Snorkeling 101: A guide for first-timers

by CaliCase Team on September 12, 2023

Snorkeling is a fun, easy-to-learn, and relatively inexpensive water activity that doesn't require expert skills or fancy gear. Still, there are a few tips to consider before jumping in for the first time. And if you're not sure if you are a good enough swimmer to snorkel, we've asked this specific question to our swimming instructor. We've put together this guide for novice snorkelers to make the experience safe, memorable, and lots of fun!

We made this article with the help of Guillaume Georges, who was a lifeguard and swimming teacher for over five years.


Why Snorkeling Is Beneficial for Your Health


Snorkeling can provide numerous benefits for both mental and physical health. Physically, swimming has a positive effect on skeletal and cardiovascular health, and it is a low-impact exercise. It means that it doesn't negatively impact your articulations as running and works a larger amount of muscles than most other physical activities: your legs, arms, core, and back. A recent study called "The Impact of therapeutic swimming on elderly women diagnosed with Osteoporosis", from Elena Vizitiu and Mihai Costantinescu, tried to demonstrate the benefice of swimming for women with osteoporosis, and the results were encouraging. Also, spending time in the water can reduce stress and promote relaxation. The calming effect of water lowers your blood pressure and heartbeat. Another study called "The impact of moderate-intensity swimming exercise on learning and memory in aged rats", from Tunca U and others, experimented on the impact of swimming on the learning capabilities of rats, and the results demonstrated a positive effect. Snorkeling adds to that by being surrounded by marine life and beautiful scenery. The sense of wonder and connection with the nature around you.


We asked the Instagram community about their first-time snorkeling experience and we are delighted to share some of thier responses with our readers.
Kayangan Lake, Palawan Island by Kimbaworld


"My number one motivation to try snorkeling in Nusa Penida was the diverse marine life I had read about in the waters around the island. I knew we could get a very close experience of the beautiful coral fishes and sometimes even manta rays if we were lucky. I initially thought jumping off a boat into the water was daunting because it looked a bit deep. But once I got the right gear and went in, I was fine. It was fun, and I started swimming in the waves. The most memorable aspect was the different species of fish we saw and the beautiful corals beneath us. Also, snorkeling is easier than it looks. I highly recommend snorkeling to travelers of all age groups. It's stimulating, and the real-life experience with reef life is surreal and stunning. Be careful of swimming into deep ends or getting caught next to a rocky cliff, as one member of my group got stuck in the high tides. So it's best to stick to your group or your guide. Just swim where it's recommended and make sure your gears are working fine. The rest, just take a deep breath and enjoy! 🤙🏼"

APRIANDIRUSDI instagram account

"For a long time, I suffered from Thalassophobia, which made me very anxious around bodies of water. However, now I appreciate the ocean, especially since my home country, Indonesia, is an archipelago surrounded by the sea. The underwater world is filled with various biota, which is fascinating to observe. Despite my fear, I snorkeled, and the vibrant and diverse marine life I saw was genuinely awe-inspiring. I initially hesitated to swim with the Whale Sharks during my last visit to Gorontalo. But as I got closer, I realized they were gentle, beautiful, and friendly creatures. I highly recommend snorkeling to anyone, especially those who experience anxiety. I have learned to control my thoughts by utilizing breathing techniques while snorkeling, which has helped me become much calmer"          

APRIANDIRUSDI Instagram Profile
ATCHY-LADY's photo


"I've actually gone snorkeling before, but it's been a while since I've had the opportunity since moving away from my home island. Despite this, I'm a beginner free diver and an advanced scuba diver. Growing up on a small island in the south of Thailand, I used to admire the underwater life from a wooden bridge that stretched out into the sea. I always dreamed of swimming with those beautiful creatures, and now I get to experience the incredible beauty of the underwater world that I once admired. It was when I was 12 years old that I first saw the most beautiful creatures up close while snorkeling with my father in a deep-water reef. Trust me, snorkeling or diving will take you to a world that is completely different from what we're used to, and it's absolutely stunning!"

