Best route to snorkeling for a poor swimmer
May 29, 2010 2:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm not a very good swimmer. I can tread water, float on my back somewhat, and do a mediocre backstroke. But in a few months I'm going to Hawaii, and I'd like to have some fun snorkeling. What swimming skills should I focus on trying to learn? Should I start with learning finless swimming things first, such as the front crawl, or jump right into using fins and snorkel?

Background: I'm not a very good swimmer because, while I did take classes growing up, I always seemed to naturally sink, unlike everyone else (I'm fairly lean), and didn't really enjoy the feeling of not being able to breathe freely. I never really got comfortable doing any water-based activity where my entire face was submersed.

That discomfort seems like the most immediate problem to me, so I've been following a guide to breathing while swimming, which is helpful; though its not totally relevant to snorkeling, it serves as a nice staged introduction to having your face in the water, and just kind of chilling out like that. I'm making slow progress.

Now, after I get a basic level of comfort with that, what next? What particular skills would be most helpful for staying safe snorkeling out in the ocean? Some non-finswimming skills, maybe because they're fundamental in some way, or as a backup in case my snorkeling gear gets broken or knocked away... or should I go right into using fins and a snorkel and forget about my inability to do a plain front crawl?

And what particular skills might not be necessary, but would make snorkeling more fun or efficient? The dolphin kick?

I guess you could say I'm trying to determine a 'program' for myself that breaks this whole project down into subskills I can pick up incrementally, with the most fundamental stuff first.
posted by Hither to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you can float, you can snorkel. I've been to Hawai'i as well, basically you kick out a bit to a nice corally area (the fins do all the work for you), and you float. You can kick up and down the beach, but again, the fins do all the work for you. If you're feeling particularly lazy, bring a noodle or a boogie board or something to stick under your butt. I think you're over-thinking one of the most relaxing past-times ever. The snorkel doesn't come off your face, your fins don't jump ship. The biggest problem I had was sometimes the goggles leaked a bit, but that's an easy fix - trade with someone.
Just so you know, I'm not a strong swimmer or overly athletic person in any way.
FYI, if you're going to Maui, Ka'anapalii has the best beach. Less crowded, decent sand, good visibility.
posted by Miss Mitz at 2:42 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: If you can swim even just a little, I'd start using the fins right away. If anything, it'll boost your confidence about swimming once you see how fast you can go with so little effort. The hardest part about swimming for me is breathing through the snorkle, so I would practice breathing through a snorkel while standing in shallow water at first. Then try swimming just with the fins, and then combine the two. I agree with the preview that if you can float, you can snorkle. You'll have so much fun in Hawai'i!
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 2:51 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: Yeah you definitely don't need to learn any strokes to snorkel. I used to swim competitively but yet when I went snorkeling I spent the whole time floating at the surface (which you could easily do with a provided life jacket) and using my feet to kick around. To me it seems all you need to do is to get comfortable keeping your face underwater while breathing with the snorkel.
posted by kthxbi at 2:54 PM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Snorkeling ain't no thang. If you have legs that can sort of kick a bit, you can snorkel as well as the pros. The fins do all the work, really.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:01 PM on May 29, 2010

I can barely float, and I can snorkel as long as I don't freak out and start thrashing. just relax and you'll be fine!
posted by soma lkzx at 3:22 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: Fins are magical devices that convert the useless failing humans call "swimming" into actual productive work. As long as you can kick, you'll be fine. Putting your arms anywhere other than at your side will be counterproductive for movement. The only major tip I can think of is to keep your legs straight. Sa

Breathing is the harder part. Did you know that people can't breathe underwater? Fascinating! I find that even just floating in the water during a surface snorkel is more difficult than you'd think -- water pressure makes it a lot harder to breath deeply. More importantly, you'll need to save some air to clear the snorkel with.

As far as practice is concerned: start walking and taking the stairs to keep the legs in good shape. Practice with fins to figure out how to put them on and kick with them effectively. Aerobic exercise will probably be the most important part, to help your body store a lot of oxygen for minor dives and general snorkeling. You could go to the extreme like this guy did, but even this skin diving video has a few tips on extended breathing.
posted by pwnguin at 3:27 PM on May 29, 2010

Snorkling has nothing to do with swimming. If you can do a basic kick and float, you don't need to prepare in any specific way. You'll be grand.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:29 PM on May 29, 2010

You'll have a life vest and fins so swimming skills beyond the basic will be irrelevant. If, however, you will be taken out some distance via boat to snorkel, some Bonine (like Dramamine, but less drowsiness-inducing) may be in order. If you are sick in the water, the fish will be interested in you at a more personal level than you may prefer.
posted by Morrigan at 3:34 PM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh yea. Salty water is easier to float in, if you're concerned about sinking.
posted by pwnguin at 3:34 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: If you use your arms while snorkeling, you'll scare the fish, so don't worry about that. You'll want to propel yourself around with a straight-leg kick. (Bending your knees won't make you go faster, and it wastes energy.)

