Let’s talk snorkelling safety!
Whenever terms like ‘hazardous’ or ‘dangerous’ get mentioned alongside activities like snorkelling and diving, the reaction of most is to instantly think about big predators like Sharks. Relatively and statistically speaking, you are more likely to be injured by a falling coconut than attacked by a shark.
In fact, there are many different types of hazard to consider, especially when snorkelling, because unlike diving, it requires no formal training or tests of skills. To make the information more readable let’s break it down into sections.
Sharks – So, I covered the misconception about sharks in the paragraph above. That doesn’t mean that you might not see large sharks capable of inflicting an injury, it just means that you would have to be REALLY unlucky to experience any type of aggressive behaviour. You will hear most avid snorkelers complain that they have been desperately trying to capture a shark photo but can never get close enough!
Currents/Tides – It can be very difficult to tell how the current is running and it can often change during your snorkel, meaning a difficult swim back to where you started. Rip currents can also be present. Ensure you always take note of local flag systems and warnings. If snorkelling in an island environment it may be good to ask the island dive centre, they usually have a good idea of sea conditions and possible issues.
Coral/Rock Cuts – Coral cuts can easily become infected and take a long time to heal. Injuries like this can easily be avoided by being aware of the surrounding topography and regularly reviewing your course, especially during changing sea conditions and poor visibility. Also keep in mind that snorkelling masks can make things look bigger or closer than they actually are, so by giving yourself a margin of error you are dramatically reducing the risk of a collision.
Boats/Motorized Water sports – Many destinations that promote both motorised water sports and activities like snorkelling and diving will often have buoyed areas. Make sure you know where these boundaries are and ensure you stay within them. It can be incredibly difficult to spot snorkelers from a fast moving object like a speedboat or water ski so it pays to keep this in mind when in the water. Some destinations ask snorkelers to tow small flags with them as a marker to others.
The Sun – It’s easy to get seriously burnt when in the water, not only does the water intensify the suns rays, it also means the temperature does not feel so hot. I have lost count of the number of seriously sun burnt people I have met on holiday (I’ve also burnt myself badly). Make sure you have strong water resistant sun lotion on, including places you might forget about – ears, head, feet etc. You could also consider wearing a rash vest or suit with SPF in it.
Marine Life – Something you are taught as a diver is that most marine life will only attack as a form of defence or if provoked. This rings true for many of the species that are capable of inflicting painful injuries and a small amount of research about your chosen snorkelling destination will pay dividends. Moray Eels, for example, may bite a hand or foot that gets too close to their home. Titan Trigger fish are well known in the Indian Ocean for aggressively defending their nests on the sea floor. Stingrays hidden under the sand could sting if accidentally trodden on, as can stone fish. The golden rule in the underwater kingdom is to look and never touch, observing the goings on below the waves is not only incredibly enjoyable but also the key to safe snorkelling.
Believe it or not, you, the snorkeler, pose the biggest threat to your own safety in the water and are also much more likely to cause damage to the marine environment than it is to you. Let’s look at some of the most frequent errors or issues.
It might seem really obvious to some that you should only snorkel if you are able to swim but many push themselves out of their comfort and ability limits in order to see ‘more’. There are also huge cultural differences surrounding learning to swim and assessment of one’s own proficiency. Having a float vest, a float tube, fins or any other aid does not negate the simple fact that being able to swim at least some distance is essential.
It’s very easy to miscalculate distances and think that something is swim-able when it really isn’t. It’s also easy to push yourself to stay out just that little bit longer, or to snorkel just another few metres when you are getting tired. Please don’t ever push yourself, always ensure you have a little reserve energy in case getting back to shore is more difficult than you anticipated.
Something I have been very guilty of in the past is to find a fish or creature I have been searching for, and to follow it way outside the reef and away from land, not realising until I am a long distance out from shore. It’s very easy to lose your bearings when staring down into the sea, try to get into the habit of looking up and recognising where the shore is at least every few minutes or so.
Poor fitting equipment can ruin a snorkelling session quicker than you could get your swimsuit on, a leaking mask will mean sore eyes and not being able to see anything. A leaking snorkel doesn’t just mean mouthfuls of water but also has the tendency to panic the user into trying to stand up, which can cause a number of problems already mentioned above. Make sure your equipment fits properly and is up to the task. I always take a spare mask strap with me when I go on holiday, just in case the original one breaks. Most resorts will lend guests equipment which can ‘make do’ but your own set can cost as little as $45/£30 and can last you years if looked after properly.
Any other tips?
Well yes! Aside from being able to swim, taking care over currents, watching out for coral, having properly fitting equipment and respecting the marine world, there are just a few more things that can make all the difference to your snorkelling adventure;
Consider wearing a whistle – Waterproof whistles are so very cheap and can easily be bought from water sports stores or on the internet. Should you find yourself in trouble you can use it to attraction attention from other swimmers or from the shore.
Snorkel in pairs/groups – Pairs is ideal as groups tend to scare off the fish! Try and stay within a few fin kicks of your buddy and make sure you check they are still with you every few minutes, it’s easy to get separated. You can also use a buddy line for small children but make sure there is not enough slack to get caught on, or damage corals etc.
Training – Most swimming pools or dive clubs also give training on snorkelling, covering everything from equipment to how to clear a flooded snorkel. If you are not confident or feel like you could use some extra help then do consider this. Using fins can be difficult to get used to but once perfected can really change your snorkelling experience so the small investment can pay dividends.
Wow, that seems like a lot of hazards, warnings and equipment doesn’t it? Snorkelling is definitely one of the safest water activities in the world when done properly, it’s also incredibly enjoyable and relaxing. This article is not designed to scare you but point out that there are risks associated and how to avoid them. Don’t forget, forewarned is forearmed!
Digested all of that? Why not read my article on capturing great photos while snorkelling! (Coming soon)