Snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea is an amazing experience that everyone should have. But anywhere that has calm gentle waters, coral reefs abundant in varieties of fish, and crystal clear water visibility will achieve the same end. I was kayaking out to a small coral reef island off the island of Vieques, off the island of Puerto Rico, to snorkel in these perfect waters and discover another small patch of the ocean. Snorkeling is my ideal hobby because it requires very little training, is not expensive and the equipment is much lighter than golf bags, sets of skis, or scuba gear.
Most of the problems people experience with snorkeling can be solved by reexamining their gear. Usually people buy the cheapest, generic set of masks, fins, and snorkels they can find assuming that all snorkel sets are made equal – not true.
Most generic sets are uncomfortable and the wrong size leads to all types of problems. The generic sets usually come with adjustable straps for the flippers, but I have to advise against this type. In my experience, the strap often breaks because the flipper shoe is too big or small and can’t handle water pressure when you kick. Get a fitted flipper and rule of thumb is to get it a size or so smaller than your actual foot size, for a tight fit. Something to consider: you can’t share if your friend has a different size foot. (Of course, if the strap and design are really good, many snorkelers do just fine with flippers that have adjustable straps and can share or adjust if you have a growing child.)
Most generic sets come with a weak adjustable strap for the mask and don’t hold a tight seal, or worse even break, ruining your dive. Make sure the mask strap stretches easily so once you set the strap you’ll be able to take the mask on and off with comfort. Because snorkeling is primarily done on the surface, some masks have directionally pointed lenses that allow for better downward vision, but some snorkelers find this annoying if they dive often. You will also need some anti-fogging lens cleaner to keep your mask clarity as sharp as possible.
Finally, and most importantly many generic sets come with terrible snorkels. Either the topside part of the tube is too short and makes you swallow salt water with any size wave; the top side snorkel isn’t angled to align with the natural angle you snorkel at, forcing you to swallow salt water unless your head is pointed straight down; or the angle and size of the mouthpiece doesn’t align with the size and shape of your head or bite. Any one of these can be the result of poor design or a bad fit. These shortcomings can be compensated by: a flexible tube that can be adjusted according to your face size and/or a flapper valve on the topside of the tube that closes with water pressure but opens when you exhale. (Many snorkelers know that when you dive below the surface you have to save extra breath to expel all the water that fills your snorkel, with the flapper valve you don’t need nearly as much breath.) But unless you’re in really choppy water, a seasoned snorkeler won’t need the flapper valve.
I like to have a meshed collection bag in which to put shells and other cool things I find. My friend likes to snorkel with a diving knife that you can strap to your leg that provides a modest sense of safety. Also bring a good amount of sun block to reapply every so often because the sun is searing through the water.
The total damage for a decent snorkel set with all the extras shouldn’t run you more than $100. Some online vendors provide even better deals because shipping isn’t too expensive. So next time you’re lugging your golf bag/ski set/scuba gear past me in the airport you’ll find me skating right by you with my snorkel gear neatly packed in my carry-on luggage.