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Tag Archives: snorkeling gear

By Donald B. MacGowan

The MacGowan Family Deplanes in Sunny Hawaii; You Want To BE sure You Have Everything You Need to Enjoy Your Vacation, but Not So Much You Have To Haul a Pile of Luggage: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The MacGowan Family Deplanes in Sunny Hawaii; You Want To Be sure You Have Everything You Need to Enjoy Your Vacation, but Not So Much You Have To Haul a Pile of Luggage: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Packing Your Bags for Hawaii: With airlines charging for a second–or even for the first–piece of luggage, and strict “50 pounds each” weight limits being enforced, the thrifty traveler is wise to plan ahead carefully, to avoid racking-up expensive fees. I used to travel by the motto “Don’t check baggage unless you can afford to lose it; if you can afford to loose it, why did you bring it?”; thus I never traveled with anything more than carry-on. While it is always good to travel lightly, with the advent of stringent new carry-on limits and my advancing age (and concomitant increasing desire to travel in comfort) I have learned to travel with only one piece of checked baggage plus carry-on. The key is packing intelligently so you can pack less.

MacGowan Family and Luggage for 3 for a Fourteen Day Trip to Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

MacGowan Family and Luggage for 3 for a Fourteen Day Trip to Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Be Smart About Your Carry On Baggage: Most airlines allow you to bring one carry-on bag and a personal item such as a purse or a lap-top. I push this a little by bringing a carry-on bag plus my lap-top in a computer pack which also has room for one video camera, my SLR Camera and an emergency change of clothes (in case all my other luggage is lost). Usually they let me get away with this. Because I trust neither baggage handlers nor TSA inspectors and my luggage has been lost or ransacked and robbed more times than I remember, I pack my other cameras and the more of my clothes in my other carry on bag so they don’t have to be checked. In this bag I also carry a quart of water and some snacks.

You’ll want at least one book to read on the flight; your tickets, travelers checks, list of phone numbers, spare glasses (contacts and solution) and medications should be put in a water-proof bag in the carry-on bag you intend to hold most tightly to. It’s a good idea to bring a copy of your eye-wear prescription, your health and car insurance cards, confirmations of hotel reservations, tours and activities and any printed itinerary you may have.  Bring identification for your children.  Put a swim suit and t-shirt in your carry-on–if your luggage is lost, you can wait for it by the pool! I always pack a small first aid kit, wet wipes and hand sanitizer.  I always seem to use them. You’ll want a sunhat, trust me.  Sun screen and sunglasses are necessary to combat the deceptively severe tropical sun; they 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.

Remember that more books, extra batteries, memory cards, video tape or film, masks-fins-snorkels (a separate article on snorkeling gear may be found here here and an informative video about snorkeling in Hawaii, here), insect repellent, sun cream, beach towels–all the extra hoopla one might want on a Hawaii vacation–can be purchased at WalMart or Costco on-island as cheaply as the mainland . If you do pack film, and it is in your carry-on, be sure to protect it against x-rays.

Checked Luggage; First, Plan for Your Activities: Know your itinerary and pack only what you need; resist the temptation to toss in all those extra unnecessary items. You may be planning on some particular activities in Hawaii requiring specific gear or clothing–it is best to think your wardrobe through thoroughly. Many people intend to save money by bringing their own snorkeling gear. This is false economy if it causes you to pay for additional luggage. Buying snorkel gear on island is fairly inexpensive and renting is faster, easier and even cheaper. The same can be said of renting diving gear and golf clubs. Activities such as hiking and horseback riding require a fairly specific wardrobe, but if you plan correctly, you only have to bring your hiking/riding boots and an extra pair of suitable pants and shirt. If you plan on visiting the mountain summits, remember that they can be quite cold–even snowy or rainy–so plan and pack an appropriate wardrobe, accordingly. If you bring boots, I advise wearing them (and all your other bulky clothing) on the plane to save room and weight in your bags. As for photography gear or musical instruments–any expensive or delicate equipment for that matter–my philosophy is to never turn loose with it. Never check your cameras, your guitar, your laptop, etc–it’s a recipe for theft, loss or destruction (see a great video about this, here).

