Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hawaii Snorkeling 101

Snorkeling! Super fun, educational, great exercise, and a wonderful experience. However, if you're new to snorkeling and you don't know how your equipment works, what the weather is like, or basic skills, the experience can be a little scary and down right miserable.

No worries beef curries! This little guide offers some advice on how to prepare for and enjoy your snorkel experience. 

If you're about to snorkel for the first time and you're not well acquainted with the water and don't have any snorkeling skills you may find yourself in a bit of trouble.


-Feeling claustrophobic.
-Difficulty breathing.
-Your equipment doesn't fit properly.
-A leaky face mask.
-Water floods your snorkel tube.
-Fatigue.

With a little preparation all these problems can be avoided.


CHOOSE THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT!

-Don't rent cheap equipment!
The biggest mistake I see tourists or first time snorkelers make is that they haven't chosen the right equipment.

-Stay away from "J tubes" and ask for a Dry snorkel!
J Tubes are nicknamed Drowning tubes. Cressi brand.
These Dry snorkels come with a purger that allows you to forcefully blow out water if your tube should flood.
Dry snorkel Phoenix ScubaPro.
Slowly breathe in through the tube so as not to get a mouthful of water then blow as hard as you can to expel the water. Kind of like blowing out candles on a birthday cake.

BlueMenpachi Tip!
I consider Dry snorkels an essential piece of equipment especially for first time snorkelers.

-Make sure your mask fits properly with a suction test!
Put the mask to your face without putting the straps around your head. Push the mask into your face just a bit and inhale through your nose. Breathe through your mouth. If the mask stays on your face without the use of your hands and without constantly inhaling then BINGO! Make sure to put on the mask all the way with the Dry snorkel tube just to double check that everything is good.

-If you have facial hair be sure to shave!
Even stubble can cause problems for making your mask seal properly to your face.

-Don't forget to grab some "Anti-fog" or "De-fogger"!
Read the instructions carefully. Fogging of the mask is a common problem that can be easily fixed. De-fogger works best but toothpaste and spit can work in a pinch.

-Choose fins that suit your needs.
Open fins (or Open Foot fins) lets you wear booties if you need that extra insulation or if you are walking in a rocky area. Open fins are a little stiffer and can feel chunky if you wear booties with them.
Closed fins (or Closed Foot fins) are cheaper because you don't need to wear booties while wearing them. They are also lighter than Open fins making your gear load less heavy.

-Don't forget about the next feature of fins!
There are Split fins and Paddle fins!
If you're the type of swimmer that likes to use smaller, rapid kicks, Split fins are meant for that purpose. You can save energy on long swims with the Split fin because you don't have to make long, slow kicks.
If you're the type of swimmer that would rather take long, slow, forceful strokes, then I recommend Paddle fins. These are great for quick bursts of speed and maneuverability.


BlueMenpachi Tip!
I use Open Foot, Paddle fins without the booties.
(Closed Foot fins give me blisters).

-Practice first!
Anxious beginners often have bad experiences because they aren't familiar with their gear or how their body reacts to the ocean, so practice near the shoreline for a while before heading out into deeper water.

BlueMenpachi Tip!
While en route to the beach I plug my nose and
practice breathing through my mouth.
When I was a beginner, it helped me mentally
prepare for the new breathing restriction
and made me less anxious since I was already used to the breathing.

-Get a feel for your gear and make adjustments where needed!
Sometimes folks feel restricted and nervous because they can no longer breathe through their nose. Or maybe you need to adjust your snorkel because it keeps dragging in the water. Your snorkel should always be perpendicular to the surface of the water. If it isn't it will sag, then flood, and you won't be able to breathe properly. If your snorkel does flood, this is a good chance for you to practice purging the water from it. (Remember, just like blowing out a birthday cake).

