Snorkelling 101: A first-timers guide

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There’s nothing quite as awe-inspiring as putting on a snorkel and mask, dipping your head underwater and exploring the marine playground that is the Great Barrier Reef.

But with so many people having never tried it and even being slightly intimidated by the idea of looking a turtle in the eye, it’s about time I gave you a rundown of what to do, and what not to do when going out for your first time. That way, you’ll love the experience so much you’ll be gagging to get back in the water as soon as your feet touch dry land.

1. Buy a Fish ID Guide

Before you head out to explore this majestic wonderland, do yourself a favour. Invest in a fish identification guide. They’re cheap, waterproof and children love looking at them.

You’ll know exactly what to look for, can help other first-timers, and you won’t arrive back to the pontoon shouting,did you see that blue fish with the yellow tail?” or “what was the fish that looked like a unicorn?”… and yes it’s a Unicorn Fish!

There’s even an app available for your smartphone.

2. Be aware of the tides

If you’re snorkelling on a private boat away from other people be sure you know which way the current and tides are flowing. It’s usually easy to tell by the way the boat is hanging off the mooring or anchor.
When you enter the water, start your snorkel session by swimming into the current. That way, if you tire out you can drift back with the current and won’t end up needing rescuing from Fiji!

3. Wear the correct equipment and make sure it fits

Make sure your wetsuit is the right size – Too small and it’ll squeeze all your bits until they hurt, too big and it’ll let so much water and air in, you’ll float around like a beach ball. A wetsuit is designed to trap a layer of water between you and the suit. This heats up, insulating you from the colder water outside.

Make sure it’s on the right way. There’s nothing more frustrating than fighting your way into a wetsuit to find it’s back to front!

Test your mask before you get in the water – The easiest way to size it up? Hold it against your face without the strap on, breath in through your nose and make sure it sucks against your face without any leaks.

Ready for any stingers this time! Wear a Stinger Suit – Being stung by an irukandji is not a nice experience, believe me. Be sure to wear a protective suit between November and March just in case these tiny jellyfish are in the water, too. And you can look cool in one of them, I promise.

Wear flotationIf you’re not a confident swimmer then ask for a buoyancy vest or noodle (brightly coloured floaty thing). It’ll save you getting into difficulties and allow you to relax.

Fin Dressage (without falling over) – If you’ve got rental fins, chances are you’ll fall over trying to put them on. So fold back the shoe part, place your foot inside and roll it back up over your heel. Simple. And you should stay upright, too.

4. Is your mask ready for the job?

The snorkel platform

If you’re using your own mask for the first time then make sure you’ve washed off the protective film inside it. Use a pea-sized blob of toothpaste and rub thoroughly on both sides of the glass to ensure your view into Nemo’s world is clear and unobstructed. Which leads me onto…

Spit or spray in your mask first – Before you head underwater make sure your mask is ready, too!

Either work up some spit and eject it onto the glass, swilling it around with your fingers. Or for the (more hygienic) alternative, ask your dive master for the anti-fog spray solution they’ll have for you to use. Whichever you choose, remember to wash out your mask before putting it on.

5. Get your hair out and put your Vaseline on

If you’re a hairy person there’s a couple of things you need to do to ensure a water-free mask.

Tie back your hair and make sure every piece is out of the mask’s seal. One single strand will allow water to flood your mask, making it a rather unpleasant experience. You can buy neoprene covers for the silicon straps found on masks to stop longer hair getting caught every time you take it on and off.

If facial furniture adorns your lip in the form of a mo then lightly Vaseline up this area before putting your mask on… or you’ll end up breathing water through your nose. Again. not cool.

6. Take a friend along for the ride

Going snorkelling with a friend or buddy is a great way to be safe and share the experience, too.

If you cramp up when you’re swimming there’s always someone looking out for you. You’ll also have shared memories you can rave about forever.

7. Prepare to jump in

You spend all that time preparing for your underwater adventure, take a giant stride off the pontoon into the drink and your mask comes clean off! It’s easily avoided with one simple manoeuvre

Using one hand, hold your index and middle fingers against the mask with your thumb pressed against your snorkel. It’ll ensure everything that’s meant to be against you stays that way.

Great Barrier Reef Experience

8. Blowing bubbles not sucking water 

Adjust your snorkel so that when you’re looking down at the coral reef below you, it sits vertically upright. You may need a friend to help you adjust this as it’s crucial to keeping water out of the pipe, and ultimately your lungs.

Once you’re swimming across the surface just breath normal, slow deep breaths but with a little more ‘ooomph’ than normal on your ‘out’ breath, just in case any water has found its way in.

Obviously when you dive below the snorkel will fill with water. As you make your way back to the surface, breathe your used air out, saving some for a final blast to clear the tube as you break the surface.

Now you don’t need to take off your mask or drop the snorkel out of your mouth to breathe. You’re practically a fish!

Happy snorkeller

9. Don’t touch marine life

One of THE most important rules when snorkelling or diving on the Great Barrier Reef, is look but don’t touch. In order to protect out World Heritage Site we all need to look after it and that means taking photos but nothing else.

There are fragile things like coral, sharp things like coral and sometimes dangerous things… like Fire Coral. Seriously, coral is beautiful to look at but the moment you touch it you damage it, or yourself. The slime over it protects it from the suns rays, or in some instances, releases stinging nematodes into your skin. Not nice for either party!

10. Relax

It’s rather amusing watching a snorkeller flounder around out of control… unless of course that snorkeller is you.

Remember to relax, tilt your head forwards, breathe slowly and watch the world below you in wonder as fish swim past, anemones wave at you and other swimmers wonder how you got to be such a cool snorkeller so quickly… all thanks to this guide!

There are plenty of places to try your first snorkel session, with operators leaving daily from Port Douglas, Cairns, the Whitsundays and 1770 to visit perfectly safe, perfectly setup pontoons with all the equipment you’ll need at your disposal.

Enjoy, and tell Nemo I sent you!

Ben 🙂


  • Bo

    Dear Ben,
    My name is Bo, and I am an editor for a chinese magazine which called ‘Coastal life’. It’s very new magazine that the first issue will releasing in Sep. We would like to write an article about you and your job. would you mind if you can provides us some photos?
    My connect email is : k1045234@gmail.com
    Many thanks

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  • Mel

    I second that point about watching the currents! I went out on the reef for my first time last week and made the error of bobbing around in the water to adjust my goggles. I didn’t notice the strength of the current and sure enough it washed me up against a nice, big scratchy blob of hard coral, which did a lovely number on my leg! Ouch 🙁

  • Lauren

    I have just returned from my trip to the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef and I wish I had saw this blog beforehand! Great information on snorkelling, I found I was stung a few times in the water – will definitely be making use of one of the stinger suit next time.