You Need More Suntan Lotion Than You Think...Put it on Before You Go Out in the Sun and Keep Putting It On Throughout The Day.  Likewise, Drink More Water Than You Think You Need...Drink Before You Get Thirsty, When You Get Thirsty and Drink Again After You've Just Had Some Water.  No, Drink Some More--I'm Serious: Photo By Donnie MacGowan

You Need More Suntan Lotion Than You Think...Put it on Before You Go Out in the Sun and Keep Putting It On Throughout The Day. Likewise, Drink More Water Than You Think You Need...Drink Before You Get Thirsty, When You Get Thirsty and Drink Again After You've Just Had Some Water. No, Drink Some More--I'm Serious: Photo By Donnie MacGowan

Next, Plan for the Weather: Being tropical, temperatures at sea level in Hawaii vary only by about 10 degrees between day and night and throughout the year. It’s hot during the day, plan a cool wardrobe. The windward side is generally rainy and the “up-country” towns (mountains) frequently can experience afternoon showers. Evenings, particularly up-country, are delightfully cool as there is generally an evening or onshore breeze. With forethought, your wardrobe can cover all these situations without being bulky, heavy or ornate. Remember to pack layers of clothing for warmth, rather than one or two bulky coats and sweaters-this allows for maximum adaptability and a certain amount of built-in variability.  This also means that if an emergency hotel-room laundry session is required, your laundry will dry much more quickly.  Remember, chinos will dry in a day hanging in your room–jeans will stay wet all week.  When deciding on wardrobe, bear in mind that Hilo is the rainiest city in the US; the Kona and Kohala Coast are among the driest parts of the US, but rains do come here, as well.

Don't Forget Some Lightweight Raingear: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Don't Forget Some Lightweight Raingear: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Finally, Specifics: Be efficient–coordinate around a basic, neutral color so everything you bring matches everything else. Black or khaki are the traditional traveler’s choices. Dark colors show dirt less than light colors, and this can be a saving grace where doing laundry is impractical. Choose clothes for lightness, packability and washability. Remember that suits in Hawaii are unnecessary; even Circuit Court judges wear Aloha Shirts under their robes here. A nice shirt, generally an Aloha Shirt, and a pair of khakis are the wardrobe of choice at the finer restaurants and nightclubs–everywhere else, it’s shorts and sandals. I would advise a basic wardrobe consisting of a polo-style shirt and a couple Aloha Shirts, one pair of long khakis and three pair of shorts, a swimsuit, a couple tank tops or t-shirts, a sunhat and a light jacket for evenings; that’s all you really need to cover most bases. Women may want to toss in a light sundress or skirt. Sandals are all you’ll need or want in the way of footwear (your feet will be HOT)–you may want to toss in a pair of running shoes for exercise or hiking. Unless you are attending a formal event such as a wedding, don’t worry about dressing up or you will not only find yourself carting far too much luggage, but awkwardly overdressed as well.

Jewelry is unnecessary, dress-code wise, it causes an extra security headache and it must be left in your hotel room when you are doing most activities.  You are coming to Hawaii to get away from all the froofrah…leave the jewelry at home.

Be thoughtful about your wardrobe and activities: for instance, you may wish to think about bringing two swimsuits–you will be amazed how pleasant being in the water is in the hot tropics. Whether you are just cooling off in the pool or snorkeling with the turtles and fish, you’ll probably want to swim everyday. Swimsuits rarely dry overnight and it’s a lot more pleasant to get into a warm, dry suit than a wet, cold one. Also, if you plan on riding horseback or exploring the higher elevations such as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or Mauna Kea, be sure to bring some chinos and appropriate footwear, a medium weight fleece sweater and light rain jacket/windbreaker. A compact traveler’s umbrella is always a good idea–rains come at unexpected times and they make a nice shelter from the mid-day sun when walking around town or the resort.

Don’t forget to pack your toiletries and personal items; I used to carry these on, in case of lost luggage, but restrictions on liquids and gels and razors make this impractical. Medications, of course, go in the carry-on. Sun block, sun hat, sunglasses, insect repellent and sun-burn cream (I use an aloe gel) will make your vacation smoother, but can be purchased cheaply locally if you don’t quite have room for them.

