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Snorkeling Tips For Beginners

(Geared towards snorkeling in Caribbean Costa Rica – but applies everywhere. Hatch is a U.S. expat who lives on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica)…

You know those diving masks that have transparent or translucent plastic or silicone skirts (casing)? They’re terrible. Sunlight reflects from the plastic lens rims into your eyes and reduces visibility drastically. You might as well just put a flashlight in your face. I really like the soft black rubber masks that have two lenses on them (sort of like goggles) – they have good visibility and there’s less surface pressure on the lenses than the bigger masks have because there’s less air in the chamber of the mask. They’re simple, inexpensive and they fit your face better than the “classic oval” style masks in my opinion and feel more secure. Make sure they are glass lenses and not plastic, which will scratch and get cloudy with age. It’s also good not to have any shiny metal objects on your mask and you should not wear any shiny jewelry which may glisten in the sun and look like a sardine to a barracuda (more on that later).

To see this article with images click here: b/puerto-viejo-snorkeling/?menuno=area target=_blank>Hatchs Snorkeling Tips For Beginners

Toothpaste works wonders as an anti-fogging agent! Just use a very tiny bit to make a very thin film on both sides of the lenses and rinse it off when you get in. The toothpaste reduces the surface tension of water on the lenses so it doesn’t bead up or fog but rather spreads out. It works beautifully!

Personally I don’t care for the snorkels that have float balls in them. I know they’re supposed to keep water from entering the tube, and it all sounds good in theory, but my own experience with them is that 1) they don’t do a very good job of it and 2) I don’t like the fact that I don’t have a completely obstruction free air tube. There is a slight delay created by the float which I find annoying and it just feels unreliable to me. I like a simple, comfortable snorkel with a little extra length than the standard fare and which has a larger diameter tube as opposed to the skinny ones that are available. It’s a simple matter to learn to blow the water out of the tube and it’s more dependable in my opinion. The snorkel should be black or dark colored with a fluorescent red stripe around the top so boaters, fishermen and others can see where you are.

I know there’s all kinds of expensive professional fins out there that the sports stores will be happy to sell you, and I’ve tried a lot of them. I still like the simple, soft rubber ones. There’s no straps to mess with or to cause chafing and they have more response and act more like a fishs tail.

Sometimes when there are a lot of tourists in the water it gets really nasty with all kinds of oils and lotions. The fish don’t like it and it’s bad for the reefs. Sunblock is essential – don’t ruin your vacation by becoming a red lobster – it’s no fun at all. And remember that we are only 9º from the equator in the Puerto Viejo area. The sun at high noon is a real cooker. But do try to find sunblock which is odorless and environmentally friendly without unnecessary chemical additives. Also be sure to check any swimsuit pockets for anything that might get lose or litter the reef on your journey. I recommend that if you are beginner that you go out earlier in the day to avoid the direct overhead sun which can take it’s toll and wear out your energy. The visibility is usually better in the morning – colors are more vivid and they slowly wash out to dull greens and grays as the day wears on.

Although snorkeling is essentially a simple thing: mask, snorkel, and fins, it still requires a bit of finesse to do it in a relaxed, simple manner without wearing yourself out. Don’t over complicate it. Stay focused and relaxed the entire time. I see so many people sit on the beach, put their fins on and try to duck waddle their way out to sea. Their fins get full of sand this way, which will cause chafing while swimming. And you will quickly find out just how difficult it is for a fish to walk on land. ;^)

If your fins are the slip on kind, they will go on much easier when they’re wet. If there’s any waves at all, they always have the most force right where they break at the beach. People lose masks and fins because they’re fighting the waves on the way in and lose their grip on their mask, and they lose them. They also struggle with mask adjustments while waves are breaking over them, they get stressed and tired before they even begin.

biTry the easy way:/i

* First do a dry fit on your mask and the snorkel. Many people tend to over tighten them thinking it will make a better seal. It does just the opposite. It should just be snug. Check to see if your mask headband has locking clips and if it does make sure they’re snapped shut. If you have a moustache, putting a little Vaseline on it will help create a better seal.

