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By Donald B. MacGowan

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Donnie MacGowan Snorkeling at Kahalu'u Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Coming to my island for a vacation? There are three things I always recommend the first-time visitor do. First, get in the air. Secondly–go to a luau. Finally, I advise people of every age to get in the water and go snorkeling. The “one-one-one, experiencing the world through the fishes’ eyes” magic of swimming in those bath-warm lagoons surrounded by clouds of tropical fish is an amazing, restful and restorative pursuit-you will find your mind going back to that experience over and over through the years much more so than many of your other travel experiences.

Part I of this series discuses Snorkeling Gear; Part II of this series will discuss Snorkeling Technique and Part III covers Snorkeling Etiquette; Part IV of the series covers Snorkeling Safety. Part V will cover Big Island Snorkel Spots and Part IV covers wilderness snorkeling.

Part II: Let’s talk about technique: how are we going to do this?

First off, let’s talk about timing—when is it best to snorkel?  Sharks are night hunters and will be cruising the shallows shortly after dawn and just before dusk—so, for safety sake, don’t get into the water before about 8 am or after about 4 pm.  Next is comfort…chilly mornings and afternoons, when the sun is low on the horizon, make for chilly snorkeling.  About 8:30 or 9 in the morning is as early as I like to get wet for recreation…surfing, of course, demands more of a sacrifice to comfort, but for snorkeling, there is no reason to push the early hours.  Next, the colors are more saturated and details more pronounced with the sun strikes the water at an angle.  By about noon or 1, when the sun is directly overhead, the scenery begins to wash-out.  Additionally, starting about 11:30 or so, the daily breezes kick-up, making small, near-shore waves which get the fine grained silt stirred into the water, producing a murky view which persists until night time.  All in all, from every perspectives, the most ideal time for snorkeling is between about 9 am and noon.  Bear this in mind especially if you are hiking or kayaking to your snorkel destination, or are paying for a “snorkel tour”.  You will find that, relaxing as it is, 2 or 3 hours of snorkeling is more than sufficient to tire you and get you a little hypothermic.  Be sure to go in and rest on the beach BEFORE you get tired, BEFORE you get cold.

Now, before getting into the water, where is your partner? Never snorkel alone; never get more than 20 feet from your partner. Memorize the color of your partner’s mask and snorkel…this is how you will recognize him from a distance in the water. Be sure you and your partner are clear on where your exit point will be relative to your entry point, what part of the bay you intend to explore and how long you plan to be out.

Photo By Donnie MacGowan

Bart Hunt Filming Fish at Kahalu'u Beach: Photo By Donnie MacGowan

Also before getting wet, you should make sure your mask is clean and that you have applied some form of defogger to it, either the commercially available solution (DO NOT get this stuff in your eyes!) or by simply rubbing some spit over the insides of the lenses. To clean and fog proof the mask lens, some people like to rub a wee bit of tooth paste on the glass…personally, I do not like to introduce the soapiness to the reef environment.  Now, pull the mask on your head, leaving it perched up on your hair as you enter the water. You should enter the water on a sandy patch of beach that does not drop off too steeply and is not in an area attacked by large waves.

Do not put your fins on before you are in the water. After wading out until the water is between knee and waist deep, face the incoming waves, sit down (this will also help you adjust to the temperature of the water–sometimes a bit of a shock but soon you get used to it) and pull your fins on.  Remember: never turn your back on the ocean.

From this position, duck your head under and get your hair and face wet (to help the mask seal). Now stand up and pull the mask down, arranging hair, strap and snorkel mouthpiece to maximize the seal integrity and personal comfort. This may take some adjusting to get all the hair out from under the seal, to get the snorkel mouthpiece in the right position and get comfortable. Don’t worry if there is a little fog on the mask at this point.  Be sure the strap from the mask rises up over the ball of your head, not over your ears.

There is a natural tendency for the novice to want to make the mask strap as tight as possible–thinking they are sealing out the water.  Counter-intuitively, tightening the mask strap actually makes the seal pucker and causes leaks.  The strap should hold the mask securely enough on your face so it doesn’t slip, slide or wobble, but should not be the least bit tight—water pressure against the lens will activate the seal once your face is in the water.

When the mask is sealed and you feel ready, bend at the knees, stretch arms forward and lean forward slowly until you are floating. Kick rhythmically, steadily, but at a pace you can keep up for some time. See? IT’S FUN! Oh, wait–don’t forget to breath! Seriously, some people may feel a little claustrophobia at first with the mask and snorkel, and in chilly water it’s natural to have short, gaspy breathing by instinct. Relax, concentrate on taking slow, even breaths. Snorkeling is relaxing, to be sure, but you have to be relaxed to snorkel. Breathe. Smoothly, rhythmically. Breathe.

Many people find they breathe and move more efficiently with their hands clasped behind their backs. Use your hands in sweeping motions to turn, or back up or fend-off too-near snorkelers, then clasp them back behind you again for cruising. Again, breathe. Smoothly, rhythmically.