Brad MacGowan on Kauai...A Tripod is Essential If You Intend To Photograph The Volcanic Eruptions Or Do Any Video Photography: Photo By Donnie MacGowan

Brad MacGowan on Kauai...A Tripod is Essential If You Intend To Photograph The Volcanic Eruptions Or Do Any Video Photography: Photo By Donnie MacGowan

Other Things to Bring: Just as an aside, two things you need to be head’s up about when you are in Hawaii–if you begin to feel thirsty, you’ve waited too long to get a drink of water; if you begin to feel the sun, you’ve waited too long to put sun block on. Wear your sun hat.  All the time.  Drink more water than you think you need, apply sun block before you go out and re-apply more often that you think you need. Your body is used to more moderate climates and won’t warn you in time of the danger. In fact, sometimes it’s dry enough on the leeward side that you won’t even feel yourself sweat—it evaporates before you get wet. So remember to keep drinking water—alcohol, coffee and ice tea (as well as caffeinated sodas) are both diuretic and vasodilatory, so are counterproductive to keeping hydrated and cool. Drink water. Lots and lots of water. Although bottled water is abundantly available, being a thrifty traveler, I always bring my own reusable water bottles. These may be carried on, but you need to take them through Security Screening empty, filling them at a water fountain before boarding—this also allows you to have water to drink during the flight, remembering that tap water on some airlines has proven to be unsafe.

Don’t forget your sunglasses…if you are in the market to buy new ones, don’t scrimp on price; Hawaii’s tropical sun glaring off water and bright sand can permanently damage your eyes.  If you can, get glasses that provide at least 90% darkening, screen 100% UVA  and at least 80% UVB and IR.  Cheap sunglasses, designer glasses with amber lenses or only slightly darkened lenses actually do more harm than good by causing the pupil of the eye to open up without screening enough of the damaging radiation out.  Even if you wear regular glasses, bring prescription sunglasses or get good clip-ons–remember that cheap ones may be more damaging than none at all.

Lora Aller Hydrates on a Kona Coast Hike; Taking a Small Pack Helps Keep Water Bottles, Sunscreen, Sunglasses, Camera and Other Necessities Handy and Easy to Carry: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Lora Aller Hydrates on a Kona Coast Hike; Taking a Small Pack Helps Keep Water Bottles, Sunscreen, Sunglasses, Camera and Other Necessities Handy and Easy to Carry: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Many people plan ahead by leaving ample room in their luggage to bring back souvenirs and gifts; recent luggage restrictions are making this impractical. Rather than buying new outfits for my trip, I spend the week before my trip weeding through my wardrobe, packing one very nice set of clothes and the remainder are items that were already bound for the thrift store. Thus, I simply abandon them at the end of my stay and thereby have more than enough space in my luggage for anything I buy. Remember—Hawaii is part of the US and the U.S. Postal Service sells flat-rate, pre-paid, boxes for very inexpensive rates. Ask for “Flat Rate Shipping Boxes” and ship those gifts home safely, cheaply and with no fuss on your part.

You should toss in a small fanny pack or day-pack for day trips…it’s amazing how many things you find you need to carry around during the day (sunscreen, water bottles, guidebook, camera, small purchases) and a pack helps to keep them organized and in hand. A small pack can also double as a laundry bag on the flight home.

I never travel anywhere without my laptop…you may not be so addicted, but I like being able to email photos and notes to friends left behind, as well as check-up on or change any reservations or activities at a moment’s notice.  Hawaii is so strange and wonderful anyway, you will wish you had access to Google to learn more about what you are seeing at least 5 times a day.   They are a hassle at airport security and another thing to lug around, but I find it worthwhile.  Free Wi-Fi is available all over the islands and your resort most likely will have it, as well.  If you are traveling with children, a laptop with a few games in it can make long car rides or a rainy day more bearable.

A Small Pack Come In Very Handy For Keeping Your Stuff Together and Right At HAnd: Photo by Donald MacGowan

A Small Pack Come In Very Handy For Keeping Your Stuff Together and Right At Hand: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Although this is not the time for a discussion of vacation photography in general, let me say a few words about cameras. This is Hawaii for pete’s sake, one of the most beautiful places on earth! You are going to want to take pictures while you are here, you are going to wish you had taken pictures all the long years down the road after you return if you do not. You do not have to be like me, packing two video cameras, a digital SLR and a digital underwater camera; even if you are not camera savvy at all, there are easy alternatives.

