Are you the type of person to vacation at a tropical paradise only to spend most of your time on the beach looking at people having fun in the water instead of being there with them? If it’s your lack of swimming skills holding you back, you may be happy to know that you don’t have to be a strong swimmer if you want to go snorkeling.
Snorkeling is a straightforward activity where all you really do is float and observe. At an advanced level, snorkelers may also duck dive, but at a recreational level snorkeling is easy. Knowing how to swim is not necessary for snorkeling, however it can certainly help. If things go wrong, someone who knows how to swim will be able to handle the situation better. Furthermore, snorkelers with swimming knowledge can eventually learn how to duck dive.
That said, if you aren’t interested in learning all the ins and outs of snorkeling, but you just want to calmly and gently observe marine life from the surface, then there are certainly ways for a non-swimmer to stay as safe as possible while snorkeling. In this article, we will provide some practical tips to ensure your first time snorkeling experience is a great success.
Can non-swimmers snorkel?
Yes, non-swimmers can snorkel with many caveats.
Well, we should first define what exactly a “non-swimmer” is. Are you someone with literally zero experience with swimming? Or do you know how to swim but maybe haven’t done so in a long time, or you just aren’t competent enough to identify as a swimmer?
The difference between someone who has literally no swimming experience and someone with some training experience is massive. It can make a tremendous difference in how relaxed one snorkeler is compared to another. If you’re so terrified of snorkeling because you are afraid of potentially drowning when snorkeling, then that will make the experience so unenjoyable you might as well not do it. From this point on, we are going to assume “non-swimmer” means somebody with little to no swimming experience.
First of all, a non-swimmer should wear a life jacket at all times. Not just a snorkel vest or flotation belt, a life jacket. It isn’t called a life jacket for no reason. They are designed to literally save your life by keeping your head above water even if you lose consciousness or go completely limp. If you want to head out into the open water without knowing how to swim, you had best strap a life jacket on yourself.
Second, non-swimmers can take part in a snorkeling tour or snorkel in sheltered areas such as a lagoon where the waters are always calm and shallow. If you are part of a tour, pay close attention to what the guide says and follow their instructions exactly.
If your first time snorkeling is also your first time swimming, you are going through a trial by fire essentially. We generally don’t recommend punishing yourself like this, however no one is going to stop you because you don’t need a certification to go snorkeling or swimming for that matter.
Those of you who lack competence in swimming ought to first practice in a shallow pool. In fact, we recommend you take some swimming lessons. It will pay out massive dividends whenever you vacation in a tropical destination and you can freely enjoy the beautiful, pristine waters with no fear.
Even though snorkeling does not require any certifications, you can, in fact, take some snorkeling courses which will provide a certification at the end. All of the major training agencies, such as PADI, NAUI, and SSI offer their own versions of a snorkeling course. They are: the Skin Diver course from PADI, the Snorkel Diver course from SSI, and the Snorkeler course from NAUI.
If that seems like more trouble than it’s worth, then at the very least ask a tour guide plenty of questions when you’re on a snorkeling tour. Learning how to swim will greatly benefit your snorkeling education as well. You will have more confidence and be able to pick up concepts faster if you already have a strong foundation knowing how to swim.
Risks of snorkeling as a non-swimmer
Any water-based activity has inherent risks associated with it, and a non-swimmer is even more susceptible to these dangers. These are some of the common problems that could pose a big risk to non-swimmers that a more experienced snorkeler could handle.
Panicking: If anything unexpected happens, particularly in deep water, a non-swimmer will be more likely to panic compared to someone who has strong swimming skills.
Rough weather: The sea and weather can change rapidly and unpredictably, particularly in tropical destinations. In a matter of minutes, the water can go from calm to choppy, and the wind can pick up or it can begin to rain. A strong swimmer will be able to safely swim to safety despite this, whereas a non-swimmer may have some difficulty.
Equipment malfunction: The only reason why non-swimmers can get by with snorkeling is through the use of a personal flotation device to keep them afloat. However, what happens if that fails? Or what if there’s a problem with the snorkel or mask? This can easily result in panicking. At a minimum, being able to tread water until the equipment malfunction is resolved would be a huge benefit.
Ocean currents: Beginner snorkelers sometimes experience a shocking surprise when they realize that they have drifted far from their exit point while absentmindedly snorkeling. Knowing how to swim will help snorkelers swim safely back to safety. Non-swimmers may not have the stamina or skill to head back, and they end up stranded.
Boat trouble: Similar to the above, if the boat you’re on is having issues and is dead in the water, you could find yourself drifting or floating far away before getting rescued. We hope you never have to do this, but if it’s serious enough, maybe you need to attempt swimming back to shore. As a non-swimmer, that option is not possible.
