Also a verb: to snorkel. The other piece of gear commonly used while snorkeling is a pair of fins. These enable you to move more efficiently through the water. Snorkeling requires that you be in shallow enough water to actually see something, which usually means close to a shoreline. There are, however, coral reefs several miles from land that are only in 10 feet of water. Reefs are found in tropical waters, about 85 F.
Finding a good spot to snorkel is another thing entirely. In the Florida Keys, there are no reefs next to the islands, and most of the beaches are privately owned anyways. You have to take a boat several miles out to get to the reef.
The island of Cozumel, Mexico, has some decent snorkeling at "The Pier", which is where all the cruise ships come in. After avoiding all the drunken tourists, just off the shore you will find a scattering of coral heads in 5-15 feet of water, and out in 35 feet, you will find an old B-25 that has been sunk specifically for divers and snorkelers. The wreck makes a good shallow-water dive, as well, especially at night.
A 30-minute ferry trip across to the mainland, and a 1.5-hour bus ride south will get you to Talum, an archaeological site right next to the ocean up on 200-foot high cliffs that plunge right down to a beach. This place is stunningly beautiful, and it looks like it would have good snorkeling - I never got the chance to hit the water when I was there, though. Talum is also very near the world's largest underwater cave network, but I hear that it is best appreciated by diving.
The best snorkeling near North America is in Grand Cayman, BWI. Seven-mile Beach makes up the western shoreline of Grand Cayman, and in the northern quarter of it is a small cemetary right on the beach. If you can find a place to park, walk through the narrow alley between the cemetary and a nearby house to the beach (which is almost all public, by the way). Look out at the water: the coral heads are a good ways out; maybe 100 yards or so. But oh, when you get out there... some of the coral has grown up to within a foot of the surface. Everything is right there in your face. It's great. You will also find that you have an escort of schools of medium-sized brownish fish who follow you everywhere.
Snorkeling makes use of the nifty fact that humans will float on their ventral sides in water. You have to keep your head down in the water to do this, though. If for some reason you need to pull your head out, I reccomend you shift into a vertical position and tread water. Because you can float with no effort at all, and breathe in this position courtesy of the snorkel attached to your mask, a snorkeling foray can last until you get tired or hungry.
This is one advantage of snorkeling over diving: the only limits on time in the water are your own. Divers are limited by their air supply, the total time they can remain submerged depending on at what depth(s) they spend their dive. Divers are also limited as to the number of dives they can make if each dive is less than 24 hours apart (see dive tables).
Another advantage is cost: if you can find a mask, fins, and a snorkel, and a good spot, you can go snorkeling. At any time you want. Non-shore diving requires a boat, the addition of a tank, BC, regulator, and weight belt - all of which will cost you around $30 per dive. Most dive buisnesses will take out however many divers they can cram on a boat for two dives a trip.
So, don't let anyone tell you snorkeling is for wusses, and real men go SCUBA diving. That's a bunch of bullcrap.
Here's how you do it:
- The easiest way to find a place to snorkel is to either do research on the web; if you're already in the area, go to a couple of different dive shops and ask them. Dive shops usually have a red flag with a white diagonal stripe. You need to ask the dive shop if snorkelers are required to have a dive bouy with them; if they are, you need to buy one - they cost about $15. Attach a 6'+ long cord to it so you can tow it behind you without it getting in your way.
- Make sure your gear is in good working order. Find someplace to stash your car or motel keys - this may include taking them with you, but be smart and attach them firmly to something - better yet, just tie your door key to your swimsuit, and leave the rest of your keychain in the car/motel room. If you drove, have a largish container of fresh water, at least a half gallon, in your car. Make sure the weather isn't going to get nasty. Tell someone where you're going - and in all honesty, you really shouldn't go alone. Accidents do happen. If you are not SCUBA certified, I reccomend a flotation device for the first couple of trips until you get the hang of it.
- Put sunscreen on your back. Don't put any on your face, it might end up getting washed into your eyes. Five minutes before you hit the water, spit into your mask and rub it all over the lenses. Let it dry. As you're standing on the beach, look out over the water for two things: One, look for dark purple or black patches in the light blue of the water - these are the patch reefs or coral heads. And look at the waves and do your own estimate of the weather. Three foot waves are easy to handle. Carrying your mask, fins, and snorkel (which should be attached to your mask at this point - standard side is the left side, because for divers the regulator comes around on the right side), wade out into about 3 feet of water. Swish your mask in the water, spit in it again, rub the spit around, wash it out, and then put the mask on - your face should be wet when you do this. The spit will keep your mask from fogging for at least 30 minutes, possibly 2 hours - usually.
- Put the snorkel in your mouth. There are two knobby protrusions that you grip with your molars; around the bore of the mouthpiece is a ridge; this goes between your teeth and your lips. Now, "sit" in the water and put your fins on. It is highly likely that all of your gear will sink if you let go of it, so remember this in deeper water. As you sit, your head will likely go under, but your snorkel will still be above the surface. You should float there if you aren't actually sitting on the bottom. Get used to breathing through the snorkel as you put on your fins.
