If you've never snorkeled before and you're here on St. John, this is
the ideal opportunity to learn this easy, relaxing and rewarding activity.
The underwater world that lies just offshore of our magnificent beaches
awaits you in clear, calm and non-threatening waters.
The key to enjoyable snorkeling is to be comfortable in the water and
with your equipment. You will need mask, fins and snorkel, preferably
ones that you've bought from a reputable dive shop whose salespeople have
guided you toward obtaining the appropriate gear.
If you have access to a swimming pool, this will be a good place to start.
If not, a calm beach will serve just as well. If there are waves breaking
on the beaches of the north shore, try a south shore beach.
Virgin Island waters are fairly warm, even in the winter. Nonetheless,
you want to have a positive and enjoyable snorkeling experience. So if
you feel cold do something about it. Buy a dive skin, a wet vest, or a
lightweight wet suit, depending on how much cold management you as an
Now, sit by the pool and dangle your feet in the water, sit in your beach
chair by the sea or wade out from the beach into shallow water. Put on
your mask. Put the snorkel in your mouth and get used to mouth breathing
through the snorkel. Breathe a bit more slowly and a little deeper than
normal to compensate for the already breathed air that will remain in
the snorkel after you have exhaled.
Clearing Your Snorkel
After you feel comfortable breathing through the snorkel, get into the
water about waist deep. Put your head in the water and just breathe for
a while. When you feel comfortable try a snorkel clearing exercise. Bend
your head down and allow some water to get into your snorkel. Slowly breathe
in just enough air to blow out forcefully, shooting the water out of your
snorkel. Then inhale carefully, making sure all the water has been expelled
from the snorkel tube.
Relaxed Fetal Position
Now take in a deep breath and put your head underwater. The snorkel will
fill with water. Still looking down with your face in the water, raise
up your head until it is at surface level. Again blow the water out of
the snorkel tube, inhale carefully and then continue normal breathing.
When you feel confident that you can breathe through your snorkel and
get rid of any water that gets inside, you will be ready for the next
step, the relaxed fetal position. Begin by standing in waist-deep water,
with your mask and snorkel in place. Put your head in the water and breathe
gently and deeply. Now let yourself float, curling up into the fetal position
and just relax. Let your arms and legs hang loose and go where they want.
Try to achieve a state of mind where you are so relaxed that you feel
like you could just about fall asleep.
Clearing Your Mask
The next thing to practice will be how to clear your mask if needed. While
floating in shallow water with your mask and snorkel, deliberately pull
your mask away from your face so that water gets inside. Lift your head
out of the water and pull the bottom of the mask away from your face allowing
the water to drain out. Replace your mask and continue floating.
Practice Your Kick
Once you have gained a level of comfort breathing through the snorkel,
clearing it and clearing your mask and have practiced the relaxed fetal
position, you will be ready to put on your fins.
Practice your flutter kick. This is a leisurely up and down kick with
most of the thrust coming on the down stroke. The power of this kick should
come from the hips and upper legs. Kicking from below the knees is called
the bicycle kick and not only is it inefficient, but it looks funny to
While still in shallow water practice maneuvering about, making turns
and adjusting your speed. Also learn to judge distances, taking into account
that everything will look about twenty-five percent closer when looking
underwater through your mask.
Now you should be able to venture out to explore the reef and the underwater
world. Go out with an experienced buddy, relax and enjoy.
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Dangers and Environmental Concerns
Many beginning snorkelers are uncomfortable in the water because they
are afraid of what unknown terrors may be lurking about. Most of these
fears, especially the fear of fish, are either unreasonable or grossly
exaggerated. On the other hand, there are other, more probable, dangers
that the beginning snorkeler may not even be aware of.
The most common fear is the fear of sharks, a preoccupation that has become
almost a national obsession, due mostly to movies like "Jaws."
