wear a wetsuit. It is important that the weight-belt is fitted in a certain way; it should be released with your right hand. The importance is to do with safety; if your snorkelling buddy or diver needs to release your weight-belt in an emergency they know that it will always be a ‘right-hand release’. The belt should not be too long and the end should never, ever be tucked-in so that in an emergency release situation the weight-belt falls away cleanly.
Surface Marker Buoy (SMB)
Many countries insist on an SMB if you are snorkelling. These things will become the bane of your life. It is an inflatable buoy that is attached to you by a line & reel; this follows you around telling surface vessels of your presence in the water. This sounds good! In reality, the fact is that most of the people in surface craft think it’s a fixed buoy and attempt to spin their boat or jetski around it. The problem is that very few people seem to know the rules that apply around an SMB. That said, you may be stuck with it to a certain extent. Never, ever attach the SMB to your wrist or ankle; always hold it in your hand so that if it gets caught on a surface vessel you can just let it go.
For safety reasons it is always best to snorkel with a buddy, apart from that it’s more fun! If you are snorkelling with a buddy the correct safety procedure is to use the ‘one up, one down’ system. This means that there is never a time when both of you are under the water together; in the event that the diving snorkeler has a problem the surface snorkeler can dive to assist with a full breath. The other good thing about having a buddy is that the SMB can always be left with the surface snorkeler, leaving the diving snorkeler unencumbered. The surface snorkeller always keeps and eye on the diving snorkeller until he has surfaced.
In part 2 we will look at actual snorkelling and how to deal with various problems.