Snorkelling is, after diving, my favourite water activity. The underwater world is often very peaceful and always fascinating. It is incredible how many new things you can learn during a snorkelling adventure. When I mention our underwater adventures, I sometimes see more worries than excitement in people’s eyes.  Not everyone is as excited as I am: there are snorkeling risks that turn people off the activity. I am not confident because I ignore these risks, but I am confident because I know how to deal with them.

Lady Elliot Island
Snorkeling on Lady Elliot Island

Most of the time, people are worried about snorkeling risks because of a lack of knowledge or experience of the situation. I was not at ease the first times I went snorkeling, but the more I do it, the more confident I am. And the more I enjoy it. It inspired me to make that list of snorkeling dangers and how to deal with them to build up your confidence so you can enjoy snorkelling as much as I do!

I also find it easier to enjoy adventurous activities when I know I have a back up in case something happens. That’s why I recommend purchasing travel insurance for peace of mind (more info here).

My tips to deal with snorkeling risks

I do not pretend to be a snorkelling expert, but I have snorkelled a lot for the past few years, in different environments. I also love scuba diving. I have learnt a lot during all my adventures underwater and at the surface and I like to share my passion and convince other people to give it a go.

Let’s start with a couple of obvious reminders to minimise the dangers when snorkeling.

It’s always a good idea to research the site you are going to snorkel. Some are harder than others, so you need to assess if it’s within your level. If you can talk to locals, they may have important information to reduce the risks. For example, that’s how we learnt that we needed to wait for the top of high tide at the Gold Coast Seaway or at Nelson Bay, to avoid strong currents. If you have doubts or don’t feel confident, it’s often possible and safer to book a tour and go with a guide. Having someone waiting for you on shore is also a good idea.

Like for any sports, having the right equipment reduce the risks of something going wrong. You may only need a mask and a snorkel to see underwater. But fins are essential for safety, wetsuits can protect you, and it’s safer to carry a cutting device (a knife* or an Eezycut*) if you snorkel in a zone that’s popular for fishing. Find out more about snorkel gear here.

These tips are based on my personal experience. If you have any more tips to add, feel free to do so in the comments below!

1. Don’t panic if a problem arises

I know it is easier to write than to do. But keep in mind that panicking – especially when you are in the water – will not help at all. Keep your mask on. Control your breathing. And find a solution to the problem. Hopefully, there will be an easy solution listed in the snorkeling tips that follow.

2. Stay in buddy pair when you’re in the water

Many snorkeling risks will be easier to prevent and fix if you have someone with you. So try to have someone with you or at least another group of snorkelers nearby. You’ll notice it can be hard to hear someone calling at the surface when your head is underwater. So stay close to each other and communicate regularly, even just to show each other something you’ve found. With two pairs of eyes, you double your chances of seeing great things!

3. Don’t underestimate the risks of free diving

Whether you do it for the sensations or to get a closer look, free diving is something to take seriously to minimise the snorkeling risks. I am not a free diver, so I won’t give extended advice here as it would not be appropriate. The basic is never to do free diving alone nor at the same time so you can take care of each other. It is recommended to remove your snorkel. Remember to equalise when you go down and not to force to equalize your ears if you feel pain. Finally, don’t free dive if you’ve dived just before as it adds up nitrogen to your blood.

4. Don’t touch underwater creatures

I like to watch only. And my big rule is not to touch, especially if I don’t know what it is. Marine animals are only dangerous if they feel they need to defend themselves. Avoid grabbing and touching the ground. If you have to, then do it carefully and gently. Three fingers should be enough, and check first there is nothing there that could get scared or hurt you.

That works for corals too. Some corals can hurt (sharp or skin reaction), but they won’t if you avoid touching them! If that’s something that you’re really anxious about, even without touching, you can protect yourself with gloves* or a wetsuit*.

Responsible travel tip: Even if you know that something doesn’t hurt or if you’re protected, it’s always better not to touch any living creature when you’re snorkeling, so you don’t jeopardize conservation.

5. Keep in mind: it’s not the small one who will eat the big one

No one down there will want to get in trouble with you if you look impressive. It is great to be discreet and quiet to observe as much life as possible. But if you feel danger, like a shark who might be too curious to your taste, get closer to your buddy and form a group to create a bigger shape. This way, you will look more impressive!

It does not mean small ones will never come to you in an aggressive sneaky way. Smaller fishes can feel the need to protect their territory. It is impressive how brave they can be, trying to threaten something that is 100 times their size. They would come straight to you, and they do sometimes try to bite. Although it is not a pleasant experience and it can be a little bit annoying, a bite will not actually harm you. No reason to be scared here. I always get away without a bite by changing direction and keeping my fingers close to my body. I don’t want to annoy them; they are right to defend their territory as it’s their home more than mine.
There are two types that I would sometimes see doing that:

  • The one we call “bastard fish” (officially named damselfish, but I don’t think it deserves this name!): a small black fish that would often come to annoy us and photobomb when we are watching beautiful colourful fish like clownfish – ah jealousy!
  • The picasso fish (from the triggerfish family): it is usually friendly, but when we visited New Caledonia, it was the baby season for them so they would protect their progenitures.

6. Know what to do with jellyfish

Most of the time, jellyfish are not dangerous, but they are annoying. It is always good to know what jellyfish live in the area where you intend to snorkel. If they are common, you may choose to snorkel with a full body wetsuit* to minimise the risk of getting stung. If you get hurt, don’t panic: jellyfish stings can be painful, but many will only give you a skin reaction and pain. I did my scuba diving certification in a river full of jellyfish: it was uncomfortable but entirely safe.