Snorkel swimming is different from swimming regularly. You float easily on the surface of the saltwater. However, some folks find this sensation to be a bit scary since they aren't used to it. Take your time. Figure out how to slowly kick your legs so you can cruise easily through the water. Make sure your fins are properly adjusted to your feet and that they aren't falling off while you kick. Don't waste energy by kicking vigorously or you won't have enough energy for the rest of your snorkel. And if you're not entirely comfortable with floating on your own, there is nothing wrong with using floaties! 

Make sure your mask isn't leaking. Adjust the head strap if you need to and make sure your hair isn't in the way of the seal. I have long hair so I always put it up in a high ponytail and some folks also wear swim caps. Sometimes even your sunscreen can -schlop- off and create little pockets in your seal, making your mask flood.


CHOOSE THE PROPER LOCATION!

-Find a beach that's right for you!
Always educate yourself on the area you are going to especially if it's your first snorkel. Early morning is the best time to go because the water is calm. Choppy waters make entering and exiting the water difficult and can push you against potential rock or coral heads which is dangerous. 

-Do your homework!
Is the area sandy or rocky?
Is the water calm or choppy?
What will the weather be like on the day of your snorkel?
Is the water cold or warmer?
Will you wear a rash guard for UV protection or extra insulation?
Are there lots of people at said beach?
Are there lifeguards present?
What are you hoping to see while snorkeling?
Will said location be interesting enough for you?
What variety of sea life live at said location?
Has the area seen a high concentration of sharks recently?
Does the water steadily get deeper from the shoreline?
Or does it drastically drop deeper near the shoreline?
Is the beach secluded?
Will your mobile phone get reception in the case of an emergency?
Preparedness is key!


TAKE THE TIME TO EDUCATE YOURSELF!

-Learn about the wildlife!
In Hawaii there are guidelines in which you must abide by when observing wildlife. Selfish visitors often feel entitled to do whatever they want when they see animals in the water. Combine that with them not being educated about the animals, they can endanger themselves and put the animal in great distress.

Here is a link to Hawaii's viewing guidelines:
It includes information on sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and seals.

-Learn about currents!
Currents, wave sets, winds, surges, and rip currents.

-Always be aware of where the current is taking you!
Sometimes you can be in a gentle current and it will smoothly push against you or push you through the water depending on the conditions. Or you could be in a strong current that can sweep you out to sea if you aren't paying attention to where you are going.
Pick a landmark before getting into the water and pay attention to it while snorkeling. Every time you pop your head out of the water to check, use your judgment and decide quickly whether or not you've moved too far from it.

-Watch the waves!
Wave sets are crucial to helping you decide whether or not it's a good time to snorkel. If there are wave sets that have any size to them at all DON'T GO OUT.
Waves decrease your visibility in the water, can toss you around, push you into rock or coral heads, constantly flood your snorkel tube, and make your snorkel experience down right miserable. As the day goes on and the winds start to pick up, it can make snorkeling impossible to enjoy.

-Feel the winds!
Windy conditions also make snorkeling visibility decrease. Usually, small breezes aren't a problem but the wind can change as the day goes on becoming stronger and possibly pushing you farther away from shore. Also, depending on the wind speed and which way the current flows, wave sets can significantly increase. This makes it difficult and possibly dangerous to snorkel. 

-Be careful of swimming in shallow spots!
An ocean surge is similar to a wave and can become very dangerous when you swim over a shallow spot. If a surge comes in and suddenly drops while you are swimming over a shallow spot, it can drop you onto the rock or coral head. Always make sure there is plenty of room between you and what's below you.

-Dangerous Rip Currents!
Powerful, strong, and narrow channels of water that will drag you away from shore. Rip currents look like a channel of choppy water that continuously churns in the same place and seems to run perpendicular to shore. The water color will be different and you will probably see a line of foam forming.

Thousands and thousands of people are rescued every year and at least 100 die from getting stuck in a rip current.