If at any point you feel uncomfortable, simply stop, tread water (or stand up in the shallows), and put your mask up on top of your head. Look around you. See? It’s easy! But never, ever remove your mask all the way while in the water–you could drop it or it could be taken by a wave and then you’d be having significantly less fun, really quickly. If there is fog in your mask, pull your mask away from your face just a fraction of an inch and just for a moment while under water to allow just a little bit of water in. Pull your head out of the water, allow the water in the mask to rinse away the fog, then tilt the mask away from your face just a moment again to drain the water out. Practice this in a place you feel comfortable. When you get good, you can do this without even stopping–this technique also allows you to clear your mask of leakage (and all masks leak a little) while on the go.

What’s that gurgling noise? Occasionally, especially if the surf is up or you are frequently diving beneath the surface, water gets trapped in the snorkel. You can purge the snorkel simply by exhaling strongly through it and blowing the water out the top, or more easily by lifting your head above water, spitting out the mouth piece and allowing it to dangle in the air and drain clear. Cake. Practice makes perfect.

Poke your head out of the water frequently to check that your partner is within 20 feet of you and to keep yourself oriented relative to your entry and exit places. Stay alert–it’s easy to loose track of time, get carried farther than you thought by a current you didn’t even notice, wander out of your comfort zone, lazily paddle away from your partner, accidentally stray into a dangerous zone. So stay focused, stay oriented, always know where you are, where your partner is.

Photo by Donald MacGowan

Amanda Maus Snorkeling at Kahalu'u Beach: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Gosh, what’s that down there on the bottom? Diving is what snorkeling is all about. Do not expect to go deeply; do not expect to stay down long; err on the side of safety, be conservative in your actions. The ocean is composed of stacked layers of water, frequently of surprisingly different temperatures and salinities, sometimes distressingly moving in different directions. It is entirely possible to be swimming in quiet water, dive a half dozen feet under the surface and find yourself caught by a current you didn’t even know existed…don’t fight it, but turn and kick to the surface immediately so you can evaluate this new wrinkle while catching your breath.

To dive efficiently, start off by floating flat, face down, on the water. Fill your lungs and empty them completely a few times to charge your blood with oxygen. One more big breath in, then let half out (a lung-full of air will make you floaty and keep you from diving very deeply); with your arms forward, pointing down at your target, bend at the waist, kick once for forward momentum, then lift your feet in the air, allowing the weight of your legs to push you under. Keep kicking as you submerge. Do not over estimate the depth you can dive or the time you can spend down. Learn your limits slowly and safely. Uncomfortable? Turn quickly and kick to the surface, breathe, rest, try it again.

Water pressure on the eardrums will make your ears ache in just a few feet of water; to alleviate the pain and adjust the pressure in your head, as you dive pinch your nose, close your mouth and “blow” to pop your ears. If pain, discomfort, dizziness or other distress continues, turn and kick to the top. Stay there for the duration of your swim.

Novices should NEVER enter caves or explore under overhangs.  No, I don’t care, don’t do it.  Be extremely careful when swimming near rock formations, pinnacles, spires or reefs…snagging your swimsuit on the rocks or coral while underwater can quickly evolve from a minor irritation to a life threatening emergency.

Where are all the fish? The water near shore may be murky from fresh-water springs, lots of people wading or surf action; swim out a little until the water gets crystal clear…that’s better. Although you will likely see large swarms of fish swimming about all over the bay, remember they live along the rocks and coral and not over sand, so that’s where the most interesting stuff is. Check out cliffs, ledges, pockets and boulders. Look closer. You can get a cheap, disposable underwater camera for less than ten bucks at WalMart–it may be the best $10 you spend on your whole trip. Get two. Don’t forget to take pictures of each other, too.

Before you get tired, before you feel your back getting sunburned, before you shoot the last picture, before the wind comes up or the surf builds, it’s time to get out. Don’t push it, the ocean plays for keeps and it never gets tired.  Remember your plan; where’s your sandy exit point?  Make sure your partner is with you. Swim together toward your exit point; keep swimming until you are in about the same depth of water where you put your fins on–it’s easiest to stand up from a floating position in about navel-deep water rather than deeper or more shallow.  Take off your fins, push your mask up on top of your head and walk in at your exit point. Make sure your partner is with you, again. Keep your eye on the ocean as you walk out onto the beach; never, ever turn your back on the ocean.

Wasn’t snorkeling amazing? Wait’ll you see those pictures!

After getting out, trust me, you are going to want to rinse yourself off–the ocean salt is really irritating to your skin as you dry off. You also need to thoroughly rinse your gear–the salt attacks and destroys the rubber and plastic. If there are not showers or any way to rinse off where you are snorkeling, you should bring a jug of water (about one gallon per person for body, hair and gear will do it) to do this. No, no, you really, really will want to rinse off after, I promise. After rinsing, apply sunscreen immediately.  No, right now!

Photo by Donald MacGowan

Humuele'ele at Honomalino Bay, Big Island, Hawaii: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Part III of this series will discuss snorkeling etiquette; Part IV will discuss snorkeling safety, Part IV will discuss the best places on the Big Island to go snorkeling and Part VI will discuss wilderness snorkeling.

