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Snorkeling 101

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.

Getting Comfortable
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.

Stay Warm
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 individual need.

Practice Breathing
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 boot.

Practice Maneuvering
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.

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 your boat.



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 human beings.

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. Other organisms such as fire coral (not a true coral, but often found colonizing the skeletons of dead corals) can cause a painful sting as can fire worms and some sponges. The point is: Don't touch the reef!

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. Again, the point is: Don't touch the reef!

sea urchin
Sea Urchin

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 easily.

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 the reef.

Moon Jelly


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 careful.

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.

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.

Corrective lenses
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 corrective lens.

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.

Mask care

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.

The Snorkel
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.

The Solution
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 tube.

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 less critical.

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 tube.

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 the airflow.

Which side?
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 diving sophistication.

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.