Nonetheless, if you are snorkeling in the Virgin Islands in relatively
shallow water, near the shore, and are not spear fishing, chances are
great that you will never even see a shark. On the unlikely event that
you do see one, it is extremely doubtful that it will have the slightest
interest in you. For extra safety, calmly snorkel back to the beach or
The next most feared fish is the barracuda. They are curious and often
come alongside a snorkeler and look at them. Barracudas have the disconcerting
habit of opening and closing their mouths displaying their sharp teeth
and a serious overbite. This motion is not meant to frighten or to warn.
It is simply a part of the way they breathe. Barracudas feed on fish very
much smaller than themselves, which would exclude big, fierce-looking
I have never known of anyone getting attacked by a barracuda, and this
includes spearfishers and SCUBA divers. But, to stay on the safe side,
it would probably be better not to wear shiny jewelry while snorkeling.
The theory here is that a visually challenged barracuda or one hunting
in murky water might mistake that glittering object for a little fish
and go after it. I've never known of this actually happening, but it won't
hurt to take this precaution.
Although anything is possible, not everything is probable. Shark and
barracuda attacks on Virgin Island snorkelers are so overwhelmingly improbable
that they should not be a cause for concern.
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Snorkelers should be aware that there are other dangerous animals that
they do need to watch out for. First and foremost are corals. Yes, corals
are animals, not plants or rocks. They do have a rock-like exoskeleton
that is sharp and coarse. When your skin is wet, it can be cut easily
so even light contact may result in abrasions that can be itchy, annoying,
and slow to heal.
Not only can coral hurt you, but also you can hurt it. Just lightly brushing
up against live coral can damage the surface mucus layer, making the animal
more susceptible to infection. Worse yet, is when snorkelers inadvertently
kick coral with their fins or actually stand on the living coral reef
when they get tired or frightened. Coral is extremely slow growing, so
the results of such damage can be long lasting.
Another common hazard is the spiny sea urchin. These are the black spherical
creatures that look like little black land mines. The central body is
about two to three inches in diameter and the spines can be as long as
eight inches. If you step on or bump into one, the sharp spines can easily
puncture your skin, break off and remain imbedded there. Once in your
flesh, the spines are difficult to get out. They usually dissolve after
a while, but the wounds can be painful, annoying and can become infected
The key to dealing with sea urchins is to avoid them. If you are getting
into the water at a rocky or coral strewn location, wear your fins into
the water. Walk backwards and watch where you step. When snorkeling, watch
where you're going especially in shallow water or in tight quarters within
Another animal to watch out for is the jellyfish. Most species encountered
in the Virgin Islands, such as the commonly found moon jelly, are fairly
innocuous and contact with their tentacles usually has no effect at all.
People with sensitive skin, however, could get a mild rash.
A more dangerous jellyfish, the sea wasp or box jelly, also can be found
in our waters, but far less frequently. They are translucent with a dome-shaped
body about three inches long and have four tentacles about six to twelve
inches long. Although some people can have a serious allergic reaction,
usually the sting, which is not nearly as bad as a regular wasp sting,
leaves you with an itchy welt that takes about a week to go away. Treat
sea wasp stings by applying vinegar over the effected area.
The Most Dangerous Animal of All
One more extremely dangerous animal often found in Virgin Island waters
is the human being driving a motor boat, so be on the lookout. If snorkeling
in areas not protected by swim buoys, use a dive flag and be especially
Know Your Limits
Another aspect of snorkeling safety is to be aware of the water conditions
and of your own your limitations. These will change with time and location.
So take into consideration factors such as wind, waves, currents, breaking
surf, boat traffic, water clarity and depth as well as your experience
level and physical condition. Stay within your comfort zone and use a
floatation device if necessary.
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Choosing Your Equipment
Snorkeling is easy to learn and requires only three pieces of relatively
inexpensive equipment: mask, fins and snorkel. The quality of this equipment,
however, will be instrumental to your enjoyment of the sport. Today, we
will talk about the snorkel mask.
