Tips for first-time snorkelers: Stupid questions answered

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Phi phi island krabi Thailand snorkeling tour budget travel
Sunset from the snorkeling tour boat in Phi Phi.

First-time snorkelers may find themselves with a ton of stupid questions left unanswered. Then you jump in the water and hit your feet on some lovely coral–which hurts way worse than you could have expected. But no worries! We’re all friends here. You don’t have to be shy. Please feel free to ask all the stupid questions about snorkeling you like!

 
I’m a fish-out-of-water, so it’s ironic that it took a quarter of a century before I went snorkeling for the first time. Sure, I’d snorkeled as a kid in the local pool but never in the open ocean. I soon found out that I had a lot of stupid questions to ask. Luckily I had a friend with me who is a very experienced snorkeler. Snorkeling, though, is something that you definitely learn by doing–even in one day snorkeling in Phi Phi, Thailand.

Snorkeling for dummies

Here’s what I learned over the course of that 10-hour tour in Phi Phi:

What time of day should I go snorkeling?

Although our midday to late-night tour was fine, I learned from my friend that snorkeling earlier is usually better. Ocean water is calmer earlier in the day since winds are usually slower at night. Which means you will have better visuals in the morning.

Do I need to be a strong swimmer?

Yes, if you choose not to wear a life jacket. You should at least be strong enough to tread water, in case of readjusting your mask while in open ocean. Otherwise, wear the stupid jacket–even if you look dumb.

Should I put on sunscreen?

Yes. And for one time and one time only, this super pale hypochondriac will say this: You only need to slather exactly half of your bodyThe half that will be facing the sun for hours–the backside.
I like to wear an opaque T-shirt over my suit (“swimmers” for you Ozzies, “togs” for the Kiwis). But I still got sunburned on my back, at the lowest point where my shirt came up in the water. I had a nice little red stripe there for a while.
The other most vulnerable part of your body will be the back of your thighs. Don’t forget to slather these bad boys, because it WILL be bad if they get burned. Unless you’re worthy of modeling shorts, it’s likely the top half of your legs never see the sun. Which means that they will burn faster, with much more painful effects than you can imagine.
True story: on the way back from Phi Phi, I left my thighs exposed for only 20 minutes in a sitting position. They got so fried that a horrendous bumpy rash appeared when the peeling began. The itching from the rash kept me up at night for weeks, which brought my immune system down until I caught the flu. Three months later, I still have scars and hyper-pigmentation from the terrible burn-rash. So trust me. PROTECT YOUR SKIN!!!

How do I put the darn mask on?

With pain, my friend. With pain.

It may take a few tries before you’ve adjusted the straps so the mask is secure, yet feels comfortable. So, if you’re using a tour group mask, hold on to yours throughout the journey.

Make sure that not a single piece of hair is trapped behind the goggles, as this will cause leakage.

Before putting your masked face in the water, breath in through your nose until you feel the mask tighten around your eyes. This means the mask is secure. Now dunk your face in and start breathing through your mouth with the snorkel.

Should I jump into the water without a care in the world?

No. There may be coral closer to the surface than you think. You don’t want to cut your feet on that stuff.
When in doubt, lower yourself in to the water on the ladder.

What if I’m scared of the little ladder thing to get in the water?

You should be. Lean forward, not backward. 

(For your reference, I’m talking about the removable metal ladder that tour boats have in both Krabi and Halong Bay.) 

Our ladder in Phi Phi straight up tipped me backward into the boat. Luckily, I wasn’t hurt. That being said, the Spanish tourist and Thai boat dude who saw it happen could have cared less. So my feelings were a bit bruised. I mean, if I saw someone fall flat on their back into a boat while screaming, I would have at least asked if they were alright. Wouldn’t you?

What do I do if I feel like I’m not getting enough air?!

Don’t worry, the feeling of suffocation shall pass. The start of your snorkeling venture is the adjustment phase. I too felt claustrophobic and weak at first. 

I had to learn how to breathe all over again. Remember when your elementary school teacher told you to breathe through a straw to see what smoking does to your lungs? Well, snorkeling is the self-imposed equivalent. (Why do we do this to ourselves?! Cause it’s worth it.)

Relax, don’t freak out. Slow down and find a pace that is relaxing. If you’re still struggling, stay close to the boat. Breath deeply and slowly with each breaststroke.

What do I do when I can’t see?

Here’s an expert tip my trip buddy gave me: Saliva is an excellent defogger. Simply spit into your goggles and smear it around. Then rinse the goggles in the ocean water. This defogging method is most convenient when you’re already in the water!

What if I want to go under?

If something below looks interesting, the strong swimmer should definitely take a closer look! When you resurface, blow through the mouthpiece to clear the tube.

Remember, though, that you could get kicked in the head. I know because I kicked a guy in the head.

Snorkeling is a bruising hobby.

How do I get onto the boat from the water?

Speaking of bruises…

This is most difficult for those with little upper body strength. Try your best to get your foot –or more conveniently, your knee–onto to the lowest rung to hoist yourself up. 

Warning: you will have a very ugly bruise on your knee by the end of the day. But it’s so worth it!

What if I cut my feet on coral?

Make sure to disinfect it right away! Keep an eye on it for the next 24-36 hours because infections from coral are very dangerous. If you have been cut, flush the wound with vinegar and/or apply antibiotic cream. Watch for signs of inflammation including redness and sores.

What if the wound doesn’t begin to heal within the next day or so?

For goodness’ sake, go to the hospital!

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