Snorkeling Basics

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The Kapitol Reef Snorkel
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Selecting a Mask and Snorkel | Fins | Using the Mask | Using the Snorkel | Clearing your Ears | Snorkeling Hazards | Selecting a Site | Snorkeling at Night | More Info

Selecting a Mask and Snorkel

When selecting a mask, fit and comfort are important. You don't want a mask that leaks constantly because it doesn't fit your face. So you need to go somewhere where you can try on the masks. This would most likely be a scuba shop. Look in the Yellow Pages under Divers Equipment and Supplies. You can also watch for the symbol at right which is a dive flag, usually prominently displayed on the front of scuba shops.

To try on the mask, move the strap out of the way, brush your hair out of the way, and just push the mask firmly onto your face. If it will remain there unsupported, then it is making a good seal. Once you have determined which masks will fit properly, other considerations are comfort, field of vision--some masks permit more view to the sides than others, and of course the cost. Get a snorkel also and maybe a spare strap to hold it to your mask. The snorkel mouthpiece should be soft with flexible edges to be comfortable in your mouth.

While the standard tube snorkel is perfectly adequate for enjoying your snorkeling experience, technology has stepped in to fine-tune the device. With the standard snorkel, each new breath involves rebreathing some of the previous breath that remains in the tube. A dual-tube system is possible which has separate inhalation and exhalation passages. A system of valves can be employed to keep water out and make purging when surfacing unnecessary. One such snorkel by Kapitol Reef adds a bit of exhalation backpressure to balance the effect of water pressure on the lungs. The combination of these refinements can make snorkel-breathing easier, reducing fatigue and extending the activity time. See more info on the Kapitol Reef Snorkel.


Fins aren't really a necessity for snorkeling, but they do help you to get down more quickly so that you can see more of the underwater world on that breath of air. For me, the major concern here is comfort when selecting fins. Nothing will raise a blister faster than ill-fitting fins. Scuba divers wear neoprene foam "booties" with their fins and this helps immensely. But because of the thickness of the booties, this may require a different foot size of fins. Another variable is the fin area. A larger fin area may allow you to swim somewhat faster but requires more "horsepower" to operate. A larger fin size will also be heavier, may make you clumsier in the water, impossible to walk in on land, and may be damaging to the underwater environment. My personal favorite is Force(tm) fins. These have a relatively small fin area, are made of a very supple flexible material, and are an open-toe design. The closed-toe design of most fins is a source of discomfort since the strap which holds the fin on puts pressure on the toes inside the fin. It is even possible to walk while wearing the Force(tm) fins although this is generally a bad idea. Your friends will notice the resemblance to duck feet that these fins suggest but it's a small price to pay for total comfort. They can be worn without booties, but you will need to decide whether or not to use booties since this will affect the foot size of the fin that you select.

Using the Mask

In order to prevent the mask from fogging up in use, a little preparation is required. When you are in or next to the water and ready to snorkel, spit on the inside face of your mask and smear the spit fully over the optical surface with your finger. Then give the mask a quick rinse in the water and put it on. This should keep it fog free until you take it off again. If you dislike the idea of spitting into your mask, you can purchase a product at the scuba shop to prevent mask fogging. But this "industrial spit" will work no better than your own.

Using the Snorkel

To keep the snorkel upright while you are swimming face down on the surface, the snorkel strap will need to be adjusted properly on the mask strap. Since the snorkeler cannot see the snorkel while it's in use, it may be helpful to have someone watch you and help you find the proper adjustment. For me, it's with the strap well forward, almost against the mask. Now you can swim along the surface, breathing through the snorkel and observing the world below. When you see something interesting you can hold your breath and dive down to have a closer look. In order to stretch your time below, it is important to be relaxed and not expending a lot of energy. It also helps to be able to get down quickly. To start down, rotate your body so that you can put your head straight down and stick your legs straight up and out of the water. Then let gravity do its thing and you should be on your way down without moving a muscle. When your downward speed has deteriorated you can begin kicking to continue. For the return to the surface, tilt your head back and watch where you are going. You wouldn't want to bang your head on the bottom of a boat. You should reserve enough air in your lungs so that after you break the surface--with your head still back so that the open end of the snorkel will be pointing down--you can send a quick burst of air through snorkel to help expel any remaining water. And you are ready to continue swimming on the surface, face down, breathing through the snorkel. Scuba divers are taught to ascend with one hand stretched upward to prevent striking an object with one's head and also to be more visible to boat traffic when surfacing. It's not a bad idea for snorkelers to do the same.