Going back to shore and following local and professional advice is always the safest option.

From my experience, jellyfish are more present at the surface so to get away from a jellyfish zone; I try to duck dive in the water to avoid more stings. For the ones that got me, I removed the tentacles with salt water; it was a lot easier than out of the water. Back to shore, it’s important to ask for local advice. From my experience, vinegar does the job quite well, but you may need to soak the stung area in hot water or apply ice if the pain persists. If you suspect an allergy, take an antihistamine as soon as you can. I always have one in my first aid kit. If it looks serious, seek medical advice. Don’t hesitate to call an ambulance in case of severe allergic reaction or if you met a box jellyfish (mainly for the Australian adventurers on the North of the East Coast).

I’d like to conclude this article by reminding everyone that snorkelling is a fantastic experience.

By using common sense, it is most of the time a safe activity that will allow you to spend wonderful moments with beautiful and interesting creatures. And just a quick collection of snorkelling photos from my Instagram feed should be enough to convince you:

instagram photos snorkelling

Is there anything else that scares you during snorkeling? Or do you have advice for a better experience? Let’s help each others’: leave a comment below!

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  1. Stephanie

    About to snorkel again, but I always get just a little bit nervous. I have to remember, I am the big fish, and they aren’t going to eat me. Haha

    1. Eloise

      That’s fantastic, Stephanie! I hope you have a great time snorkelling. When I get nervous about something, I think of the many time I was nervous about it and nothing bad happened. It can help! Enjoy your trip!

  2. Natalie

    I also love snorkeling and diving! I know from diving that they drill into you to not touch anything (coral) because you could kill it. I would like to see snorkelers also observe this rule. There are plenty of small things in the ocean that can hurt you (eels and fire coral, for instance, and jellyfish), so it protects the diver/snorkeler as well as the wildlife. Great tips!

    1. Eloise

      I agree, Natalie. Diving is restricted to people who have been educated about marine life and wonders so hopefully most divers will respect it. Snorkelling is open to anyone really, so it is a lot harder to educate people about that. When I see people snorkelling and resting with fins on the coral, I never know what to do or say. I love to raise awareness and do my part to protect our beautiful world, but unfortunately they often just don’t care and I am not the marine police…! If you have tips about that, I’d love to hear them!

  3. Arnie

    Great tips for newbies and experienced alike.

  4. Carol Colborn

    I have never snorkeled and my husband scuba dives! How I wish I no longer fear water! These tips might just help!

    1. Eloise

      I am sorry you are scared of water, Carol! I hope you try once and maybe get over it. My tip here is to go step by step when the conditions are perfect and you are with people you trust. Don’t force it, it can only make you more afraid. My mother is very scared of water too. She put her head in the water with the mask for the first time at 75 years old, during our family trip to New Caledonia. It was such a huge challenge but after she saw her first colourful fish “for real”, she was so excited that she almost made me fall by pulling me in (we had water up to the top of the legs)! It was fantastic to live that with her.

  5. Christina

    Great summary! I also love snorkelling next to diving. I also feel like I am on vacation from my vacation when I go snorkelling/diving as the underwater world has so much beauty to offer.

    1. Eloise

      Thanks, Christina! Being on vacation from your vacation? That’s an interesting concept! The underwater world does feel like stepping into another world indeed.

  6. These are great tips! I love snorkelling! It’s been awhile and would love to go again. But agree it’s good to have a partner and not touch no matter how tempting it might be 🙂

    1. Eloise

      Thank you, Bell. I hope you’ll do it again soon!

  7. I’ve never snorkelled, despite growing up in Malta! This summer might be my last one on the island, so I’m planning to go snorkelling…. at least once. We have a big problem with jellyfish over here. I’ve been stung a few times and I always feel a bit uneasy when I go swimming, but I guess snorkelling makes it easier to spot jellyfish 🙂

    1. Eloise

      Hi Daniela! I understand, I don’t like jellyfish either. Any chance you can get a full-body wetsuit? It really helps…! In some areas, they can predict if there will be jellyfish according to the wind. Maybe there is a trick in Malta to avoid them? Well, I hope you will do it and love what you see down there! I’m excited for you!

  8. Maria

    We are heading to Tulum in May. We hope to take in some cenotes as they seem beautiful and full of a different kind of experience. What snorkel mask would you recommend for beginners?

    1. Eloise

      Hi Maria! Yes, cenotes are amazing, and I’m sure you’ll love them. I know beginners who loved their full-face mask, saying it was more natural for them to breath with it that rather than using a snorkel (you can breathe using your nose). Plus, it seems your vision is less limited than with a common mask. I haven’t tried a mask like that myself though (but I’ve used many times the Tribord brand for other products, and I’ve always been satisfied). Have a look here to see what I’m talking about (my friend were using the older version of this model):
      I’ve only used common masks. For these, my recommendation is to go to a shop and try a few masks to find which one fits the best with your face shape – so you don’t have water coming in. When you place the mask on your face, without the band, and inspire, the mask should stick and not move. That’s how I know it’s the right fit.
      Also, if you have long hair, you should consider using a mask strap cover (see example here: It will add more comfort (and if you take a colourful one so your buddies can spot you easily!).
      Enjoy your trip to Tulum 🙂

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