Snorkelling: safe or dangerous?

PHUKET, 23 January 2018: Snorkelling might be described as ‘kid’s play” when we look at the fancy gear Scuba divers pack for their ocean trips, but statistics show this seemingly low-risk activity could be deceptive.

Here International Surf and Lifesaving Association marine safety officer and Thailand section chief, Daren Jenner, explains some of the precautions people should take when snorkelling in Phuket and other resort islands in Southeast Asia.

In comments to TTR Weekly, Jenner said: “Phuket needs lifeguards year-round. In low season it’s rip currents that kill, but in the high season, it’s snorkelling. Phuket is not the only Island tourist destination that’s having problems with snorkelling deaths.”

He continued: “The Hawaiian Island of Kaua’i has an increasing snorkelling drowning problem. When waiting for your bags at Lihue International Airport (LIH – Kaua’i), arriving passengers see a short ocean safety video produced by the Kauai Lifeguard Association (KLA).

“In the video, visitors learn how to cope with rip currents and snorkelling. KLA reports the latest statistics show snorkelling is to blame for 40% of Hawaii’s drowning!

Read on to see if you are truly pre­pared for an open water snorkelling trip.

What is a snorkel?

In its most basic form, a snorkel is a simple curved tube that allows swim­mers to keep their face in the water and breathe for extended periods of time, while checking out the marine life be­low. However, as simple as it may seem, safely breathing through a tube while swimming in open water is a skill that needs to be learned.

Traditional snorkelling uses a tube and separate facemask that seals around the nose and eyes, allowing vis­ibility of objects underwater. Recently, a new type of snorkel has been developed that incorporates the breathing tube and facemask into one unit. This type of mask is intended to seal around the mouth, nose and eyes.

Am I fit for open water snorkelling?

In general, if you are physically able to swim and tread water without a snorkel or flotation device, and dive to a depth of two metres while holding your breath, all in conditions similar to your planned snorkel trip, then you are ready to begin practicing with your snorkel in the shallow end of a swim­ming pool.

People with the following conditions should use extra caution when deciding if they are fit for snorkelling:

Over 65 years of age with little or no recent open water swimming;

Cardiovascular disease (heart, stroke, high blood pressure);

Obstructive airway disease (asthma, bronchitis, emphysema);

Seizure disorder (history of seizures or convulsions); and/or

Other history of sudden loss of consciousness.

The following people are not fit for snorkelling:


Those who have been advised by their doctor not to swim; and/or

Those under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Phuket snorkel boot camp

Purchase your own snorkel

Safe snorkelling requires a tube and mask that fit your unique facial geom­etry, and everyone is different. Do not rely on tour operators to provide a snor­kel that fits. Buy your own high-quality brand-name snorkel before you go. Test as many as you can before choosing, concentrating on comfort, fit and, most importantly, the seal. Test the seal by donning the mask, and then inhaling slightly through your nose. The seal should remain firm and air should not leak in. If it doesn’t fit, choose another mask and snorkel.

Most snorkelers also wear swim fins. Consider purchasing your own swim fins and make sure they fit comfortably before taking them out in the water.

Test your snorkel

In the shallow end of a pool where you can easily touch the bottom, don the mask and snorkel and practice floating face down while breathing. Then practice breathing with your face in the water while slowly swimming. Gradually move to the deeper part of the pool as you gain confidence, breath­ing facedown in the water with your snorkel and mask.

Practice diving and purging

When the top of your snorkel tube sinks below the water’s surface, water can get inside.

In the deep end of the pool, practice holding your breath, diving under the surface, and then returning to the sur­face while forcefully exhaling through your mouth and out of the tube. This will blow any water remaining inside out of the tube to enable safe snorkel breathing once again.

Practice diving, surfacing, and purg­ing your snorkel in the pool until you feel completely comfortable with the process.

Use reputable tour services

Select a tour operator based on safe­ty and reputation, not just low price. If you have any questions about safety, ask to speak to the operator and/or ves­sel captain.

Use the buddy system

Always snorkel in open water in pairs. No open water snorkeler should enter the water without a buddy. Stay close to your buddy at all times while in the water.

Now that you have finished your preparation checklist, get out there and enjoy a safe and fantastic snorkelling adventure.

Special note on full-face snorkel equipment

Recent evidence suggests that full-face, one-piece snorkel masks are linked to higher drowning rates while snorkelling. This design seals eyes, mouth and face in one large mask.

If water enters the system while submerged, it can be more difficult to purge than a traditional tube due to the increased air volume of the design. It is theorised that this leads to an increased incidence of water aspiration past the larynx, which in turn causes involuntary laryngo­spasm that blocks the flow of air to the lungs.

Extreme caution is advised while snorkelling with full-face systems.

Author: Daren Jenner is a bodysurfer and Ocean Lifeguard in Southeast Asia. He is also a Marine Safety Officer for the International Surf Lifesaving Association (ISLA).


(Source: This report was first published in Phuket News with additional input)