If you find that you are unable to swim back to shore because a rip current is pulling you back out, do not panic. Do not continue to swim against the current. Instead, swim parallel to the shore until you feel the water because more easy to swim against, then swim back to shore.
(Sadly, as I am typing this news article popped up in my facebook news feed).
Utah man swept out by rip current, apparently drowns off Kauai's north shore

Here's a picture I made to illustrate!
Thanks Google Earth!
The blue lines indicate the rip current.
The yellow line indicates the shoreline.
You are the black star stuck in the current.
The red lines indicate how to swim out of the rip current.


If you don't like my illustration, here's one from NOAA.


KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS!

-Don't work hard and exhaust yourself!
Snorkeling is supposed to be a calm and leisurely activity. It's no fun if you're working for it. Some people kick too hard and even use their arms to snorkel. (You shouldn't have to do this). Relax, stay alert, stick with your buddy, and enjoy cruising through the water.

Remember! There's nothing wrong with having to use floaties. Wetsuits are a great flotation devices too. They provide buoyancy and protect you from getting sunburned.

-Pay attention and take care of your body!
Once you feel your body getting tired, it's a sign that you should start heading back to shore for some rest. Remember! However far you swim out, you must swim back in. Pay attention and conserve your energy. Stay hydrated and well rested.

-Don't let others pressure you but don't swim alone!
It is essential that you snorkel with a buddy, but if that buddy is going out of your comfort zone you must let them know. Communication is a must when snorkeling. Anxious and nervous snorkelers never have any fun. So, choose a buddy that understands your limitations and work together to enjoy your snorkel and look out for each other.


BE RESPONSIBLE!

-Don't stand on or touch coral!
Coral may look like a pretty rock, but it's actually alive! Tiny animals called Coral Polyps all live together in the coral heads.
They are sessile (meaning they are permanently attached to the bottom of the ocean).
They have arms like tentacles that branch out into the water and scoop the food that floats by into their mouths. They secrete calcium carbonate (limestone) and that's what gives them their rocky appearance. 
Thanks for the photo wikipedia!
To give you an idea of what the Coral Polyp animals look like, above is a picture of Orange Cup Coral. These Soft corals are different from Hard corals (the ones that look like rocks) but they're easier to see compared to Hard corals.

Thanks Hawaiian Coral Index Page !
This is Blue Rice Coral! Just like the precious Orange Cup Coral, this one is alive with thousands and thousands of Coral Polyps living together. The polyps are about the size of a pin head (depending on the species) and get their color from a symbiotic relationship with an algae called Zooxanthellae! 

I know this must sound like a bunch of sciencey mumbo jumbo termonology speak, but please understand that corals are sensitive animals.

Some corals sting and may even be slightly venomous.

If you scratch or cut yourself on coral, you can experience coral poisoning. The soft top of the hard coral is torn off and inserted into the wound. This can lead to prolonged healing time and even infections. So please, for your sake and for the sake of the animals, do not touch or stand on them. They are beautiful creatures to observe from a safe distance just like any other wild animal.

-Choose ocean friendly sunscreen!
There are many sunscreens and sunblocks out there and it can be difficult to pick one that's right for you AND is still ocean friendly.

What do you mean "ocean friendly"?
Should you get Banana Boat? Or Hawaiian Tropic?
What is SPF?
What does "Broad Spectrum" mean?

Many sunscreens have a plethora of ingredients and a lot of them are actually poisonous for the ocean and bad for your body. Banana Boat, Hawaiian Tropic, and Coppertone are some of the sunscreens and sunblocks that are poisonous to the ocean and the animals in it. Many sunblocks have petroleum and other non-biodegradable ingredients that smother corals and change the chemical make up of the water.

SPF means Sun Protection Factor. The higher the number the better it is, right? Not necessarily. According to a dermatologist named James Spencer, "SPF 15 blocks about 94% of UVB rays; an SPF product blocks about 97% of UVB rays; and an SPF 45 product blocks about 98% of rays." 
So, don't worry too much about the SPF number because your sunscreen needs to be reapplied throughout the day anyway.