ACHTYLADY Instagram Profile


Best Practice to Start Snorkeling

Anonymous Woman Snorkeling with Fishes


Learn How to Swim First

Though you don't necessarily need to be an Olympic swimmer to snorkel, you should be able to stay afloat before diving into a bay or ocean depths. Consider signing up for swimming lessons at a local YMCA or dive center in your town prior to embarking on your vacation.

"Non-swimmers tend to be uncomfortable putting their head into the water for a long time. The feeling of water on their face, around their noise, make them anxious. The base principle of snorkeling is to keep your head underwater, so that's the first obstacle for a non-swimmer" Guillaume pointed out.

But even for experienced swimmers, first-time snorkeling can be challenging: "I saw swimmers in swimming clubs that were not comfortable at all with a snorkel in their mouth when I was training for my lifeguarding certificate. In a typical swim style like crawl style, you fill your lungs with air, hold your breath, breath out, and repeat. While snorkeling, your breathing rhythm is more similar as if you were running."


Choose quality gear that fits

A common beginner's mistake is choosing the wrong equipment. The fit and quality of your snorkeling gear can determine how your first experience will be, so make sure to spend time researching what equipment to use. "I got screwed for my lifeguarding exam because my snorkel broke off in the middle of the test. It was a cheap snorkel that held on the side of my face. I had to hold my snorkel with one hand and swim with the over one. I was the fastest swimmer in my promotion but didn't pass the test. When I left the pool center, I immediately bought a quality front snorkel. They are the best".

Snorkeling gear is usually always available to rent on-site, but having your own snorkeling kit will ensure the best fit and condition. The basics include just a pair of snorkeling goggles, a pair of flippers, and a snorkel tube, so making a small investment could bring beginners large benefits. And to complete your collection of must-gears to take with you in your snorkeling adventures, the CaliCase phone pouch protects your phone from water. It lets you record your surroundings without investing in an expensive waterproof camera.


Practice in a pool

If you've never snorkeled before, practicing in a pool is a good way to learn how to swim and breathe. Once you're acclimated, practice in a shallow, current-free bay or in a designated swimming area. The most important thing is to learn how to float on the surface without too much effort. You should swim slowly and breathe easily. "If you want to save energy in water, you must put all your body in a star style, head submerged. That way, you optimize your buoyancy, then fill your lungs with air. You can float like this indefinitely."


Choose a safe place with abundant marine life

There are many excellent destinations all over the world, including the Caribbean, Florida, Hawaii, and Mexico, each one with its own geographical features and assortment of marine life. Choose a safe area where the water is calm, moderately shallow, and with little boat traffic. We've put the best snorkeling springs near Orlando, if you wish to avoid bad water conditions, these places may be the best for you, and you'll get to snorkel with Manatees! Ideally, choose a location where there is a lifeguard on duty.

Visit our top 15 destinations in the world to snorkel.

After you've become more experienced, you can venture out to coral reefs in deeper waters where the most abundant marine life can be found such as snorkeling with turtles at Maui, or night snorkeling with Manta Rays at Hawaii.  Most novice snorkelers are advised to go with a group on a tour where there are more experienced swimmers and staff to help you get started. If you go on a tour, stay close to the boat, as currents can take you out to sea quickly.


Take safety precautions

No matter how experienced you are, ocean conditions can change instantly, so as being caught by a rip current. A rip current is a powerful current that flows away from shore out to sea. They are caused by a build-up of water near the shore that must escape back to sea, often due to incoming waves, tide changes, or other factors. Below is a video of the National Ocean Service explaining these currents.

If caught by a rip current, do not fight against it. Swim parallel to the shore, and wave for help if needed. One of our most important tips for all snorkelers is to use an inflatable life vest or other floatation devices, even if you feel confident floating in open water. To be visible to passing boats, carrying a surface marker buoy and wearing brightly colored rash guards or wet suits is also highly recommended.


