Wanna learn to snorkel? It's easy.
As long as you already know how to swim, learning to snorkel is pretty easy. No formal training is required (such as the certification you need if you want to go scuba diving with dive tanks etc).
As one guy said to me once:
"I didn't really know there was a technique to snorkeling. Don't you just float around and have a look at the fish?"
Sometimes it can be as easy as that. But there are some pointers that I'd like to offer to help you maximize your fun, and minimize your troubles.
There are really only three things you need: Mask, Snorkel, Fins
Mask, Snorkel and Fins Total Cost: $30 - $70
Optional: Wetsuit Southern California's waters can be cool, so many snorkelers like to have a wetsuit too. Not necessary, but can aid in your fun by keeping you comfortably warm.
Wetsuit Cost: $75-125 for the cheapest suits. They can get expensive if you want to get fancy.
Swimming: When you are snorkeling, you let the fins do the majority of the work. Your arms can generally stay at your sides. Smooth undulations are preferred as opppsed to rapid frantic kicking, which will only cause bubbles and stir up sand and silt (making it harder to see anything).
Breathing: You might want to practice breathing through the snorkel in a pool before you attempt to jump right into the unpredictable ocean waves so you can get comfortable first. Most importantly -- slow deep breaths in and out are how you need to breath. Avoid hyperventalating. Keep your head underwater facing toward the seafloor; snorkels are manufactured to function best when your head is oriented like this. Most snorkels have a special device at the top to keep water from going in in case you want to dive with your whole head underwater. When you get to the surface, you can give a short quick breath out, to expel any excess water out of the purge valve and the bottom.
Choosing a Site
See my locations page for specific info on various sites in SoCal.
In general, if you are wanting to choose a good snorkeling site at the beach you have to know that there are good snorkeling beaches and bad snorkeling beaches. In general, if the beach is good for surfing, its probably not good for snorkeling. The reason is that good surfing beaches are often sandy with a very low slope so that the waves last a long time before crashing, thus giving a decent amount of time to surf the waves. Good beaches for snorkeling are usually rocky beaches. Beaches with rocks offer sealife something to latch on to. You'll have kelp and other plant life on the rocks, and the creatures that live among the kelp and the creatures that eat those creatures -- the whole food chain right? So anyway, if you are trying to decide - from outside the water - whether a certain beach might have something cool to see under the water, look for rocks!
Whenever you are at the beach or in the ocean you have to remember to take safety seriously. The water/waves can drown you, pound you, and the rocks can cut you, bruise you, and of course some of the animals can pose dangers of their own.
Did I scare you a bit there?
Hopefully not too much, because the large majority of people who go snorkeling, swimming, or surfing in the ocean come out unscathed without any kind of problems whatsoever. Let's help you be one of those people:
- Don't try and go into the water on a day with high waves. Not only will you not be able to see anything underwater, you can get rolled by the waves, or get pushed into a rock.
- I recommend always going with someone else! It's always nice to have someone to watch your back, they may see or realize something you didn't.
- Put your fins on once you're already up to your waist in the water. You wont have any success trying to walk with "duck feet".
Understanding Ocean Conditions
It's important to know that you can't expect to go out and have a good snorkeling experience on and ol' day. You have to make sure the conditions are right. Generally you'll need to consider water-temperature, wave-swell, and visibility.
Water temperature is a bit subjective. Different people can have a good snorkeling experience at different temperatures. In general, you never have to worry about the water being too warm, it's usually a matter of whether or not it's warm enough. In SoCal the water temperature commonly reaches a low of about 57°F in winter and a high of about 75°F (rarely) in the summer.
Waves/swell conditions are perhaps the most important factor to consider when planning an outting, but can also be hard to interpret. The waves that crash on the beach can have a number of different origins, which have varying strengths, and can come in from multiple directions. In general, the cutoff wave-height for adequate snorkeling conditions is about 2-3 feet. Any heigher than that, and it is likely that visibility and safety will be compromised.
Visibility is usually a product of the waves/swell conditions. There is not much real-time data available on visibility conditions, so you should take a look at the waves/swell conditions to deduce whether it is likely that there will be good visibility. Things in the water that can reduce visibility are sand, bubbles, algae/plankton (rare that this is a large factor in SoCal).
- If you are using a wetsuit, put it on and take it off at the car to avoid sandy problems.
- If you are worried about being comfortable with the temperature of the water, go in first with just your wetsuit on (or just your bathingsuit, if you don't plan to wear a wetsuit). That way you can acclimate for a few minutes before having to deal with your other gear.
Entering the Water from the Beach
Generally, you enter the water from the beach when snorkeling in SoCal. Some sites will offer the opportunity to enter from rocks or a boat or kayak, but that isn't as common.
Before you start floating there trying to see something, make sure you swim past the breaking waves. It's potentially dangerous to stay there too long - you might get caught off guard by a wave - but mainly the likelihood of good visibility and the likelihood that there will be anything to see is low.
As you are swimming out, if you do encounter any bigger waves, it's generally better to swim under them, than to try and stand up with your fins on or somehow get over them. With the mask and snorkel on, the wave shouldn't pahse you too much, unless it crashes right on you. It's a good idea to hold the mask onto your face with one hand in case things do get a bit rough swimming under a wave.