Look for sunscreens that have "Broad Spectrum" labelled on it. This means that the sunscreen protects you from both UVB and UVA rays. UVB rays are what cause your sunburn but UVA rays penetrate more deeply and can cause skin cancer.

Recently I've come across a sunscreen called Badger Sunscreen. Go ahead a click the link to learn more about it and I think you'll understand why I've come to love this sunscreen. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a store where I could by it off the shelves (on Maui) so I've always had to buy it online. But when in a pinch I buy the Maui Babe Browning Lotion.

If all this crazy info dump about choosing a sunscreen scares you, you can always opt for wearing a snorkeling rash guard. You don't have to worry about slathering your body in sunscreen except for your legs and face.

BlueMenpachi Tip!
If you've ever been to a popular tourist beach where everyone wears sunscreen compared to a secluded beach where there aren't much people, you can feel the difference in the water. Ocean water at heavily populated beaches feel really sloppy compared to lightly populated beaches. Not to deter you away from popular beaches, but you can definitely feel the difference. If you're reading this blog entry, spread the awareness of ocean safe sunscreen!

-Leave nothing but bubbles!
This basically means: Be sure to clean up after yourself. Whatever you brought with you to the beach, please make sure to take it back with you so you can dispose of it properly. Leave no trash behind. Plastic debris and pollution are important issues in the marine community and people who litter are greatly frowned upon.
Soda can rings suffocate seals, plastic bags make their way into whale stomachs, sea birds ingest bottle caps, fishing line entangle dolphins, and plastic debris takes over the ocean.

Extra Tips about wildlife!

TURTLES!
Thanks visualphotos.com !
Sea turtles cannot see straight in front of them. Always be sure to observe them by swimming beside them. If a turtle is swimming toward you and you think it's "coming at you" just swim to the side of it. It probably just can't see you! Also, don't feed the turtles. Even if it's there own natural food source like seaweed, do not feed them. They can associate people with food and possibly become dependent on humans.

SHARKS!
White Tip shark. Thanks arkive.org!
Sharks are not the killers that the media makes them out to be. Although, there have been an increase in shark sightings and shark attacks (on Maui) it's not because they are out to get us. Scientists and naturalists believe the shark sightings have increased because the sharks are learning to follow fishermen who haven't changed up their fishing schedules. Like whales, sharks are learning to follow humans for an easy fish catch.
Black Tip shark. Thanks arkive.org!
White tip and Black tip sharks are mostly nocturnal, so it is rare to see them during the day. If you do see them in the water, don't panic. They don't have an interest in you and feel free to observe them from a safe distance.
Tiger Shark. Thanks Brian Skerry!
Not to scare you but Tiger sharks are different. These sharks can become aggressive if provoked. If you see a Tiger shark in the water with you, don't panic. Do not scream and splash because they could become interested in you thinking you are an animal in distress (An easy target for a shark).
Hold your position for a moment and keep your eyes on it. Stick close to your buddy as sharks are less likely to attack a pack of people. (Similar to how schools of fish find safety in numbers). Quickly but SMOOTHLY swim back to shore, swim as close as you can to your buddy, and keep your eye on the shark.

FISH!
Thanks visualphotos.com!
Fish are absolutely adorable and nothing is more fun than interacting with them. However, fish feeding is GREATLY frowned upon! Some snorkel shops sell fish food but please do NOT buy it. When you feed fish you keep them from eating what they are supposed to eat. Some fish eat algae which keeps the coral clean and keep the ecosystem in balance.

FISH FEEDING IS BAD!
And in some places, illegal.
While working as a guide at the Ahihi Kinau NAR we had to confiscate this from one of the tourists for fish feeding.
Fish are not meant to eat cereal, oatmeal, or cheese wiz and by feeding them, fish can start to associate food with people and further keep them from eating what they are meant to eat. So please, observe them from a distant in their natural habitat without interfering.

I found this ABSOLUTELY adorable video online about snorkeling etiquette. Must watch! :)

Have fun and happy snorkeling!

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