Who should use a snorkel flotation device?
Let’s also discuss the use of flotation devices. Let’s get this out of the way: every snorkeler should wear one. Non-snorkelers basically cannot snorkel without a flotation device. The flotation device will make up for their lack of skill by helping them stay afloat through no effort of their own. All snorkelers can benefit from this because it helps the wearer conserve energy by not having to tread water.
In the case of non-swimmers, they should specifically wear life jackets. More experienced snorkelers will probably wear a snorkel vest. As a beginner, your goal is to move to using a snorkel vest.
Some other popular flotation devices are a flotation belt, a pool noodle, a snorkeling board, but a snorkel vest is the preferred option because snorkel vests can be deflated to allow snorkelers to occasionally duck dive.
A duck dive is when you dive down to get a close-up look of what you were observing snorkeling from the surface. This is also known as skin diving. Duck diving is a much more involved and advanced form of snorkeling. You couldn’t do it properly while wearing a buoyancy aid.
The strength of a snorkel vest is how versatile it is. It has an air bladder which you can inflate or deflate using the inflator tube. When you are snorkeling, you want it to be inflated. When you see something interesting and you want a close up look, you can deflate the air bladder and dive down. When you resurface, you can use the inflator tube and manually blow air into it until the air bladder is once again full and you are buoyant.
The other flotation devices are not beneficial for skin diving, however they will help keep you afloat. The benefit of all flotation devices, and why they are essential for non-swimmers, is that they help you conserve energy. Furthermore, in an emergency, they may be able to keep you afloat and save your life.
Life jackets differ from other flotation devices because they are not really intended for snorkeling. They are a life-saving device and will orient your body in the water such that when you are completely limp, your head will be upright and out of the water. This is actually counterintuitive to snorkeling where you actually want your face underwater so you can see what lurks on the ocean floor.
Something like a flotation belt is designed to float your body horizontally such that your face is underwater and you do not need to exert yourself trying to maintain that position. This seems terrible from a safety perspective, but it’s really useful for someone with a snorkel.
Is snorkeling dangerous for non-swimmers?
Look, as much as we would like to be as inclusive as possible and say “snorkeling is for everybody!”, it’s really not. If you don’t know how to swim, it’s going to be significantly more dangerous for you. If you ever encounter a dangerous situation, such as being tossed around by rough currents, your chances of coming out of it alive is much lower as a non-swimmer.
Just because you are wearing a life jacket or some other flotation device does not make you immune from damage. Drowning is not the only risk of being in the ocean. There’s also the risk of strong waves carrying you far away from the exit point or equipment malfunction. If you don’t have a baseline level of swimming ability, you may not be able to stay calm and get out of that situation in one piece.
That’s enough doom and gloom; how can a non-swimmer stay safe while snorkeling? For starters, they should stay in protected areas with no currents so that eliminates the risk of a current carrying them away. They should also stay in shallow waters so they are not far from the exit point.
You should also snorkel with a buddy. If you have a friend who is an experienced snorkeler, then that’s perfect; perhaps you can get some pointers and have some peace of mind knowing that a snorkeling pro is watching your back.
Lastly, take your time with the learning process. If you’ve never snorkeled or even swam before, it’s not a good idea for your first snorkeling experience to be from a boat in deep water. Start with the basics and practice them in a pool or sheltered environment until you are proficient at it. Then you can decide whether you want to brave the open water or not.
Snorkeling in shallow water
Snorkeling newbies should definitely start in shallow water, particularly water that they can stand in. It’s really difficult trying to learn how to snorkel if you are struggling to stay afloat. Even with a life jacket on, if you’re nervous about being in deep water, then you will still struggle to do proper snorkeling technique or even to enjoy the act of snorkeling.
Sheltered areas like a lagoon or excellent places to start practicing snorkeling. A pool works as well. Some dive resorts will have sections reserved for snorkelers to practice in a safe environment.
Keep in mind that saltwater is more buoyant than freshwater, so it’s a bit easier to stay afloat in it. Saltwater is also a fair bit warmer than freshwater, so you can stay in it for longer without a risk of hypothermia. With all of these risks removed, you can focus all of your attention on practicing basic snorkeling techniques and getting comfortable with your gear.
If you are having mask or snorkel problems in a shallow pool, you can just stand up and get your bearings. Whenever you’re feeling tired or uncomfortable, just stand up and give yourself a breather.
