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A First Time Snorkeling Guide for Non-Swimmers

Our life, it probably began inside of the ocean. About four thousand million years before now. Probably near hot places, like volcanoes, under the sea.

And for almost all of that long time, all the living things were water things, living inside the sea. Then, a few hundred million years ago, maybe a little more — just a little while, really, in the big history of the Earth — the living things began to be living on the land, as well.

But in a way you can say that after leaving the sea, after all those millions of years of living inside of the sea, we took the ocean with us. When a woman makes a baby, she gives it water, inside her body, to grow in. That water inside her body is almost exactly the same as the water of the sea. It is salty, by just the same amount. She makes a little ocean, in her body. And not only this. Our blood and our sweating, they are both salty, almost exactly like the water from the sea is salty. We carry oceans inside of us, in our blood and our sweat. And we are crying the oceans, in our tears.

– Johnny Cigar, Shantaram

For many years I’ve wondered about my love for the ocean. There isn’t much I can do in it mind you. I can’t swim to save my life – which rules out most under water & surface adventures. Nor am I any good at sailing or canoeing or rafting (though admittedly, given the opportunity, I try my hand at it, and make myself useful in some way or the other). Yet, since a young age, I’ve always felt an odd sense of sanctity near the ocean. The sound of breaking waves has often been a balm to a troubled, overworked mind. It was only after I read this wonderful book titled Shantaram for a second time and stumbled upon the little excerpt mentioned above, between Johnny Cigar – an important side-character in the story and the protagonist, Shantaram, did I really find something that comes close to explaining the peculiar attachment many of us share with the ocean. 

On my recent trip to the Seychelles, I found myself placed in a bewilderment. Through a combination of factors, I found myself aboard the Anahita – a modern catamaran, for an island-hopping press trip with Mason’s Travels [Read: Reef Safari at The Ste. Anne Marine National Park]. The trip involved a good hour or two of snorkeling in the waters of the marine park, and I was both excited and nervous about how this would pan out for me. Just to summarize the effectiveness of my swimming skills, the bottom half of my body simply refuses to come up, and is generally at right angles with my upper body under water. I’ve zero sense of buoyancy and a very real chance that I’ll be a complete failure at this for as long as I live. Against this backdrop, picture a lean, brown guy walking over to the friendly guide, picking up his diving gear, asking him if it was reasonable to expect to come back alive, receiving a good natured slap on the back and being encouraged to go ahead but to employ reasonable caution. Feeling a little reinforced, the brown guy then proceeds to put on his flippers, slips with his first steps and falls flat on his face. *Cringes at the memory*

The bottom line though is the fact that I went right ahead with it despite my multiple embarrassments & insecurities, and lived to tell the tale. Backtracking a few steps, I recall when I first realized there was a very real possibility that I could be snorkeling in the Seychelles, I scoured the internet for resources on snorkeling for non-swimmers, and was genuinely distraught by the lack of information. At that point, I promised myself, if I came out of the water alive, I owed it to the universe to write a post detailing everything unfortunate souls like me needed to know about your first time snorkeling experience and here I’m, fulfilling that oath; but before we go any further, here are some pictures from under the water, that will tempt you further:

First things first! This was the one thing I wanted absolute certainty on, and wasn’t really sure about until I finally did it, so here goes to preparing you much better than I was:

Can I Snorkel Without Being Able to Swim?

The short answer is YES. Essentially, snorkeling is a surface sport. You don’t even really go entirely under water. Plenty of non-swimmers snorkel all the time – I did it, and there’s no reason you can’t.

It may help a little to know a bunch of things in advance that I didn’t. So here are a few tips that should help make your first experience a lot more fun and comfortable:

1. Choosing a Location:

Snorkeling can often be done closer to the shore, as well as in open water. A lot of people suggest that first-timers and non-swimmers should try and paddle about near the shore with their snorkeling gear. Personally, I disagree; though I do think it’s a good idea to try and use your snorkeling gear in shallow waters first, just to get used to it. Firstly, the marine life near the shore is rarely as vibrant as in open waters. If you decide to snorkel near the shore, you’ll obviously be like “What the fuck! I don’t know what the big deal about this is anyway.” Chances are you’ll not really feel fond of snorkeling if your first experience isn’t such that the rewards successfully offset the discomfort of sputtering about and having water up your nose at least once (don’t worry, it happens to everybody). My genuine advice is to sign-up for one of the many snorkeling trips available in most destinations renowned for snorkeling spots. This will ensure that you are taken to a great spot, there’s legit & qualified personal guidance, and there’s always somebody around to bail you out if something goes wrong.

2. Understand Your Gear, and Insist Upon a Floatation Device:

Considering you’re a non-swimmer, you’ll be given a floatation device anyway, but in case somebody forgets, make sure you insist on one and check it is functioning as desired. Once you have that strapped to you, it is virtually impossible to drown in any water, let alone sea-water. So you have an insurance policy.

