Tips on snorkeling

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 82 of the January 2008 issue.

by Lew Toulmin, second of two parts

In my last column I shared some tips from Dr. Jack Grove of Zegrahm Expeditions (192 Nickerson St. #200, Seattle, WA 98109; 800/628-8747, on snorkeling safety and footwear for use during cruises with snorkel programs. This time I will talk about ear and skin protection, eye protection, safety and free diving.

Ear and skin protection

Some snorkelers, myself included, use foam or rubber earplugs to keep water from getting trapped in their ear canals. If you have narrow canals or ear infection problems, use the plugs. Disposable foam plugs of the “Quiet! Please” brand work well and cost only about $5 in any drugstore.

Sunburn and coral cuts are the main concerns regarding skin protection. Put on plenty of high-SPF (sun protection factor) sunscreen rated at least 30 or more. Use it liberally on your neck, ears, backs of legs, front of feet, knees, face, nose, arms and anywhere else that will be exposed.

Wear a long-sleeve sun-protection shirt; Solumbra (800/882-7860, is a good brand. Some serious snorkelers wear a lightweight Lycra “skin” that covers them from ankle to wrist ($99 and up at most dive shops).

If you get a cut, rash, blister, bite or any other break in the skin, no matter how small, wash it immediately and apply Betadine or another broad-spectrum antiseptic cream. Coral seas often have bacteria which can infect cuts rapidly and even cause blood poisoning.

To protect your vulnerable head against sunburn, you can buy a rubber swimmer’s cap, but I find these so tight and hot that they give me a headache. Instead, take a tip from Jack Grove and use his technique for tying on a piratical-looking head kerchief.

Find or make a kerchief about 22 by 22 inches. Fold in one corner so the folded edge is about seven inches long. Place that edge low across your forehead, with the folded corner on the underside and the remainder draped over your head.

There should be three “tails” (corners): one over each ear and one down your neck. Grab each of the side tails over your ears, pull them outboard (outward, away from your ears), then roll them each up into a loose rat-tail. Behind your head near the nape of your neck, tie the two side rat-tails with a square knot on top of the third corner.

The tops of your ears should be covered and protected by the edge of the kerchief, and the whole rig should be quite tight to your head. Make sure the kerchief is close to your mask in front but not under the edge of it.

All this sounds easy, but in fact it will take a lot of practice to do it correctly and quickly, especially in a moving Zodiac. Once you master it, you will look like a pirate and will have the same sun protection they did.

Eye protection

Buy a diving/snorkeling mask that fits your face very well. Snorkeling with an old, stiff, leaky mask that doesn’t fit, one supplied by a local operator, is not a good idea. Test the fit in the dive/swim shop by inhaling through your nose with your mask on, then try to pull the mask off. The mask should suck on your skin all around, with no leaks.

If you have a mustache, trim it around the base of your nose to allow good skin-to-rubber contact. Some authorities say to put Vaseline in your mustache to create a seal; in fact, this rarely works well. Also, Vaseline is a petroleum product and may degrade the rubber in your mask.

If you have poor vision, you can get specially ground prescription lenses for your snorkel goggles for about $300-plus at any good dive shop.

Alternatively, for about $70 for the mask and $30 per lens you can get snap-in lenses that approximate your prescription in a full snorkel mask. (See the Mares Six Window Mask at, for an example.) These come in adjustments ranging from nearsighted up to -10.0 diopters or even in farsighted and bifocals. (Ask your eye doctor to translate your prescription into diopters, and explain what you are doing.) Snap-in lenses do not work well for persons with astigmatism, however.

You can buy small swim goggles with optical correction from Among items listed are Kiefer Optical Goggles for -1.5 diopters to -9.0 diopters at $18.95 and View Liberator Goggles for -2.0 to -7.0 diopters at $7.65 per lens.

With small goggles you will also need a nose clip to keep out the water. When buying a nose clip, avoid getting a thin wire one and get a substantial clip almost a quarter of an inch wide. (The thin ones come off very easily.)

Make sure the clip has a couple of small holes near the end. Thread a thin, strong string through these holes in a loop about 20 inches long. This loop goes around your neck so you don’t lose the clip. Almost all manufacturers supply a thin rubber strap that is supposed to serve this function; almost all of these break in the first few wearings.

To reduce fogging of your goggles/face mask, try Sea Gold antifog gel (at or dive shops); this is the best product I have found, so far. It works better than the old adage of “spit in your mask and rub it around,” but it is not perfect; you may still need to clear your mask every 10 to 15 minutes.

To clear your mask, lift up your face mask/goggles about an inch and let a little seawater in. Slosh it around gently without removing the mask and without getting the seawater in your eyes. Tilt the mask back to let the water out. Reseal the mask to your face.

Safety at sea

Prior to snorkeling, listen to the staff safety briefing before getting in the water. (If there is not a safety briefing, ask for one.) Stay within the snorkel boundaries set by the staff, and know the location of the safety boat. Know the agreed-upon distress signal to attract help.

Don’t flutter your hands rapidly in the water, and don’t wear jewelry. Fluttering and flashing can be interpreted as a fish in distress by passing barracuda or other predators.

I know this from personal experience. I once saw a person in an inner tube wearing a big gold ring and fluttering his hand in three feet of water off the beach at a famous resort in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I was just about to warn him to stop when he was bitten hard in the hand, between his thumb and forefinger, by a “tame” barracuda which usually lingered offshore in that bay.

The resort guest was evacuated to the U.S. mainland the same day for major nerve and tendon surgery.

Try a little free diving

Once you get good at snorkeling and swimming on the surface, you can try a little “free diving.” That’s where you dive down below the surface to get a closer look. (By the way, do not wear earplugs while free diving; this can cause ear damage.) Free diving can increase your lung capacity and ability to hold your breath and thus improve your overall health. Practice with a buddy at home in a pool before free diving in the open ocean.

To free dive, first inhale three times without exhaling, filling your lungs to their utmost capacity, moving your diaphragm down and your chest up. Exhale slowly, to rid your lungs of carbon dioxide.

Inhale another lungful of air, lay flat in the water face down with your hands out in front, and relax. Pike (bend) at the hips, forcing your head and shoulders down into the water while lifting your legs in the air. Use the weight of your legs in the air to drive you down a few feet into the water. Kick your fins to drive you a bit farther. Aim for five to seven feet, at first. On the way up, hold your breath until you reach the surface, then use the air to blow the water out of your snorkel.

After you get good at a shallow depth, you can gradually increase your depth and your “dwell time” on the bottom. You’ll be able to study fish behavior much better while free diving.

Always free dive with a buddy in the ocean. Let him or her know ahead of time that you’re about to dive down.

When you arrive back at the surface, tell your buddy that you’re lucky to have had one of life’s great experiences: free diving in paradise.

Lew Toulmin has snorkeled off of six of the seven continents. He is the author of “The Most Traveled Man on Earth,” available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping from The Village Press (13108 Hutchinson Way, Silver Spring, MD 20906; www.themost