That said, I would never go into open ocean in Hawaii if I could not do a passable front crawl. The Pacific is strong and variable. There are a few protected spots where you're likely to be fine, but you really should be able to swim away from hazards and swim out of rip currents.

Do make sure you familiarize yourself with your gear away from fish and coral so you don't become one of those people who steps on coral to adjust their masks or fins or whatever. Those people are bad people.

I recommend getting a better snorkel than the basic $9-for-the-week set advertised ubiquitously by Snorkel Bob. A better mask and snorkel really do make for a better snorkeling experience, with no self-improvement necessary!

If you'd like to talk about specific spots to snorkel, feel free to mefi mail me.
posted by purpleclover at 4:05 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: If you're going to Honolulu then you will probably go snorkelling in a place like Hanauma Bay. If you look at that photo, there is a big ridge of coral that breaks the waves; you snorkel in the shallow water and the little pools closer to the shore. The water there is calm and often pretty shallow; there's really not much to worry about.

When I was there with some friends we swam out past the ridge through that little gap and it was pretty wild. The water got deeper, there were more fish, and we could feel the waves pushing us back and forth. Every now and then a big one would come and sort of wallop you. It was pretty scary because we could have pretty easily been bashed into some coral and injured and I was glad to get the heck out of there - easier said then done as there was a huge rip current pushing out that gap and we could only make forward progress when a wave hit. That would qualify as "advanced" conditions where you would need to be a strong swimmer. You won't need to go anywhere near situations like that.
posted by PercussivePaul at 4:34 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: All this is great advice -- the only other thing you need to know about snorkeling is that you should apply sunblock like your life depends on it. Get waterproof sunblock and get someone to do your back. Anytime you take a break, reapply. I got crazy sunburned snorkeling in Hawaii and I was totally into wearing sunblock! However, it washes off and you're just lying there on your stomach, blissfully floating around in the nice cool waters and you don't notice that you're getting burned.

One fun thing to do when snorkeling is to occasionally dive down. Remove your snorkel, take a good breath and dive down to look at things, slowly blowing out your breath. Do some shallow learning dives -- your fins will help you go where you need to go. Go back to the surface, take a deep breath and blow out your snorkel. Resume floating until you see something that you want to get closer to. It's a ton of fun!

Also, make sure you don't put your wallet or the rental car keys in your swimtrunks' pocket like my husband did. It was sure something watching those car keys twinkle in the sunlight as they drifted 20' down onto the sand. Luckily, he's a good strong swimmer and was able to retrieve them but it looked bad there for awhile.
posted by amanda at 4:43 PM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, nthing what everyone else is saying...the calmer you are in the water, the more stuff -- fish, turtles, whatever -- you will get to see. I'm a strongish swimmer but I have a weird anxiety about swimming in the ocean that makes me really tense up. This works perfectly for snorkeling, 'cause all I have to do is float, kick gently, and watch all the cool stuff go by.
posted by BlahLaLa at 4:47 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: I lived five minutes from Hanauma Bay for a number of years, and offer the following advice.

Get shorty fins so you can walk comfortably and paddle. You will be in shallow water mostly, and giant deep diving fins will render you immobile. Get goggles that hug your face, not a single unit mask which will fog up. There's waxy stuff you can put on the inside of the mask to stop the fog nicely. Personally, I like Barracuda swim goggles.

A pipe for breathing. Practice the fact that some water will get into your air tube so you don't panic when it happens. Many people panic and suck in a lot of water if their tube intakes some water.

Early in the day is best, before the water gets turbid. The fish scrape coral, so they have parrot like beaks. Many people try to feed them by hand and get nipped. They like frozen peas and corn which is better for them and they can see to strike.

There are things you want to steer clear of, like spiny sea urchins and eels. I once saw a very large Moray eel wend its way through a group of people standing waist deep in water.

Waterproof sun block. Respect the waves, don't go in drunk or when the light is not good or into area that have known rip currents. When I lived there, people were overcome by the currents all the time, including a man who had been an Olympic swimmer. Stay in a protected area like Hanauma Bay.
posted by effluvia at 4:48 PM on May 29, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah, I'm probably overthinking it, but I think thats preferable to the opposite error :) I'll go ahead and order fins, mask, and dive socks. I suspect the tricky part will be getting a mask that fits, given that I haven't been able to find any swim goggles that fit my apparently overly large nose... even nice Speedo goggles with adjustable nose bridges couldn't span my nose properly.