- Now, turn over onto your stomach. Relax your arms - they are highly inneficient for manuvering; most of your swimming and manuvering will be done only with your fins. Start kicking (scissor your legs back and forth keep the fins roughly pointed out behind you). You will probably be moving through the water at a good clip; your arms should be at your sides now in the flow of water. There's no need to overexert yourself - just use nice, not-too-fast kicks.
- If there are waves, you will notice that you float with the waves (this doesn't count for the ones that are breaking near the shore)- if the waves are big enough that water is pouring in your snorkel, you might want to wait and try another day. So, relax and just go with it, and start swimming towards the reef. If you have a dive bouy, tie it to your wrist and tow it. Start watching for fish.
- At this point, there really isn't any special technique to watching the flora and fauna. If you see something that intrests you, stop and look at it. DON'T TOUCH! Unless you are a marine biologist or have extensive knowledge about the animals you're dealing with, there is no telling if they will sting/bite you or not. A lot of those bright colors you see are warnings. Fish are less likely to do things to you than the corals are, though, so if you feel like taking the risk, you can try - emphasis on try - to touch a fish. Corals should not be touched at all, as this might break off part of it or otherwise impede its growth - and they grow very slowly, a couple of inches a year. Small rays (like stingrays, only 1-2' long) nestled in the sand might let you touch them - approach slowly, reach one hand out in front of you, and touch a flank gently. In some places, the regular-sized stingrays are used to being fed by snorkelers (Stingray City in Grand Cayman), and will happily swim around you and let you stroke them - gently.
If you are feeling daring, you can try to touch a moray eel. These things have teeth. Lots of them. They usually hide in lairs within the coral - I wouldn't try to touch them there. Sometimes, especially at night (night snorkeling requires a dive light, btw), you will see them out hunting. The smaller ones (under 3') aren't overly fast, and if you are slow and careful about it, you could touch them - as far away from the head as possible.
Stay away from anything with spines. A little cluster of spines is usually a sea urchin; avoid these at all costs. They crawl along surfaces; they do not swim. Watch out for ugly-looking semi-camoflaged fish that sit on a surface very still - they could be highly poisonous, and will not move even if you get within a couple inches of them.
In the Caribean, you might find some small 2" jellyfish that are almost clear. They are hard to see unless you are right next to them. If you look closely, you can see that some of their internal structures are bioluminescent! Be careful, though - the wash from your fins will rip them apart. I'm sure I unknowingly ran into some of these at one point or another, but apparently they don't sting.
- Though the water may be a comfortable 85 F, you still loose body heat to it unless you have a wetsuit. If you start shivering, it's time to head back in. Cross your arms tightly to prevent water from flowing past your armpits, this will help conserve heat.
Most people will get tired before they get cold. Generally, the less you weigh, the easier time you have of moving your mass around in the water, and the less energy you will exert than heavier people. However, heavier people don't have the heat loss problems that lighter people do - if you weigh under 120, especially if you're female, chances are you will get cold long before you get tired. On a particularly hot day snorkeling off the cemetary in Grand Cayman, I stayed out for 2 1/4 hours and wasn't tired when I came in.
- You can submerse yourself and dive down for as long as you can hold your breath. As you decend, the water pressure will increase and eventually cause pain in your ears. You need to clear your ears - increase the air pressure in your middle ears - in order to compensate. Through the rubber of the mask, pinch your nose shut. Stop the hole of the snorkel with your tongue, and open the back of your throat like you're going to yawn. Exhale. This should force air into the tubes that connect your throat to your middle ears, and help equalize the pressure. Diving down like this is useful for looking under overhangs or retrieving something off the bottom. It does use a good dose of energy, though, and you can wear yourself out doing it repeatedly. At first you probably won't go below about 12'. Most experienced divers and snorkelers can hit 20' with no problems.
As you resurface, your snorkel will be full of water unless you shelled out $30+ for one of the fancy ones. If you have a normal snorkel, there are two ways to get the water out of it. One: exhale explosively. This may or may not get all the water out. You may have to do it a second time to get it to work. The two problems with this are that you still have the saltwater taste in your mouth, and you might not have the breath left to do it after a long excursion. Method 2: move into a vertical position, tread water with your fins (either by scissoring or by stair-steeping), and pull the mouthpiece out of your mouth with a hand. This gets all the water out, and lets you spit out the salt in your mouth. It also gives you a chance to scan for boats and other snorkelers (have you been keeping track of your partners this whole time?).
- As you head back to shore and exit the water, take your gear off before you get out. Walking around in fins is a sure way to damage them, funny as it might look. Now head for that water in your car and dump about half of it on your head. This will make you feel immensely better, as it will wash the salt off you and get rid of the annoying prickling sensation that comes with it. Drink however much of what's left that you want, and dump the rest on your gear.
- When you get back to your room or the place where you rented your gear, rinse it off in fresh water. If there is a shower, take your gear into the shower with you. It doesn't need to be soaped, just rinse the salt off of it.