Simplest by far, and not terribly expensive, are pre-loaded, disposable film cameras. Available for $5-10 each, and costing about the same for film developing, these are the most basic point-shoot-enjoy photographic choice. There are even disposable underwater cameras if you plan on any swimming, kayaking or snorkeling. May I suggest that you have your film developed in Hawaii—WalMart, K Mart and Costco all have 1-2 hour processing at reasonable prices. The color balance in Hawaii, because of its equatorial position (angle of sun and thickness of atmosphere) and the richness of the colors of flora, land and sea, is different to what most film-processing shops know and thus, if you wait until you return home to develop the film, the colors will turn our disappointingly. Getting your film processed on island also allows you to share prints with people you meet or are visiting.

Digital cameras may at first seem confusing, but are really much easier to deal with than film cameras, have such great storage capacity that they quickly pay for themselves in film and processing costs and produce images that, even for the rank beginner, are startling and gorgeous. You don’t even need a computer to enjoy your digital pictures, just take them to any film processing shop and they’ll make prints for you—much more cheaply than prints from film. If you plan to buy a digital camera for the trip, or are not quite used to the one you have, start practicing with it about a month before you leave…standing with your arm around your lover in the perfect sunset, with the palm trees swaying, the hula girls dancing on the beach and the humpback whales leaping in the ocean (oh, yes, these scenes DO happen!) is not the time to be fiddling with camera and instruction booklet trying to figure out how the damn thing works. Secondly, be sure to bring that instruction book, all accessory cords, chargers and adapters in a small plastic baggie when you come—they are expensive to buy on vacation and you never know what you’ll need. Experience will teach what you can leave behind on successive trips. If buying a new digital camera to immortalize your trip to Paradise, think about getting a waterproof version. Most major camera manufacturers produce fine, submersible cameras, good to 40 feet or so, that are every bit as good as the regular cameras and are not very much more expensive. Many also have video features that allow you to take brief video clips, even underwater. One final note on your camera—never let go of it. Keep it in your carry-on bag during the flight, in your pocket or you day pack on the trip, do not leave it in your rental car or your hotel room or lunch table. Ever.

Amanda, Liz and Amy Maus Pose for the Underwater Camera: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Amanda, Amy and Laurie Maus Pose for the Underwater Camera: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Another useful item, many tourists bring their GPS from home to help navigate—be sure to download the maps for Hawaii before you come; some brands of GPS do not offer Hawaii coverage. A few of the rental car agencies have GPS units for rent at reasonable prices. The best solution, however, are the folks at Tour Guide Hawaii (808.557.0051; http://www.tourguidehawaii.com) who offer a hand-held computer with an onboard GPS at very reasonable rental rates (a video about the Tour Guide product is available here). They have stuffed into this device over six hundred points of interest (did you hear that? 600!) of recreational, cultural and historical importance. They have produced a short audio/video presentation for each site, telling you all about it, the history and culture, what to bring, what to do while there; they even have the public restrooms listed! These presentations play as you approach the points of interest, or can be searched for at any time or location. Thus, the device can be used to preview all the sites around the island in the comfort of your hotel room, pre-plan trips or to get information and turn by turn navigation on the road. Combining cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned story-telling, the unbelievably easy to use, fabulously informative and terrifically fun Tour Guide Self-Guided GPS Tours are an amazing bargain and a great way to see Hawaii. They are now offering a pared-down version (50 of the top sites—AND the restrooms!) that is downloadable to iPhone and iPod,  available from iTunes.

Finally, one of the most enduring visions I have of travel is standing exhausted, late night at the luggage carousel as hordes of weary travelers lift first one anonymous piece of black luggage, then the next, searching for their own amongst a sea of ubiquitous black nylon and leather travel bags. Not everyone is comfortable carrying the bright Hawaiian print luggage I have (although I always instantly recognize my bags…except when returning to Hawaii where EVERYBODY has this luggage), but there are ways to customize and personalize your bags. One of the more common, and therefore useless, is the nylon rainbow-colored strap…there are almost as many of these wrapped around the anonymous black luggage as there are plain black bags themselves. Airlines don’t like straps and cords flopping around off the luggage, for obvious reasons, but you can buy colorful and unique baggage tags or tie a bit of uniquely colored ribbon or a small scarf to the handle of your luggage…just something that screams “Mine!” to you as it slides down onto the carousel so you do not have to search plaintively through the weary lot of black bags with rainbow belts on them.