FWIW, I'll be hanging out on the southern, western, and eastern parts of the big island for about a week, followed by a few days in Honolulu. One of my big island guidebooks says that snorkeling near the Captain Cook Monument is one of the best places, and also recommends Kahuwai Bay, Kahalu'u Beach Park, Two Step Honaunau, and Waiopae Pools.... anyone done those?
posted by Hither at 5:27 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: You could get a rash guard (pretty much a t-shirt you wear in the water) with a good SPF rating to wear. This will keep your back from getting sunburned and could even end up saving you money if you go through sunscreen like I do.

My wife knows how to swim but is far from comfortable in the water. We rented a little foam thing that goes around your waist. I don't think it really did much, but it gave her the confidence she needed to snorkel. If floating is hard for you, something similar may help.

Snorkeling is fantastically easy in calm water, but the ocean can be dangerous. Keep alert and stay near where others are snorkeling.

Have a great time!
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 7:49 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: Here's the advice I got from someone when I learned to snorkel and wasn't sure about the whole breathing thing and how it worked. It's not pre-preparation, but it really helped me not overthink things, so I'm passing it along in case it helps:

Step 1: While standing waist deep in water, with your fins on, put your mask and snorkel on. Breathe in and out until you feel comfortable with breathing in and out.

Step 2: Bend over and put your face in the water. Breathe in and out until you feel comfortable with breathing in and out.

Step 3: Let your feet come off the ground. Continue to breath in and out.

Step 4: There is no step 4. After step 3, you're snorkeling.

The kicking seems to come really naturally -- your legs will sort of want to do it because of the weight of the fins on your feet.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:23 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: jacquilynne's advice is good.

Also: The rash guard. It is your friend. Sunscreen kills coral. I go out snorkeling wearing a rash guard, diving socks, gloves, and I look like a dork, and my overall experience is 100 percent better.

Waiopae Pools are really gentle and lovely. Be careful, though. They're a snorkeling microcosm, so you have to be careful not to kick coral and sea life.

Two Step is fantastic. Really, really, really great snorkeling. The coral is so far down that no one can step on it. Also, the Point of Refuge National Monument is interesting, even if you're only mildly interested in Hawaiian history.
posted by purpleclover at 9:27 PM on May 29, 2010

And when applying sunblock, don't forget your butt. The consequences are not fun.
posted by emeiji at 9:30 PM on May 29, 2010

Best answer: I think this is terrible advice. However fun and easy snorkling might be, you're still swimming in the ocean, and unexpected things can always occur. You don't want to be one of those fools that have to be rescued because they lost one of their flippers, or panic because your mask fills with water. You should be completely comfortable swimming and floating without aid before starting to use snorkling gear.

If you can swim without gear, you can also snorkel, and at least you won't panic if anything happens. Besides, swiming is a lot of fun!
posted by Coffer at 2:19 AM on May 30, 2010

Supplementing Coffer's caution, also avoid body-surfing in Hawaii at beaches with decent-looking waves. They tend to break powerfully in shallow water, and if you go over you can break your neck, a common enough tourist injury in Hawaii.

For example, check out these Yelp reviews for Sandy Beach, just up the road from Hanauma Bay.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 3:45 AM on May 30, 2010

Best answer: 1. Do learn to at least breast stroke with confidence, just because you never know when you're going to need to know how.

2. Contrary to amanda's advice, don't take the snorkel out of your mouth when you dive. Do this instead: take a breath; pivot perpendicular to the sea floor, legs straight into the air; descend, still holding your breath; take a look around, count some sea turtles, look for an octopus (Hanauma bay has both -- or did when I was there); ascend (don't touch the bottom when you do this -- just face the sky and kick slowly and steadily. Don't worry, you'll get there before you run out of air); break the surface; go parallel to the sea again (face in the water); exhale sharply; breath normally. There! You did it!

The key is to keep your breath: if you have a deep inhale it will a) ensure you don't run out of air on your ascent, b) ensure you have air to clear your snorkel with.

If you take your snorkel out you then have to get your face out of the water each time you surface. But you're snorkeling. Your face belongs in the water. :D

3. To prepare for the dives, practice holding your breath for as long as you can (do not attempt while operating heavy machinery or giving birth).

4. Yeah, don't do what PercussivePaul did. I did that too, in a couple of different bays on Oahu (Mokopu'u comes to mind) and was summoned to shore by fishermen yelling, "Shark!" Turns out we missed a humpback whale 50 yards and five minutes after where we were, but I kept my limbs. Fair's fair.

5. DOOOO buy your own snorkel. Very worth it. Nothing's worse than seeing an eel, only to have your mask fill up with water. :) Baby shampoo is a safe way to defog the mask.

Be safe, go happy, and leave it better than you found it!
posted by Galen at 2:10 AM on May 31, 2010

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