Now one thing to keep in mind is that you should always stay vigilant, even in shallow waters. The reason is that drowning is possible anywhere, even in shallow water. Fear and panic can make people do stupid things, like forget to stand up or take off their snorkel if they are choking on water. As such, we always recommend snorkeling with a buddy who can assist you.
Do non-swimmers need to use special equipment?
No, there isn’t any “special” equipment designed only for non-swimmers, unless you count the life jacket or other life-saving devices. We’ve explained that the life jacket is the safest buoyancy device you can use, even better than a snorkel vest.
Even when a snorkel vest is fully inflated, it generally still loses out to a life jacket in terms of buoyancy. Plus, the life jacket’s ability to keep the head above water is great for survival, but terrible for when a snorkeler just wants to observe the marine life underwater.
Experienced snorkelers may fully deflate their snorkel vest so that they can duck dive. Non-swimmers should just leave their snorkel vest inflated, especially before they enter the water. Once they are in it, it will be harder for them to inflate the vest if they are not a strong swimmer.
When you are with a guided tour, they may deploy some kind of float like a rescue ring that you can hold onto for added security and comfort.
Additionally, not everybody likes the traditional mask and snorkel design. They may find it hard to breathe through or uncomfortable to wear. In that case, they may want to ditch the traditional mask for a full-face snorkel mask.
A full face snorkel mask has a few benefits. First, it allows users to breathe through their nose, which a traditional mask would prevent. Second, the full face mask has a dry snorkel built-in. This can help reduce the cases where water floods in and causes choking. Third, the large lens that the full face mask has may help wearers see more and feel more comfortable underwater.
Do non-swimmers need a snorkeling guide?
Are you unfamiliar with the area you’ll be snorkeling in? Then it’s probably a good idea to go on a guided tour with a reliable snorkel guide. Despite the stigma that tours are only for tourists and locals know all of the best spots, if you are so unfamiliar with the environment and snorkeling itself, then it’s actually a fantastic use of your money.
Other than the obvious benefit of safety in numbers, the guide can also provide helpful advice on how to use your mask, snorkel, and fins. Just as important as what’s being formally taught is what you can learn from the guide through observation. Look at how your guide navigates the waters and try to imitate their technique. You are free to ask them questions or to clarify a point they made.
A guide will also show you many of the exciting sights in the area and tell you about all of the marine life you’ve spotted. Most importantly, they will keep a watchful eye over you and help you if needed. The tour guide will also provide safety equipment such as a rescue ring so that you can reach out and grab it if you are struggling to stay afloat.
You will learn so much from a guide. Beginners and non-swimmers especially can get a sense of what it’s like to go on a successful snorkeling session. They’ll learn how the guide safely navigates the environment and reaches the exit point. Perhaps next time, you will have the confidence to go into the water without a guide.
How to get started with snorkeling as a non-swimmer
Take swimming lessons
You knew this was coming didn’t you? If you were wondering whether you should take swimming lessons before snorkeling, take this as a sign that you probably should. Snorkeling will be a lot easier and more enjoyable if you have a decent grasp on how to swim.
We aren’t saying you need to be a strong swimmer. You don’t need to be the next Michael Phelps just so you can enjoy some recreational snorkeling.
However, what you do need to have is the competence to stay afloat without a buoyancy aid and to swim from point A to B. If you can’t do that yet, we highly recommend taking swimming lessons until you can.
Even though you technically don’t need to know how to swim to snorkel, we feel that an overreliance on your flotation device is not safe. If something should happen to your flotation device, or if a rough current pulls you far away from shore, are you able to swim back on your own? If the answer is no, then you should take swimming lessons.
Wear a life jacket
If you know how to swim, wear a snorkel vest. If you don’t know how to swim, or are not confident in your swimming abilities, wear a life jacket. They are the safest flotation device you can wear in the water.
Life jackets are life-saving devices that are approved by the United States Coast Guard (USCG). If you’re snorkeling from a boat, they should already have them available. If you are part of a tour, they should offer life jackets or a rescue ring. Use them!
Wear form-fitting equipment
Your equipment must fit you like a glove. It’s hard to concentrate on snorkeling if your mask leaks water and water keeps entering your snorkel. If this happens, it means your mask doesn’t fit well and your snorkel positioning is not optimal.
The mask skirt needs to seal tightly against your face. The seal should be watertight and airtight. This means that if you put the mask on your face without wearing the strap and you inhale, the mask should suction to your face and not fall off. If you are still able to inhale, that means there is an opening that allows air (and water) to enter.