* Put your mask on and pull it down around your neck. Now you don’t have to worry about losing it.

* Grab your fins in your hands tightly. I like to put my soft rubber fins on my hands as I go in and just use them as stabilizers as I wade out.

* Now just relax and walk out until the water is not quite chest high. You want to still have a good grip with your feet but also to be somewhat buoyant but without losing control to any waves.

* You should be able to easily slip your fins on now. Putting your fins on before you mess with the mask gives you an immediate edge for dealing with any waves now. Lift your foot well up out of the sand before putting the fin on. If you feel any sand at all now is the time to get rid of it. Just slip the fin off, swish it clean and put it back on.

* If you’re not bald, splash your head with water to get it wet, smooth your hair back with both hands.

* Now grab your mask and stretch it a little away from you and move it into position on your face. Do a final check to make sure you have a good fit. Make sure the snorkel is in proper position and put it in your mouth.*

* Give a forceful whale blow through the snorkel to make sure it’s clear.

* Now, if all this has been a little foreign to you, just take a moment to relax. You will see how easy it is to float in salt water. Get nice and calm at this point and put your head under the water and slowly start on out – doing one last “systems check” to make sure your swim suit, pocket knife (if you have one) and gear are all secure and ready to go. Take a look around to see what’s what around you, and head on out.

Always be mindful of saving enough of your energy for the ride home. Go at YOUR own pace, not someone elses. Don’t go manic on the way out, it will scare off the fish anyway. Also, if your’re a beginner it’s good to use the buddy system and go in pairs. Keep a watch out on each other. But GROUPS of snorkelers all bunched together will rarely see many fish – it looks like a gang of predators to them. Learn to hang quietly on the reef (more on that below). Don’t let your swim fins splash above the water, keep them under the water and as quiet as possible. The slower you go, the more life you will see!

Work with the energy of the waves and the currents. It’s far easier than just trying to propel and churn steadily through them. Even smaller waves contain a great deal of energy. Use this kinetic energy to your advantage. You can do what motorized boat can’t: you can FEEL the water and the energy around you and respond to it. If just allow yourself to relax, you will start to become one with the rhythm of the waves, and will soon start to feel and understand how fish interact with the rhythm of the ocean. If you watch schools of fish while they are hovering on a reef, you will see that they use very little energy. They gracefully work with the current. When a wave pushes against you, use minimal energy, just enough to maintain what you just gained, and when the energy moves with you, work with it to propel you forward. If you do the opposite and work against the waves, you will soon see that a human being is no match against that amount of wave energy – but working WITH the energy is easy and will give you the confidence of knowing that you can use the waves as your source of energy. The good part is: it’s usually easier coming back than going out, and the waves will take you home to shore if you just let them.

It’s easier to swim out along the outside edge of a reef than to try to swim out in the middle of it. As the waves roll in they break on the reefs and the resulting pressure then dissipates outward from the sides of the reef. Take your time. Check your energy levels to be sure that you are keeping enough reserve for the return trip. If you’re just beginning, it’s easy to become more tired than you realize because you’re so buoyant

It’s good to get a little lost in exploring under the surface, but not so much that you are unaware of what’s above and around you on the surface. Be relaxed but alert. Be sure to check above the water regularly and study the reef ahead and how the waves are behaving. The waves are fairly predictable in that they always break in the same places based on the structure of the reef. You can use this to your advantage as you go out by staying to the side of the waves and working around the back side of them as you go. Floating in the ocean can be a bit trance-like at times so be sure you’re not “spacing out” to the point where you are disoriented or unaware of where you are or just how far out you are swimming. Also, if the waves are breaking rough at the shore, you will want to be sure you have plenty of reserve energy left in case you end up having to struggle to get on shore.