Now for the snorkeling gear; typically, this consists of a face-mask and a pair of flippers. The flippers look easy enough, but are the nastiest little things to handle (I may or may not be a little biased after that ridiculous fall-of-shame) – try them on and make sure they aren’t too loose or too tight. If it’s a choice between the two, opt for the latter. You don’t want to lose a flipper in the water.  The face mask takes a little longer to understand. It consists of a snorkel tube that you must put in your mouth and breathe through, and an eye/nose mask which ensures that no air passes through your nose and no water enters your eyes. Make sure that the strap is just below the broadest part at the back of your skull, and ensure it is tight enough so that no air or water may slip in through the eye-mask – a good indicator of this is when you can’t breathe through your nose at all. Next up, the snorkel tube – the part of the tube that goes into your mouth could gross you out if you’re one of those hygiene freaks. People rent-out this equipment, so they usually pass through a lot of mouths.  This isn’t that big a deal though – millions of people do it, and live to tell the tale. If it bothers you a lot, you might consider buying your own snorkel mask. Now this part that goes into your mouth, has a very typical indentation – a part of it is supposed to go behind your teeth-line, and a part is supposed to remain in front. If you clamp down on it correctly, it will form a mould around your teeth, and you will be able to breathe through it without opening your mouth. Also try not clamping down on the tube too hard – particularly once you’re in the water. If you do this, by the time you’re back, your jaw will be really sore; and because you’re likely to be nervous, it invariably happens. Try and remind yourself to relax. Here’s a useful video to help you with your gear – ignore the awkwardness of the woman, it’s quite useful otherwise.

Walk around a little with your equipment on and try to breathe. If you’re clumsy with the flippers like I was, consider wearing them as you just enter the water, as against trying to descend down steps with them on. You’re now almost ready to enter the water 🙂

3. Calm Down and Breathe Slow:

I may be a failure at swimming (not yet…not yet), but there’s one lesson I’ve learned not just from my multiple attempts at a swimming class and my first snorkeling attempt – the more you are able to relax, the better you will be able to float and the better control you have over your movement in water. When I stepped off the last stair and into the open water, within two minutes I was vertical again. I panicked like a pigeon and clung on to the anchor-chain for dear life. After spending another 5 minutes, making somewhat of a laughing stock out of myself, I finally gave myself a stern lecture and let go off the chain. Pretty soon, I figured out I was floating effortlessly, and all I had to do to keep breathing was to keep my snorkel tube above the surface. This helped me relax a lot, and the effect was miraculous. I was able to navigate through the water a lot better, and I almost the entire two hours without once getting water up my nose or mouth.

So here’s the deal guys! It may sound counterintuitive, and it certainly is easier said than done, but the first key to being any good under or on water is to be able to calm the fuck down. Take slow, deep breaths, which go a long way in slowing down your heartbeat. As you begin to relax, reinforce the fact that it is virtually impossible for you to drown with a floatation device, and even if you get into trouble, there’s people around to bail you out.

4. Find Your Personal Comfort Zone:

I couldn’t find a lot of information that was of too much use on the internet, but I did find a LOT of people dishing out different kinds of techniques and advice. I am in no position to verify who was right and who wasn’t, but I am going to be honest and tell you, that unless you’re listening to the instructor or guide on your trip, don’t take anybody’s expertise at face value. I’m going to give you an example to help make this point better. Your face mask is such that if you exhale through your nose too often, your goggles will start fogging eventually. If you aren’t used to breathing completely through your mouth, you’ll invariably exhale through your nose often enough for this to happen on your first attempt. One of the many diving/snorkeling websites on the internet forewarned me of this happenstance, and as a remedy suggested raising the mask and allowing some water to come in, which you could then use to swirl around in the glasses and clear the fog. While this might be a legit trick, it ended as you can imagine, with water up my nose when I attempted it in a flash of misplaced confidence.

What I’m trying to tell you here is that you’ll no doubt hear a lot of advice – the more you ask, the more you receive; but once in there, you’re on your own and your best guide will be your own instinct. It’s ok not to be perfect on your first dive. I mostly stuck at the surface and didn’t venture too deep vertically. The truth is, your technique and comfort will improve with each dive. So for the first attempt, it’s best to focus on trying to enjoy yourself as much as possible without drowning 😉

5. Remain Aware of Your Surroundings and Don’t be a Jerk:

I forget which one it was now, but I do remember one of my swimming gurus once telling me the first rule to swimming: “Respect the ocean. Period!” That remains true with snorkeling and diving in particular. When we’re engaging in these activities, it is important to realize that we are visitors in a precious, beautiful ecosystem. In many cases, because these are protected waters, the fish are fearless and curious, and will actually venture very close. Be sure though, that you do not touch or tread upon any kind of fish, corals or anemones. As small as these actions may seem, collectively, they have a disruptive effect on the ecosystem, which at the least, deserves the same respect with which we’d treat the house of a friend that has welcomed us with great warmth.

Finally, if it’s your first time, needless to mention, be aware of your surroundings. With your vision focused on things below the surface and new-found confidence, don’t forget to keep an eye on where your fellow divers are, and how far you’ve ventured from the ship. The flippers aid your movement, but they also add a certain degree of weight, and if you aren’t used to physical activity, there’s a very real chance that you might cramp up. So don’t push yourself too much or get carried away. It’s only your first time, and if this one goes well, I can assure you there’ll likely be many more 🙂

That’s it then, folks! Gear up and in you dive! As soon as you’re back, don’t forget to write to me about how your first time snorkeling experience ended up. I’d particularly like to know if anything here was of any help whatsoever. 

