“Is snorkeling dangerous?” I’m always surprised by how often I get asked. Snorkelling is, after scuba 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.
I understand not everyone is as excited as I am: there are snorkeling risks that turn people off from the activity. I am not confident because I ignore these risks, but I am confident because I know how to deal with them.
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 time I went snorkeling, but the more I did it, the more confident I got. And the more I enjoyed 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 backup in case something happens. That’s why I recommend purchasing travel insurance for peace of mind (more info here). I also don’t like to stress about my car keys or other belongings when I’m snorkeling – see here how I keep them safe!
My tips to deal with snorkeling risks
I do not pretend to be a snorkelling expert, but I have snorkelled and scuba dived a lot for the past few years, in different environments. 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.
Why do you think snorkeling is dangerous?
It’s normal to not feel at ease with an activity you don’t know. It’s actually safe and wise to understand the risks so that you don’t put yourself in danger. But sometimes, people have fears that are not rational. I always find it helpful to take time to think about why I find something (here, snorkeling) dangerous. It’s a good way to identify options to minimise the risks. Am I not skilled enough? Is snorkeling dangerous for me? Do I need equipment? Are my fears irrational?
It’s always a good idea to research the site you are going to snorkel.
Snorkeling is dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Some sites 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 (or doing the lookout from the boat) is always a good idea.
Like for any sport, having the right equipment reduces 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.
It’s important to know how your equipment works before you start using it in open water. If you go snorkeling for the first time without testing your equipment, then snorkeling is dangerous. I recommend taking it to the pool to make sure you feel comfortable. If you’re not a strong swimmer or if you get tired easily, you may want to consider taking a floating device or using a rope from the boat.
Now that we’re down with the reminders, scroll down to see more tips, based on my personal experience. If you have any more tips to add to reduce risks when snorkeling, 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
Snorkeling is a lot less dangerous if you stick to the surface and just float.
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. Also 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*.
Be careful as you enter and exit the water. You don’t want to step on a stingray before you put your fins on or grab a rock to find your balance but put your hand on something that can hurt (hello urchins or stonefish).
It’s always a good idea to ask locals what you should look for. They’ll have tips about animals or things you’ll be excited to see, or things you should avoid!
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
I know many people are scared of sharks when snorkeling. I am no longer scared of sharks. I’ve seen them many times while snorkeling and scuba diving now. It’s actually super exciting when we get to spot a shark. Most of them are placid and will not think of biting you if you don’t annoy them.
If you’re nervous about sharks, remember no one underwater 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 in 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 creatures 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. I hope you no longer see snorkeling as a dangerous activity.
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:
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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