The mask is the most important piece of snorkeling equipment. Our eyes
are designed to function in air and the mask provides an airspace allowing
our eyes to focus and see clearly through the water.
Choosing your mask
You should always buy your own mask. Rental equipment or borrowed gear
may not provide a prefect fit. When your mask fits properly, it will not
only be comfortable, but will be able to provide that all-important watertight
seal. This means no leaks at all, however tiny. (Snorkeling with an uncomfortable
or leaky mask can make snorkeling a miserable experience.)
To check if a mask fits and is watertight, tilt your head up and place
it on your face without the strap. It should sit snugly with no spaces.
Breathe in through your nose and lower your head. The mask should stick
to your face and stay there without you holding on to it. Be sure there
is no air leakage.
Now put on the strap and adjust it tight enough that it holds the mask
in place, but no tighter than that. (A common mistake among beginning
snorkelers is to over tighten the strap; something that causes, rather
than prevents, leaks.) Make sure that your hair is not caught in the mask.
Attach the snorkel and put it in your mouth. Inhale through your nose
and check once more for any air leaks.
Make sure the nosepiece fits comfortably around your nose without touching
it. The nosepiece should have finger pockets so you can easily close off
the nasal air passage. This is important if you intend to go below the
surface or free dive.
In the old days, masks were made out of black rubber. Nowadays, the best
masks are made with clear, surgical-grade silicone, which is soft, flexible
and hypoallergenic. Watch out for bargain specials; masks made out of
clear PVC. This material looks like silicone, but is much harder and not
as flexible. PVC masks are often uncomfortable and may leak.
If you have a mustache, the only mask for you will be the high-grade
silicone variety. It's also a good idea to apply a small amount of a petroleum
jelly product like Vaseline to your mustache.
Masks come in many styles, with single, double and side lens options.
The important thing is that the lens or lenses be made of tempered safety
glass, which will be scratch-resistant and will not shatter upon impact.
Always emphasize safety, a comfortable fit and water tightness, after
that whatever style or color suits you best will be fine.
A rule of thumb for SCUBA divers is, "if you need glasses to drive,
you need glasses to dive." For snorkelers it is not as critical,
but your enjoyment of the underwater world will certainly be enhanced
if you can see it clearly. If you need glasses, check to see if your mask
is corrective lens adaptable. Have your personal prescription installed
in your mask, which will be much better than buying a mask with a readymade
Things look about 25% closer when looking at them underwater. So if you
just need reading glasses, you may not need corrective lenses. The magnifying
effect of the mask underwater should also be taken into account when judging
distances while snorkeling. Everything looks closer than it actually is.
Preparing a new mask
When you first buy a mask you will need to clean it to remove the oily
film that is applied at the factory to protect the lens during shipping.
Use a commercial mask cleaner and not a household cleaner, the remnants
of which could get in your eyes when the mask gets wet.
Defogging your mask
As much as a leaky mask is annoying and detracts from your snorkeling
enjoyment, so is a mask that keeps fogging up. The standard defogging
agent is plain old spit, but today several commercial defogging agents
are readily available at dive shops.
Spit on the mask lens or a pply a few drops of the defogging liquid and
rub it around. Rinse your mask with water. (Seawater will be fine.)
Put the mask on and begin snorkeling right away. If you wait too long,
or walk around on land with your mask on, it will probably fog up, even
with the defogger applied.
Getting water out of your mask
Sometimes even the best fitting masks can fill with water. If this happens
to you, the easiest way to clear the mask is to lift your head out of
the water and pull the bottom of the mask away from your face allowing
the water to drain out. Replace your mask and continue snorkeling.
When you return from your snorkel adventure, rinse your mask with fresh
water and let it dry in the shade. Store it in a dry place, preferably
in a protective box that will also keep it safe from damage when you travel.