Clearing your Ears

If you descend more than a few feet from the surface you may begin to feel some pressure on your ears. If so, you will need to equalize the pressure before proceeding further. For some, this may happen naturally; others may need to make a conscientious effort; and for some it may be impossible to clear the ears due to a cold or other sinus problems. Pressure on the ears is equalized by holding one's nose and blowing gently. You should hear a crackling sound and feel the pressure subside. Try it now. It is actually better to do this before pressure is felt since the unequalized pressure tends to collapse the passages that are used to equalize. Scuba divers may even do this exercise before arriving at the dive site to insure that passages are clear and they are ready to equalize. If you have a problem, return to the surface, attempt to equalize again, and then start down. Under no circumstances should you do anything that is painful for your ears.

Snorkeling Hazards

The Pacific Coast of Oaxaca does not have large coral reefs, but there is a lot of coral there. Coral is made by tiny creatures who go out and collect discarded razor blades and cement them together to build sturdy, defensible homes. Okay, I'm kidding; some coral is actually quite fragile and can be easily damaged by clumsy swimmers, but it is often razor sharp, which is another reason to avoid contact. Many a diver has returned to the surface with bloodstained legs without realizing he or she has been injured.

Another common hazard is the sea urchin. These are small, black spherical creatures with thin black spines 2-3" in length radiating in all directions. They congregate on the rocks and in crevices and feed on algae. The spines are quite sharp and the tip may break off and remain embedded in the skin if these are contacted. They evidently contain a mild venom because the pain and swelling of these wounds is out of proportion to the small injury.

There are a number of varieties of moray eels in the area. These are generally small--an inch or so in diameter and a couple of feet or so in length. They inhabit crevices in the rocks and often extend their head and a portion of their body out into the water. They are quite beautiful and interesting to watch. If you get close enough, you can see the intricate patterns on their skin. But don't offer your finger. They've got teeth!

There are a few varieties of shark in the area. The fishermen sometimes bring in large quantities, but they have to go to deep water and put out bait to find them. Most of them are too small to be a threat to swimmers. I am not aware of any injuries caused by sharks on the coast of Oaxaca nor have I seen one in the water.

There are periods when the ocean becomes too rough for snorkeling. This phenomena is known as Rebalses. Other times its known as Hurricane. Hurricane season is July - October. See the weather links at the top of the page.

Selecting a Site

What makes a good snorkeling site depends on so many factors and varies with weather conditions, so that it is best to get some advice from locals who snorkel. Dive shops are a good source of information and probably offer snorkeling expeditions as well. A lot of sites are most easily accessed by boat. Fishermen may be of help as well. They usually finish fishing around 9 or 10 am and would probably love to take you snorkeling for a small charge.

A good site will probably be in a protected bay where there is calm water and not much current. A municipal bay may not be a good place due to pollution that contaminates the water and discourages sea life. A bay into which a river empties may not be a good site due to low visibility because of silt from the river, especially after heavy rainfall. Areas around rocky outcroppings are often good because they attract fish, may block the current, and boaters avoid them. However, if there is a lot of surge (oscillating currents) they can be too dangerous.

Snorkeling at Night

Snorkeling at night can be very rewarding. There are a number of creatures that just don't come out in the daytime. It is important to select a snorkeling site that you are already familiar with. You will need an underwater flashlight. Get one from a scuba shop before you leave on your trip because it may be difficult or expensive to find one in Mexico. The kind that uses 8 D-cells makes a nice bright light, but the type that uses 2 D- or C-cells will be adequate and easier to carry. It is also a good idea to carry a chemical light to make you more visible to boaters. These are also available at scuba shops and again it would be best to purchase before your trip. The chemical light is a one-time use light that glows for several hours after activation. Activate it before you get in the water and tie it to your wrist. They are just cool too.

More About Snorkeling

For more information about snorkeling, see

Tom Penick
The Pacific Coast of Mexico

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