The MacGowan Family Deplanes From Airforce 1--Even Traveling in Style Your Luggage Can Get Lost So Plan Ahead: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The MacGowan Family Deplanes From Airforce 1--Even Traveling in Style Your Luggage Can Get Lost So Plan Ahead: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

This is Hawaii, remember? You came to have fun!

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general, or touring the Big Island in particular, please also visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com. Information about the author can be found here.

All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan

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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. 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 IV will cover Snorkeling Safety; Part V of the series will cover snorkel spots on the Big Island.

Photo by Donald MacGowan

Gary Burton and his duaghter snorkel at Hounaunau Bay: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Now, let’s talk a moment about snorkeling etiquette and protecting the reef and the animals who live there.

Please do not feed the fish, it disrupts their natural feeding habits and you may be injured. Reef fish are territorial and do occasionally “nip”. You should not chase, harass or touch them (this includes octopi); the oils on your fingers will injure their skin and fish may carry diseases which they can pass to you on your hands. For photographing reef fish without feeding them, whether snorkeling or scuba diving, simply find their feeding spot (usually a boulder or dead coral head teeming with algae) and wait calmly and silently nearby. They will slowly begin to check you out and if you can remain still long enough, eventually surround you leading to excellent photos and a very memorable experience.

Snorkeling etiquette calls for protecting not only the reef animals, but also the fragile corals growing on the reef. Corals, actually colonies of very small animals, take hundreds of years to form the structures visible today; they feed, shelter and provide habitats for other reef animals. Coral reefs also protect the lagoons and shoreline from waves and sand erosion. Corals are at the very root of Hawai’ian history and culture; the Hawaiian creation chant places the origin of life in the sea, beginning with a coral polyp.

Simply touching corals to see what they feel like can cause the death of an entire colony. Oils from your skin can disturb the delicate mucous membranes which protect the animals from disease. Please don’t walk upon or stand on coral, as this can kill the living coral polyps which, as the builders of the entire reef structure, are the very foundation of the reef ecosystem. Sunscreen washing off your body can kill coral; wear a t-shirt and a swim cap for UV protection and put your sunscreen on AFTER you come out of the water.

Called Honu by Hawaii’s natives, the Hawaiian Green Sea turtle is beautiful, serene and seeming wise. Though their species have swum the oceans for over 200 million years, peacefully feeding on algae and invertebrates, this highly successful product of amphibian evolution is in grave danger. Loss of habitat, hunting and molestation by humans has conspired to push the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle to the very verge of extinction.

Photo by Donald MacGowan

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle at Papakolea Beach: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Protected now by state and federal law, the population of once millions of individuals has been decimated to just a few hundred thousand; although they are making a comeback, Hawaii’s honu are still very much endangered.

Do not approach basking turtles closely, never touch or pick them up. Harassing turtles carries a stiff fine and in any case, touching the turtle is a good way to get a raging salmonella infection. If honu are swimming near where you are, do not approach or chase them; always swim to the side of them, never above (as a predatory shark would) nor below them (so they won’t feel that their soft belly is at risk).

Anyone who observes their beauty and grace underwater easily understands why the Hawai’ians base their word for “peace”, “honua”, on their name for the green sea turtle, “honu”.

Although harder for the snorkeler to approach, but certainly no less in danger of molestation, are the marine mammals: dolphin, seals and whales. In general, it is illegal, dangerous and generally a bad idea to approach marine mammals within 100 yards; 300 yards for females with calves. Dolphins and seals, in particular, may choose to approach you-just remember, this ain’t “Flipper”-these are wild animals and they bite. Hard. If approached, remain calm (absolutely entranced, of course, but calm); do not approach any young animals and do not reach out to them as they may interpret this as aggression on your part and possibly bite. Male seals may exhibit dominant behavior and have been known to *ahem* mount swimmers. Avoid these unpleasantries by observing and enjoying these animals from a distance. About whales…uh, wait a minute…if there is anybody out there crazy enough to swim out into the open ocean and harass a 60,000 pound animal with a mouth twice the size of a king-size bed, nothing I say is going to stop them…just use some common sense, OK? Leave them alone—besides…it’s the law.