Never snorkel alone

Utilize the buddy system where both parties are responsible for each other's safety. For example, if two swimmers are using the buddy system while swimming in the ocean, they would stay close to each other and keep an eye out for signs of danger, such as rip currents or changing weather conditions. If one swimmer starts to struggle, the other can help and call for assistance if needed. Because you just never know when you'll get a sudden leg cramp, feel sick, or get cut on coral, it's always better to take a better-safe-than-sorry approach when snorkeling. Besides, what fun is it if you can't share the experience?


Pay attention to weather and water conditions

Determining where and when to go snorkeling is essential for even the more experienced swimmer, but for beginners, especially, it's critical to check the water and weather conditions before heading out to sea. The National Weather Service forecasts marine conditions on their website.

Avoiding stormy weather may seem obvious, but less visible factors like strong currents and high winds are just as important. Most snorkeling tours will not allow swimmers to go out in dangerous conditions, but in places like Cozumel, where there are a lot of public access beaches in which you can snorkel on your own, it's safest to be aware of the conditions before heading out, even if you're staying close to the shore.


Follow Reef Etiquette

Reef Etiquette basically means being a responsible and respectful visitor to the underwater ecosystem.

First up, don't touch or stand on the coral! It may be tempting to get up close and personal with these beautiful formations, but they're actually quite fragile and can be easily damaged by physical contact. So be sure to swim slowly and carefully, and watch out for accidental kicks and bumps.

Another big no-no is feeding the fish. As fun as it may seem to have schools of tropical fish swarming around you, it's actually pretty harmful to the reef and its inhabitants. Feeding the fish can disrupt their natural feeding patterns and even cause them to become dependent on humans for food. Plus, overfeeding can lead to all sorts of problems for the ecosystem as a whole.

And of course, don't chase or harass the marine life! This should be a no-brainer, but it's worth repeating. Give the creatures plenty of space to swim freely and avoid flash photography, which can be harmful to certain species.

Last but not least, remember to take only pictures and leave only bubbles! Bring the best waterproof phone pouch CaliCase to protect your phone from water and let it float while you snorkel. Don't take any souvenirs from the reef, and make sure to properly dispose of any trash. And when it comes to sunscreen or other personal care products, be sure to choose reef-safe options that won't harm the delicate ecosystem.

Visit Florida Key Governmental Website to learn more about the reef etiquette.


What is the difference betwen snorkeling and swimming?

The main difference between snorkeling and common swimming is that your legs propel you with fins while your arms do the main job in common swimming. "In crawl style, your legs' main role is maintaining your body horizontally and keeping your chest stable while your arms propel you. In snorkeling, the roles switch, the legs become propel, and the arms balance."

To use most of your fins, you must keep your feet in the water and keep your legs straight: "The most frequent error I saw while teaching swimming was what I called the bicycle legs. Beginners move their legs as though they are pedaling. It's inefficient, it makes them sink, and the fins burden them. Second was the fin going out of the water and splashing it. That happens mostly to advanced swimmers because they are used to doing that during their freestyle. Keeping fins in the water is a must."

Use your snorkel for breathing as you are running. Water may enter the snorkel, and you may cough once or twice, but when you get used to it, you can breathe out the water as it enters. "My first time with a snorkel was difficult because of the water entering the lungs, not gallons, but one or two drops, making you cough. While coughing, you may swallow even more water, and you can start to panic. My best advice is to focus on breathing out. We used to tell the kids to visualize a candle to blow off or make bubbles. Focus on breathing out, your concentration of carbon dioxide will stay low, and you will avoid suffocating sensations."


How does a snorkel work?

Front Snorkel Parts with Purge Valve

The snorkel used for this illustration is a TYR 2.0 Ultralite Snorkel.

Modern snorkels are made of a mouthpiece to hold with your mouth and teeth, a purge valve to expel water entering the tube, and an air valve above the head of the snorkeler.

The purge valve lets you breathe out brutally the water entering the snorkel.

"The purge valve is an essential feature of a snorkel. As I said previously, water does not enter in gallons in your snorkel. It's just drops of water, and expelling it all over the tube to the air valve is too difficult. The purge valve lets you do that."