I am by no means an expert at snorkelling but I am deeply interested in it. Snorkelling is the most important activity for me when I plan a vacation. Everything else comes second. I thought I would try and put together some information on the topic as many people new to snorkelling always seem to ask the same questions. Feel free to add what ever thoughts you have as I am sure that I probably missed important tips.
Should I bring my own equipment?
Resort equipment is often worn out and unavailable, when the sea is calm and the weather is nice, everyone wants the equipment at the same time. There is usually not enough to go around. The problem is compounded when the clients (us) do not return the equipment back on time. It can be frustrating for the resort employee who has to handle the sometimes irate clients who to have to repeatedly return because the equipment is not available as requested. You are limited to how much time you can borrow the equipment. It’s very hard to assess how much time has gone by when you’re in the water and who wants to worry about that when you’re enjoying yourself. More often that not, the masks will leak, are scratched, and the mouthpieces of the snorkels are chewed up. Issues of hygiene are another matter all together. Was the mask and snorkel mouthpiece washed after the last use? Not always.
If you are going to snorkel, wear all the equipment that is necessary. The snorkel, mask and fins are all important. The fins allow you to move and manoeuvre through the water a lot easier with them than without them. You won’t tire out as easily with fins. Currents and waves can be strong at times and you need all the advantages possible in order to move around efficiently. The best place to buy snorkelling equipment is at the local dive shop. They have a much better selection than a sports or big box store like Wal-Mart. You can try on the fins and mask and assure yourself that they will fit properly. The salespeople at dive shops will be very useful in making sure that you get the right equipment according to your budget. Masks should be snug and not let any water in. Equipment that is not adequate or does not fit properly make the snorkelling experience frustrating and may discourage people from doing it again. If it’s your first time practice in a shallow part of the beach or the pool so you can learn how to adjust your mask and snorkel properly.
Should I wear a life jacket?
If you have any doubts about your swimming abilities or your endurance, wear a life jacket. Life jackets are preferable to the life vests that some snorkelers wear. A life jacket will keep you afloat in the heads up position even if you lose consciousness. A snorkelling vest will not do that. Although a bit bulky, they are light and don’t add too much to your baggage weight. Life jackets will also prevent your back from getting sunburnt. As well, another benefit of wearing a life jacket is that if you have to adjust or clean your mask, you can just turn over on your back in the water and perform maintenance to your equipment without having to stand on anything. This will prevent you from disturbing the flora and fauna underneath your feet.
Should I feed the fish?
Feeding fish can be detrimental for the fish as well as yourself. Some fish, such as Chubs and Parrotfish quickly loose their shyness and can take a good nip off of your finger. A feeding frenzy of small fish can also attract the attention of predators such as Barracuda who might find that tight ball of distracted flashing prey buzzing around you just a bit too tempting. Feeding fish changes the natural behaviour of fish and turns them into beggars looking for handouts. It is doubtful that bread and bananas will provide the fish the nutrition that they require. Their natural diet provides all that they need. While feeding the fish provides a brief bit of entertainment, watching fish behaviour with a minimum of human disturbance can be far more interesting. All life on a reef serves a purpose and is part of a complex chain, humans feeding fish disrupts their normal behaviour and can have unforeseen consequences on other species of marine life. For example, many smaller fish stake out certain areas of the reef and provide a service to larger fish by cleaning them of parasites, dead skin, etc. The larger fish seek out these “cleaning stations.” If these fish have become dependent on handouts by humans, what are the consequences if these cleaners stop providing that service?
What are those flags on the beach?
Resort and Public beaches will always have flags posted along the shore and near the lifeguard station that indicate the condition of the sea. A red flag means that you are not permitted to go into the sea and life guards will ask you to get out if you do enter. The red flag will be posted because the sea is too rough or if there are other dangers such as Portuguese man-of-war around. A yellow flag indicates that you can enter but to use caution. Green flag means that the conditions are ideal. By the way, the sea is usually calmer in the morning, if you see that conditions for snorkelling are ideal, don’t wait and take advantage while you can. In some areas, like Jibacoa, green flags are not that common and can change within hours to a yellow or red flag. Snorkelling in a calm sea is an experience like no other.
It is always recommended that you swim with a partner and that you keep track of each other. Always be aware of your surroundings, look around once in while above the surface. Check to see if there are any boats close by that might possibly run into you. Remember, people are on vacation and quite often under the influence of alcohol and may not see you no matter what you’re wearing. Scanning the surface for Portuguese Man-of-War is also a good idea. Man-of-War move with the current and wind and have no control over where they are heading. Make sure you know where you are in relation to the shore at all times. It’s easy to swim and swim and not realize how far you’ve gone.
T-shirts are advised if you intend to snorkel for any length of time and wish to avoid sunburn. Another point that people forget is that snorkelling requires a certain amount of exertion and it is important that you avoid dehydration. Just because you’re in the water doesn’t mean that won’t dehydrate. Drink water or other non-alcoholic liquids as you would before playing any sport or form of exercise.
The best rule of thumb when snorkelling is don’t touch anything. This means fish, corals, plants, shells, etc. There are many toxic species included in all the groups mentioned. Corals are cover in nematocysts (stinging cells) that, depending on the species, can cause you a lot of pain. Some shells, such as cone shells can give a very strong sting just by passing your hand near them. Divers usually swim with their arms by their sides and this would be a good habit to keep when snorkelling. Don’t get to close to the reefs as waves can bring you close and cause you to scrape against sharp rocks and knock against the corals.
Don’t walk on anything. Every time you step down onto the ground while in the water,
you risk knocking over or crushing corals or other living organisms. There are rays, flounders, scorpion fish, etc who lay still and use camouflage as their strategy to avoid other predators. Some creatures, such as starfish, urchins, and sea slugs just aren’t fast enough to move out of harm’s way. This could result in injury to yourself as well as the other animal. There is a lot of pressure on the reefs from the continuous flow of tourists. It is important to eliminate, if possible, any damage that we might inflict on the corals and other marine life.
Move through the water slowly. There’s a lot to see out there. Many creatures are shy and hide in holes and crevices, under ledges or bury themselves in the sand. Take your time and look around, pause once in a while and just stare, you’ll be surprised by what is hiding out there. Some of the most interesting creatures are right under your noses and will reveal themselves if they think the coast is clear.
Try and learn the names of what you’re looking at underwater. This includes fish, corals, molluscs, plants, and everything else that is living beneath the waves. It makes the whole experience that much more interesting.