And now a word about sharks–two words, actually: “Don’t Worry”. There’s good news and bad news about sharks in Hawaii–first the bad news: if you are in water deeper than your knees, you are probably within 200 yards of a shark. The good news? You will never know it. The truth is that you are not likely to see or encounter a shark…period. Tens of millions of people swim Hawaii every year without seeing so much as a dorsal fin break the water. Don’t worry–you are not what they eat (so you won’t attract them) and generally, they are more afraid of you than you are of them. To dispel visitor’s apprehensions about sharks, the Hawaiian Tourism Bureau used to advertise that tourists were more likely to get hit on the head by a falling coconut than bitten by a shark…but they decided THAT was not a real cheery statistic to crow about, either. In reality, there are only about three shark bites a year in Hawaii—which is amazing considering there are hundreds of thousands of people in the water, all day, every day of the year.

Photograph by Donnie MacGowan

A cloud of raccoon butterfly fish at Kahalu'u Beach: Photograph by Donnie MacGowan

Having said that, bear in mind that all sharks demand respect and there are several things you can do to make yourself generally safer in any shark encounter. Number one safety tip is: avoid them. Sharks are stealth hunters and in any conditions where they are obscured in the water, they will hunt. Therefore–do not go into the water until at least an hour after dawn, be out of the water by about 4 pm; do not enter the water if it is murky; avoid stream mouths; do not go in on dark, cloudy days. Obey beach closures; obey warnings from the Lifeguards. Little sharks don’t get to be big sharks unless they pay strict attention to avoiding whoever is bigger than they are–small sharks generally will glide silently away from you without you ever having known they were there.

Big sharks are different. They may approach you.

The most common conventional wisdom you hear is: if you are being stalked or approached, swim purposefully, not panicked, away from the shark at an angle. Do not swim at high speed straight from him, it will trigger his predator-prey response and he’ll chase you. Do not splash excessively; this sounds like a dying fish (i.e., dinner) to sharks. Remember that the larger sharks eat sea turtles…to a shark hunting below you, your outline paddling on a surfboard or boogie board, looks remarkably like a sea turtle. When you approach the water, seeing three or four sea turtles sunning themselves on the beach is normal; seeing twenty or thirty indicates that something very large and hungry is hunting the water nearby. The presence of dolphin nearby is no guarantee there are not also sharks nearby.

There are hundreds of bits of advice for surviving shark attacks from hundreds of shark experts and attack survivors from all over the world—I will not pass these on to you for two reasons. First and foremost, I am a not a shark expert; secondly, I have never needed any of them because I have followed these sensible rules for years and have never, not once, seen a shark while snorkeling. I’m out there 4 or five days a week, year round. You won’t see one either. Relax and enjoy your snorkeling…as I said…don’t worry.

Finally–many people ask “What’s the etiquette for, um–er–answering nature’s call?” Easy–for wet stuff, just swim a bit away from people and let go, maybe maintaining forward momentum so as not to create a “cloud”. No, this isn’t why the ocean is salty. For solid stuff, get your partner and both of you swim in and get out, visit the rest room. No exceptions for that.

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

A short video on this topic is available here.

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general, and beach activities on the Big Island in particular, visit http://.tourguidehawaii.com and http://tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com. Information on the author is here.

All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan


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), safety (Part IV) and snorkeling wilderness beaches (Part VI).

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. If you do decide to buy, remember stores like COSTCO and WalMart sell great gear at low prices–you do not need to drop a fortune on snorkeling gear at a dive shop or specialty shop to get perfectly serviceable, safe and comfortable gear at affordable prices.

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. The strap should pass up around the “ball” of your head, not over the ears…make sure the strap is easily adjustable and spend sometime getting the fit right–it’ll make you lots more comfortable and safe in the water.

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–it is unsafe to cross the beach or rocks wearing your fins; wait until you are in the water. Strap-style fins allow you to wear reef-walker shoes 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. I personally prefer models with a flexible tube with a drain/purge valve connecting the mouth piece to the snorkel.

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…lots and lots of drinking water. Immersion in salt water is dehydrating by itself and just swimming around you’ve worked harder–and sweated more–than you realize. Wear a t-shirt when in the water to protect from the sun–suncream kills the corals so don’t put it on and then get in the water. Rinse yourself and your gear with fresh water immediately after you get out of the ocean and remember to apply sunscreen at this point and to 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. For instance, 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

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general, and beach activities on the Big Island in particular, visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com; for a video presentation covering much of this information, go here. For information on the author, go here.