As for the snorkel, we recommend using a semi-dry snorkel with a splash guard and a purge valve. Compared to an open-top snorkel, the splash guard will prevent splashes from flooding your tube with water. The purge valve lets water that has entered the tube to accumulate in a small reservoir and be vented out if you forcefully exhale. These features ensure that you won’t ever swallow water when snorkeling.
As for the fins, you can choose either short fins for traveling, or longer fins that generate more thrust. Shorter fins require you to kick more frequently which may tire you out faster, however they are so easy to pack. Longer fins are harder to bring with you while traveling, but have better performance in the water. You need to decide if you’ll be wearing neoprene socks or not when selecting a size. Neoprene socks require an extra 1-2 mm of extra accommodation space.
Start in shallow water
Start in a shallow pool or a lagoon, one you can stand up in, so you don’t have to worry about currents or waves and can simply stand up in an emergency. This is also a great place for kids to learn how to snorkel. Here, you can practice basic snorkeling techniques like mask and snorkel clearing.
Practice going through the motions of taking off your mask and snorkel and raising your head above water. You need to do this quickly and efficiently until it has been burned into your muscle memory. That way, if you ever choke on water or something like that, you can quickly remove the snorkel without panicking.
Keep in mind that accidents can still occur in shallow water. If you’re in a lagoon, make sure to watch where you step. Do not stand on bottom-dwelling marine life or stand on coral because they can just as easily hurt you.
Never snorkel alone
Snorkeling is more fun with friends and family. It’s also safer, which is why we recommend snorkeling with a buddy, preferably one who is more experienced than you. However, even just having another person around can be helpful in case something happens to you, they can call for help or vice versa. If you’re alone, and disaster strikes, you better hope that someone notices you.
While there are ways you can snorkel alone relatively safely, you can never completely eliminate the risk which is why we don’t recommend it. However, if you’re experienced and strategic with where you choose to go snorkeling, then yes, you could snorkel alone.
Hire a guide
You can try asking the locals for advice about the area, but you can also hire someone whose job it is to instruct people. A professional snorkel guide will not only teach you the basics, but can keep a close eye on you and show you the best places to snorkel.
It’s hard to beat a local’s knowledge, and a guide’s experience will help you enjoy your experience to the fullest while remaining safe the whole time. Even experienced swimmers should consider hiring a guide for the local knowledge they can impart.
Go at your own pace
Don’t feel like you need to keep up with everyone when you’re going snorkeling. In the same way that you wouldn’t jump into the deep end of the pool if you don’t know how to swim, don’t make your first snorkeling experience be from a boat.
It’s impossible for you to enjoy your snorkeling experience if you’re worried about drowning the whole time. You need to feel comfortable and safe as a baseline before you can enjoy the beautiful aquatic sights that await you.
Whether you’re with a guide, buddy, or group, explain that you’re not a strong swimmer and need to go at your own pace. They should be understanding and willing to keep an eye out for you. If they don’t offer you this grace, then you need to find new people to snorkel with!
As you get more experienced, you will be able to explore further with more autonomy. Until that happens, be patient and work on learning the basics.
Check your surroundings
A common mistake newbies make when snorkeling is forgetting to check their surroundings from time to time. It’s quite easy to be enamored by the beautiful corals and fish, but they mustn’t forget that they are slowly drifting away from the exit point, group, or boat.
You should also be careful not to get too close to corals or other aquatic life. A common way that corals get damaged is when an inexperienced snorkeler accidentally kicks it with their fins. This is dangerous for the snorkeler as well because the coral can pierce through the neoprene material of the fin, causing injuries.
We recommend using equipment that is brightly colored so that boats and other people can easily see you. If you ever get lost, it’ll be easier to find you. Stay close enough to the exit point so that you can still reach it with your skill level.
To sum it up, you do not need to know how to swim in order to snorkel, as long as you wear a flotation device, don’t do anything extreme, and follow instructions given to you by a guide or instructor. We also recommend snorkeling with a buddy so you can watch each other’s backs.
As long as you are sensible, you can likely get by in optimal conditions. However, the snorkeling experience can be greatly enhanced if you are comfortable with swimming. It will give you peace of mind and the option to duck dive if you want.
We strongly advise that all snorkelers should at least have taken some basic swimming lessons at some point in their life. You don’t have to be an exceptional swimmer, you just need to know how to stay afloat and swim short distances. The snorkel vest and fins can make up for the rest of what you might be lacking in swimming ability.
If you’re not comfortable, we recommend starting out in a pool until you have the basics down pat. Then you can try snorkeling in progressively deeper water until you are able to snorkel basically anywhere. The more comfortable you are with swimming, the easier it is to learn how to snorkel, and the safer you will be overall.