To see a video covering many of these topics, go here.  For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general, and beach activities on the Big Island in particular, visit and For information about the author, go here.

All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan; all rights reserved.


By Donnie MacGowan

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Mask, Fins and Snorkel: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Coming to my island for a vacation? There are three things I always recommend the first-time visitor do. First, get in the air–seeing my island from the air is the only way to appreciate its vastness and diversity of landscapes-and it’s the best way to see the erupting volcano.

Secondly-go to a luau–for people with limited time, you will not be able to discover much about the magic of the local lifestyle, and although canned and packaged for visitor consumption, a luau is a good place to get an introduction to it.

Finally, I advise people of every age to get in the water and go snorkeling. The “one-one-one, experiencing the world through the fishes’ eyes” magic of swimming in those bath-warm lagoons surrounded by clouds of tropical fish is an amazing, restful and restorative pursuit-you will find your mind going back to that experience over and over through the years much more so than many of your other travel experiences. There are some things to bear in mind about snorkeling, however, so let’s take a moment to talk about gear (covered here, in Part I), technique (covered in our next post, Part II), reef etiquette and the animals which inhabit the coral reefs (which will be in Part III) and safety (coming in Part IV).

First some advice about snorkeling gear:

Bringing vs. Renting vs. Buying: Bringing your personal snorkeling gear from home insures that you are familiar with the gear and you know that it fits…but it’s a hassle in your luggage.  In this day and age of paying for extra baggage, it may be better to simply rent.  Renting gear once you get to your destination is cheaper than buying it there and you don’t have to make room in your luggage to lug it home.

Fit: The mask should fit snugly over the face; you should be able to hold it onto your face with suction simply by taking in a quick breath through your nose.  The strap should be snug enough to hold the mask in place against face but it should not be tight–if it is too tight, it’ll make wrinkles in the seal, letting water in.  Simple water pressure against the outside of the mask seals it.  If you wear glasses, either use contacts while snorkeling or get a mask that has vision-corrected mask lenses (which is more expensive, but almost universally available); it’s almost never possible to seal a mask around your glasses.

Fins should fit snugly like shoes, but you should able to pull them on and off without a struggle.  If they are too loose, you’ll either lose them or get blisters; if they are too tight, you’ll get cramps AND blisters.  With fins you need to make a choice.  Shoe-style fins are easiest for the novice to use, but if you have to enter the water over rocks, your feet may get abused as you wade out barefoot.  Strap-style fins allow you to wear reef-walkers with the fins, which makes rocky entries easier.  If you choose this option, make sure the fins fit over your feet with the reef shoes on.

Snorkels come in a confusing array of styles and an astounding range of prices.  Although some have space-age design features, a decent snorkel with a comfortable mouthpiece and a simple splash guard is all that’s required.

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Laurie Maus Using a Boogie Board as a Floatie: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Floaties: Many beginners, and even experienced ocean explorers in surgey or high surf conditions, appreciate having a floatation device.  Standard life-jacket styles are not recommended because they are designed to keep your head above the water while the whole point of snorkeling is to keep your head under the water.  There are specially designed snorkeling vests and belts which work quite well, but are waaay spendy.   Boogie boards are a nice alternative; they have a wrist leash so you won’t get separated from it and provide a floating platform to rest on, making your forays out over the reef longer and more enjoyable.  Safer, too.  Another, much less expensive, alternative is the foam “noodle” available in the toy department of all WallMarts and stores like that.  I like to attach a boogie-board wrist leash to mine to keep it from floating away when I dive down.  A large noodle will support even a full grown man upright in the water when ridden “horsey-style”.

All the gear you drag with you needs to be carried in something and by far the best way is in a nylon mesh bag; rental gear will come in one and you can buy them inexpensively where you buy your mask and fins. Since you must rinse your gear off with fresh water immediately after you climb out of the ocean, this allows the gear to “breathe” as it dries, obviating the annoying growth of mildew.

For after your swim, a large, thirsty towel is also a nice beach accoutrement, but do not use it to lie on the sand with.  Buy a cheap rice mat instead (again, at WalMart or such)–it won’t collect sand, it’s cooler on the skin, smells nice and it means your towel will be clean and sand-free when you use it to dry-off.  Don’t forget to bring drinking water…immersion in salt water is dehydrating and just swimming around you’ve worked harder–and sweated more–than you realize.  Rinse yourself and your gear with fresh water immediately after you get out of the ocean and remember to apply sunscreen and wear your sunglasses. Sun screen and sunglasses, necessary to combat the deceptively severe tropical sun, are so important that I’ve written a separate articles about sun burn and sunscreen in Hawaii and what sunglasses you should bring to Hawaii. Too many visitors drastically underestimate the strength and ferocity of our sun and wind-up with vacation-ruining sunburns.

Don’t overestimate your skin’s tolerance for beach sun.  Now might be a good time to go inside and cool off, you know?

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Liz Maus Snorkeling at Hounaunau Bay, Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Part II of this series will discuss snorkeling technique, Part III will cover snorkeling etiquette and Part IV will discuss snorkeling safety.

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general, and beach activities on the Big Island in particular, visit and  For information on the author, go here.