By Donnie MacGowan

Coming to my island for a vacation? There are three things I always recommend the first-time visitor do. First, go on an air tour. 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 will cover Snorkeling Etiquette; Part IV of the series covers Snorkeling Safety and Part V will cover Big Island Snorkel Spots.

Photo by Donald MacGowan

Bradford MacGowan Snorkeling at Pu'u Honua O Hounaunau: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Finally, let’s talk a minute about snorkeling safety.

First and foremost, as with all ocean sports, never turn your back on the ocean. Just as important, 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. Listen to advice from the lifeguards, obey posted warnings, always pay attention to the currents, surf conditions and surges over rocks. Plan your entry and exit before you get wet; try to enter and exit from sandy areas. You and your partner should agree on a plan about where you are getting in and getting out of the water, what part of the bay you are going to explore and how long you plan to be out. Don’t overestimate your abilities, plan conservatively, err on the side of safety. Don’t change this plan, once you are in the water, except to make it shorter and more safe.

Don’t confront incoming waves head-on, don’t try to jump over them and don’t turn your back on them; duck under incoming waves before they reach you.

Never snorkel on windy days. Offshore winds may take you unexpectedly our to sea or make it hard to swim back in and onshore breezes stack extra water, high on the beach making nasty rip-currents as it flows back into the ocean. Onshore breezes also bring in jelly fish and man-o-war.

If you are caught in a current, don’t panic; don’t swim against the current but rather swim diagonally across it toward shore. Keep going, you’ll make it.

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. It’s easy to get overtired; get your partner and swim in BEFORE you feel fatigued, thirsty, sunburned; BEFORE the wind comes up or the surf builds. So stay focused, stay oriented, always know where you are, where your partner is.

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Lee Ann MacGruder Snorkels the shallows at Ho’okena Beach: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Sunscreen washing off your body pollutes the water and is a major factor in coral death–wear a t-shirt and baseball cap to avoid sunburn while in the water, waiting until you are out of the ocean and rinsed off to apply sunscreen. 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.

Many things in the ocean sting, most commonly sea urchins–avoid them, do not handle or step on them. White vinegar kills sea urchin stings from embedded spines and, regularly applied, helps to dissolve the spine. Other home remedies for sea urchin, jelly fish and other stings include the application of moistened tobacco, hydrogen peroxide or urine (this latter can be hard to self-administer and will quickly let you know who your real friends are). Like wasp stings, most stings from ocean creatures are not medically dangerous, merely a painful nuisance, but it’s best to be prepared with whatever remedy you choose in your beach kit. Some jellyfish stings and all man-o-war stings are potentially life-threatening and need to be treated at the emergency department of the nearest hospital.

This shouldn’t even need mentioning, but of course, if you’ve been drinking–even a little, you should not go snorkeling. Snorkeling is best done between about 9 a.m. and noon, anyway, so sobriety shouldn’t even be an issue. Oh, right; you’re on vacation–I forgot.

Don’t forget to drink lots of water…immersion in salt water is very dehydrating and just swimming around you’ve worked harder–and sweated more–than you realize. Be kind to your skin and 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. Don’t overestimate your skin’s tolerance for beach sun; a nasty sunburn is distressingly easy to acquire and will absolutely ruin your vacation. Now might be a good time to go inside and cool off, rest a bit–you are on vacation, you know?

Photo by Donald MacGowan

Bradford MacGowan Photographs a school of Humuhumuele'ele at Kahalu'u Beach: Photo by Donald MacGowan

That’s a few of the technique, etiquette and safety tips you should bear in mind…remember to heed whatever advice the lifeguards give you–they are seasoned professionals who intimately know their beach; obey posted rules and be wary of riptides and currents. Most of all, spring for a cheap-o $10 disposable underwater camera, get in the water and enjoy…those fish won’t photograph themselves, you know!

For more information about visiting and touring Hawaii in general, and exploring the fabulous snorkeling on the Big Island in particular, visit http://www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com – a short video about snorkeling in Hawaii is available here. To see a funny video of my family learning to snorkel in Hawaii, go here. For information about the author, go here.