Also Read:

Why La Digue is Truly Paradise on Earth

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Playing the Guide in Goa

20 comments

  1. Congrats on taking the plunge!

    I love being in the water, and you have shared some great tips.

    My list snorkelling experience was in MX many years ago, when a very handsome Mexican allowed me to hold onto his arm as we snorkelled along. What a great way to start!

  2. I have a lot of friends who love the beach and yet don’t know how to swim. The tips you gave here are very helpful and yes I agree, you don’t need to know how to swim in order to snorkel. 🙂

  3. So happy to know that you gave a try to snorkeling. This is one of my favorite sports, and I can stay in the water for hours.
    I have done snorkeling in many countries and seas, and I realize that if you don´t know the place very well or if you don´t feel confident enough to snorkel on your own, go for a boat tour and enjoy the fun with a group. You will be safe, you will make new friends and enjoy the open waters.
    Congrats! Safe journeys
    Nat

  4. I’m going to show this post to my mum! She is terrified of the water and although would love to go snorkelling, thinks that her inability to swim very well means that she can’t. I’m interested to know, having tried snorkelling, are you tempted to now improve your swimming?

  5. Glad to hear there is hope for the non-swimmers in the world! I sink like a rock and panic when I get in the water. I have gone snorkeling and was so happy to have a very good swimmer friend with me who rescued me as I floated much farther away than I intended. I was so busy watching the gorgeous fish I forgot to keep track of where I was! Great encouraging post!

  6. Just to echo your sentiments, I can’t swim for shit.

    That said, I’m in fact an okay snorkeler and a decent SCUBA diver, living proof that the aforementioned ability is truly not a prerequisite for either of the latter activities.

    I love that you mentioned the respect for the ocean, as too many people want to touch everything that they see, however breathing out of your nose is actually a great method, so if you’re fogging up, I’m wondering if the mask is the problem (a good mask should have the nose in its own little silicone section, removed from the glass).

    Even the best divers struggle to walk in flippers, so put them on at the last minute before you jump in!

  7. Your post was very entertaining to read! Your description of panicking is spot on for me, even though I do know how to swim. I can’t imagine feeling that way not knowing how! I would imagine that snorkeling could be a nice way to become comfortable enough to swim without a mask, snorkel, and floatation device. 🙂

  8. First of all, I absolutely love snorkeling…there is so much to see and explore underwater! And these are great snorkeling tips for non-swimmers!

  9. Don’t be a jerk – great tip. I need to learn from your advice. I seem to be better at diving that snorkelling. It’s defiantly the breathing.

  10. Good for you for posting this to give non-swimmers a little more confidence to explore the seas. I understand that it can be quite an intimidating situation. But trying it may even influence a little more underwater, or…water learning. I have been a competitive swimmer all my life so im pretty lucky

  11. I can swim and I would never have thought about snorkeling or even getting in the ocean if you can’t . So I am also surprised by the comments here of others that can’t swim that still snorkel and dive! It must be daunting. So hats off to you for both giving it a go and writing up your experience. I am sure it will help a lot of others.

  12. Great post – fab to hear you gave snorkelling a go! I’m almost the opposite… swimming is probably my favourite sport… but I totally suck at snorkelling. I don’t know what it is… I just always seem to get water down the snorkel and in my goggles and get myself in a ridiculous state. But I don’t doubt that is purely down to my general ridiculousness. The stunning fish make it all worth it though! These are great tips for non swimmers… really hope it gives more people the courage to try snorkelling out and explore the underwater world.

    Gabby

  13. That’s so awesome that you were able to snorkel without knowing how to swim! That takes guts!! We love snorkeling and this looks like a prime place to do it! Will be slipping on some flippers whenever we can make our way to Seychelles!

  14. Thanks for sharing this post, Sanket! To be honest, I’ve done more diving than snorkelling and I actually would consider doing it. It seems to be the most flexible water activity as you can do it anywhere (almost). Thanks again!

  15. Snorkeling is awesome; you really don’t have to be much of a swimmer at all since all you do is put your face in the water and enter another amazing world! They even have paddle boards with windows in them if you’re afraid to put your face in the water!

    • mm

      I agree. It’s a brilliant world under water. I haven’t heard of paddle boards with windows. I’m not afraid to put my face in the water, but these sound fun. Might ask around for one next time! Thanks for reading Tami 🙂

  16. Thanks for sharing all of this advice on snorkeling! Most of my kids really want to do this, but my youngest son isn’t a very good swimmer. I think that I’ll try and give him this advice to help him have a great experience. In my opinion, a flotation device for him would definitely make him feel more comfortable!

  17. This has made me feel much more confident for my visit to the Barrier Reef in April.

    As a 65 year old woman who can’t swim, I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to experience this amazing place. However now that I have read your blog I’m sure I can.

    Now I can’t wait

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