After you’ve swam out along the edge of the reef as far as you are comfortable and at your own pace, if the water is not too rough you can work your way gently back inside the reef. Go slow and just let the scenery come to you. You shouldn’t have to use hardly any energy at all, just drift while keeping a sharp eye all around you. Don’t get paranoid – there’s very little out there than can harm you if you’re in Punta Uva, Cahuita or Manzanillo area. And although there are few motorized boats on the Caribbean coast compared to the Pacific side of Costa Rica, there are still some motorized boats used by fishermen and tour guides in the area. You can usually hear the whirring sound of the motor being carried through the water so keep an ear out and always check above the water. If theres a boat in the area, be sure you make yourself known to them.

While you swim, try to feel the rhythm of the ocean. The more relaxed you are, the less energy you will consume. Think about conserving your personal energy level- you never know when you may need it. Practice doing sharp, forceful whale blows through your snorkel to clear any water from it. Swim slowly and quietly without splashing your hands or your swim fins. The more you get in sync with the rhythm of the ocean, the less energy you will use and the more enjoyable it will be. Watch the seaweed beds for clues to this rhythm. Swim and breathe with these rhythms – you will reserve a storehouse of energy this way just in case you need it. If any water creeps into your mask and is settled around your nose, it’s easy to get rid of just by gently blowing out of your nose, which creates positive air pressure and will clear the water out.

Diving allows you to get up close and personal with the reef. The closer you are, the more vivid the colors become, and depending on the visibility, you might only be able to see the colors by getting very close to the reef. Start with short practice dives, and if you feel too much pressure in your ears, equalize the pressure by closing your mouth, holding your nose closed and blowing some pressure into your ears. If you do this, and dive a little deeper each time, you will slowly be able to dive deeper and deeper. As soon as your head surfaces do a whale blow to clear the snorkel.

Aerobic swimming is a strenuous sport but snorkeling should not be. For the most part, every swimming motion you make is scaring something away. The small fish dart quickly out of sight, and in the blink of an eye this alerts the whole fish community around you that something big and menacing is churning above them. You will see much more life and activity, and see it behaving in it’s natural manner, if you just stop and hang out on the reef. Relax, quiet yourself and just observe. Theres so much happening on the reef that we miss the great majority of it simply by getting in a hurry. It’s truly fascinating down there, and the difference between what you will see when you are swimming and what you will see when you’re just hanging on the reef is tremendous.

First rule of thumb, and the most important: DON”T GO OUT if you’re not a decent swimmer and DON”T GO OUT if the water is too rough for beginners. A lot of people pressure themselves to get into the ocean just because they are on vacation and they’re bound and determined to get in the water before they go back home. Many people get in trouble this way or find themselves out of their league out there. Waves can look harmless from shore but they contain a lot of power. Be sure you are going out in an area that doesn’t have strong rip tides. Don’t try to snorkel on Playa Cocles (surf beach) if you’re a beginner – there can be strong rip tides there and there can be days when it may not look rough from the shore but in reality it is a day for advanced surfers only. Just because you see someone out there swimming or surfing does not mean that it’s safe. That person may be an incredibly powerful swimmer and in top physical condition. If you are such a swimmer or if it is a very calm day, there IS excellent snorkeling along the submarine wall at the little island off of Playa Cocles. The water stays shallow for most of the way and then drops off sharply. But it is also because of this lay of the sea floor that there can be strong rip tides when it’s not calm. When in doubt, ask the local surfers or fishermen about the conditions before going out.

The further out you go along the reefs, the more life you will see as the water gets deeper and colder. If you plan on going out any distance it’s a good idea to take a safety float and some fresh drinking water. This can be a small inner tube or a five gallon empty plastic water bottle that’s been securely sealed up. A bottle will have less drag on the surface of the water than an inner tube will. Tie a thin black nylon cord on it that’s longer than the depth of water you plan to dive in, and tie the other end to your suit so that your hands are free for swimming. Just let it float behind you. Just make sure that you tie a quick release knot in case you need to free it from yourself. Be aware of the line and make sure you don’t dive under a reef ledge in such a way that the line gets caught on something. I like to carry a stainless steel pocket knife securely in a velcroed pocket just in case. You can rig the bottle up so that you can hang a couple of bottles of fresh drinking water on it and perhaps an electrolyte energy drink. I recommend that you bring plenty of it – the sun, salt water and the swimming will demand more liquid for your body, and it will restore your energy. The safety float insures that, in the rare occurance that you get hurt or simply run out of energy, you can use the float to get home on.