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Before the invention of the snorkel, whales and dolphins must have been
baffled by the creatures they would sometimes observe swimming on the
ocean's surface. These life forms called themselves human beings. They
seemed to be aquatic mammals like the cetaceans, but there was something
very strange about them. Their breathing holes were on the wrong side
of their heads.
Modern man has now compensated for this obvious biological disadvantage.
Human beings have developed and produced a simple tube, the short end
of which goes in their mouths while the long end sticks out of the water
and into the air. This ingenious device effectively changes the location
of their breathing holes to the other side of their heads allowing the
human beings to move efficiently on the surface of the water without having
to constantly lift up their heads to breathe.
With snorkels, it is not necessary to get anything fancy, although more
and more fancy options are available. Following are some tips on purchasing
the right snorkel for you.
Buying a Snorkel
Like masks, the best snorkels are made out of silicone. You should make
sure that the mouthpiece is comfortable before you make your snorkel purchase.
This means trying it out in the shop. Hopefully they'll have something
there to clean off the mouthpiece before you put in it your mouth.
The diameter of the snorkel tube should be wide enough to permit unrestricted
breathing, but narrow enough so that you can easily blow out any water
that gets in the tube. To check if the snorkel tube is of the proper diameter,
the rule of thumb is to use your thumb - it should fit snugly inside the
State-of-the-art snorkels are usually elliptical instead of a straight
up and down. This is a better hydrodynamic design and lets the snorkel
move through the water more easily, cutting down on snorkel drag, which
can pull on your mask and cause leakage.
Another consideration is how the snorkel attaches to the mask. You'll
want the snorkel to sit at a good angle to the water so that it doesn't
pull on the mask in such a way that causes the mask to leak or doesn't
sit so low that water can get inside the snorkel easily. Because you won't
be able to see how the snorkel rides in the water, you should have someone
else observe you and help you make the final adjustments. It is not a
good idea to support your snorkel between the mask strap and your head.
Not only will this get uncomfortable after a while, but it also may cause
the mask to leak.
If you intend to keep your mask in a box, then it will be necessary to
detach the snorkel when storing the mask. In this case, an easy to connect
and disconnect clip system will keep this procedure from becoming a frustrating
experience. If you just leave your mask with the snorkel attached, in
a dive bag for instance, then the ease of attachment and detachment is
Using Your Snorkel
When you dive below the surface, water will enter the snorkel tube. The
traditional method of clearing the snorkel is to blow out a strong puff
of air, which will shoot the water out of the tube. You should breathe
in carefully at first to make sure that all the water is out of your snorkel,
before breathing normally.
Many snorkels now come with a purge valve. This is a one way flap of silicone,
usually positioned at the bottom of the tube that lets most of the water
drain from the bottom instead of having to be pushed out at the top. With
the purge valve, a small puff of air usually suffices to drain the snorkel
Water may also enter the snorkel accidentally, for example, from waves
or from splashing water. Another snorkel option, the splashguard, helps
to keep water out of your snorkel while you're moving about on the surface.
When you take your first breath through a snorkel, fresh air from the
atmosphere goes through the snorkel and into your lungs. When you exhale,
your breath goes through the snorkel and into the air. On subsequent breaths,
you must first breathe the oxygen-depleted air that remained in your snorkel
from your previous exhalation. To compensate for this, you should take
long deep breaths.
If you are seeking a high tech solution to the problem of stale air, the
Fresh-Air snorkel made by the Air Tech Company has developed a system
that allows you to breathe fresh air only. This snorkel is designed with
separate inhalation and exhalation chambers with one way valves to direct
Snorkels are traditionally worn on the left side, because when used with
scuba gear, the regulator goes on the right. If you are just snorkeling
or skin diving as it is sometimes called, you can wear the snorkel on
either side. Nonetheless, it is probably better to wear it on the left
side if just to develop good habits if you ever try scuba diving, if not
just to impress other people, or passing whales and dolphins, with your
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Unlike other creatures that inhabit or venture into the sea, we human
beings seem particularly ill adapted to the ocean environment. For one
thing, our fins lack the necessary surface area to propel us efficiently
through the water. Through science and technology, however, we have compensated
for this disadvantage by inventing prosthetic rubber fins that fit over
the small inefficient fins that we call feet.