OK now I have to tell you about the barracudes. Yes, there ARE barracudas out there at certain times – they spawn throughout the dry season here on the Costa Rican Caribbean coast and they love to feed on the huge schools of sardines which move through the shoreline. It’s extremely rare that one ever bites a human. Millions of divers swim among barracudas unharmed, so don’t panic if you see one. I have seen them many times out there and been surrounded by up to seven large ones at a time – they’ve never bothered me but they will warn you if you get close to their territory or it looks like youre moving into it. The mothers protect their young and come in shallow on the reefs at times. If you see one she will usually swim very quickly up to you, flashing you a warning with a very fast approach and then just as quickly snap back away from you to let you know that you’re in HER territory. Just be respectful and make it known that you are swimming in a calm, steady direction away from her. Sometimes you can tell if there are sardines running if there’s pelicans diving and fishing them. Pelicans = sardines = probably barracudas where the pelicans are.

Coral takes time to grow. It protects the shores from erosion, provides food and protection to many species of fish, eels and plants, and is very fragile. The reefs are protected from fishing by tourists and are already in trouble from bleaching, higher ocean temperatures and other factors – so please don’t stand on the reefs! Don’t break it and don’t take home souvenirs because it’s illegal and you want your children and their children to hopefully see in their lifetimes what you have seen out there in yours! (for more into see: Concensus Report on Coral Reef Futures) Also bear in mind that fishing on the reefs is allowed by locals, and many depend on it for their families’ food supply. If you see fishermen, please give them plenty of berth and don’t intrude on their fishing spots – there’s plenty of fish out there to see in other spots. Likewise, if there are surfers in the area try to find another area to snorkel in because the two just don’t mix. There are some times of the year when snorkeling and surfing tend to overlap, but usually surf season is poor snorkeling and vice versa.

If the water is calm and there are no waves, just remain relaxed, swim over to your exit point and when the water is shallow enough stand still and slip your mask down around your neck, slip off your swim fins, and slowly walk out of the water, maintaining your balance as you start getting used to dry land again.

Usually if the waves are breaking on the shore, it’s not very rough at all just a short back behind the waves where the ocean is calmer. Just do what the surfer’s do – hang back behind the waves where they are gently rolling and watch the behavior of the waves on the shore. Look along the shore to see if there’s any sandy areas where waves are not breaking. Locate the calmest spot you can to exit. Take your time and determine how the current is moving. If you hold still for a minute youll be able to tell if you are drifting with a current. Before you start swimming towards the shore, swim laterally and parallel to the shore along the back of the breaks and get into position directly in front of your exit point. It’s much easier to swim sideways and get into position first than it is trying to navigate into position in the breaking waves. Once you are in position, look ahead to make sure there are arent any large rocks or coral there. Also take a peek under the water with your mask and look ahead and around for any coral formation or obstacles so you know whats what. When youve found the best exit point just swim in with the waves. If they are curling, they can be deceptively powerful and you want to make sure that they dont cause you to tumble under with them. If you have no other choice, ride a wave in, making sure you stay on top of the wave by making rapid climbing strokes with your hands and arms. Timing is everything here. Right at the point when the wave is starting to toss you out, shoot your arms straight out in front of you and pretend that you are a rigid surf board. This will keep you from tumbling and if you do it right the wave will shoot you right onto the shore! Quickly crawl up to the dry part of the beach before the next wave breaks over you.

Be sure to rinse yourself and your gear off with fresh water to remove all salt residues which will deteriorate your gear and chafe your skin.

Note that you must go with a guide in Cahuita National Park due to an environmental protection law. You are not required to use a guide for Manzanillo, Punta Uva, Playa Cocles or Playa Negra.

bHAVE FUN/b, and I sincerely hope that you have a wonderful, exciting and thoroughly enjoyable time exploring the marvels of the ocean and the coral reefs!


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