For some reason many beginner snorkelers feel that they do not need fins.
This is a big mistake. Using fins we can move through the water further,
faster and with much less effort than by depending on bare feet or by
using our arms. Moreover, fins make it possible to dive and swim underwater
leisurely and efficiently, opening up a beautiful underwater world invisible
from the surface of the water.
Most importantly, snorkeling with fins is safer than snorkeling without
them. They protect your feet when you first get in the water. They can
get you out of trouble if you get caught in a current that is too strong
to negotiate without fins and they can get you back to the beach or to
your boat more quickly if an emergency arises.
Choosing Your Fins
Like your other snorkeling gear, comfort is the key. Ill-fitting fins
are no fun at all. They can cause blisters that not only will ruin your
snorkeling experience, but can also put a crimp in your style for other
activities as well.
Bad experiences derived from using fins that don't fit well may be behind
many of beginning snorkelers' decisions not to wear fins at all. To avoid
these problems, don't depend on borrowed, rented or bargain-basement packaged
snorkeling sets. Purchase your own personal fins and try them on in the
store before you buy. Look for flexible lightweight fins made with a soft
rubber that feels good on your feet.
There are two basic types of fins. The full foot variety is worn over
bare feet and covers the entire bottom of the foot. The adjustable variety
has an open heel. They are held on by adjustable heel straps and are worn
over dive booties.
Snorkelers generally prefer the lighter, more flexible full foot fins,
while most SCUBA divers prefer the adjustable variety, which tend to be
stiffer and heavier, but offers more thrust and more protection. For snorkeling,
either one will work as long as it feels good.
The length, shape and style of the fins should be compatible with your
size and strength. For example, longer fins provide more propulsion, but
require more strength and more effort. It is best to buy your fins at
a reputable dive shop where they can help you pick out the right fins
for your needs.
Using Your Fins
If you are getting in from a beach in calm conditions with a safe sandy
bottom, wade out to waist-deep water and put your fins on then. In rougher
conditions or in water with an unknown bottom, put your fins on first
and walk into the water backwards.
From a boat, put your fins on just before going into the water, or get
into the water first and have someone hand you your fins one by one. Take
your fins off before you get back in the boat. Don't walk about the vessel
with them on. It is dangerous and annoying to others.
Once in the water, use your fins for propulsion. Let your arms rest comfortably
at your sides. The kick you will be using most will be a leisurely, up
and down kick called the flutter kick. Keep your knees slightly bent.
Don't tense up your ankles. This will cause cramps. Don't kick from below
the knees, it is not efficient and looks funny. Most of the thrust of
your kick will come on the down stroke with the power coming from your
hips and upper legs.
To increase your speed, use faster rather than longer kicks and for sudden
bursts of speed try the dolphin kick.
To vary muscle use and to avoid fatigue, alternate your flutter kick
with the somewhat slower frog kick.
One other word of advice for beginners; the correct terminology is fins
and not "flippers."
Snorkeling the waters of St. John, Virgin Islands is for
me and I expect for most others, one of the most rewarding and fun things
to do on St. John. The water is warm and tranquil. It's normally easy
to get in and out of the water. You move effortlessly, unencumbered by
gravity, and experience the wonderful and colorful world of the coral
reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove lagoons that surround St. John in the
magnificent Virgin Islands.
Having knowledge about this undersea environment and being
able to identify and have an understanding of what you see in this strange
new world will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the sport, as well as
alerting you any possible safety or environmental concerns.
For this reason, that in addition to your mask fins and
snorkel you bring with you a knowledge of what you will be looking at
when you enter the beautiful underwater world of the Virgin Islands.
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