It was a gorgeous morning in Tulum. The Brit and I joyfully packed up the dry bag and skipped out the door with our snorkels and waterproof cameras in hand. We were headed to Akumal – Mayan for “Place of the Turtles” – a beach town just north of Tulum where green sea turtles congregate by the dozens in the small, protected bay. We were eager for a relaxing day of swimming alongside some of our favorite sea creatures.
But when we arrived at the beach, what we found wasn’t a quiet bay. Instead, we saw over a hundred other snorkelers suiting up, most of them in groups larger than 15 people with a leader herding them around like cattle.
Now, I’m not an idiot. I never imagined we would have the entire bay to ourselves. It’s a popular spot, after all, and it’s one of the few places in the world where you are pretty much guaranteed to see a real-life version of Crush.
But I have to admit, my heart sank when I saw the crowds. I know what that usually means – I’ll be sharing the water with inexperienced snorkelers thrashing around like kamikaze fireflies, led by a flustered guide that can’t control the too-large group.
And there’s nothing that scares away fish and turtles faster than dozens of people flailing around at the surface, kicking the shit out of the water and each other, while someone screams “STAY WITH THE GROUP!” at full-volume every 10 seconds.
And guess what? I was right. As soon as the Brit and I spotted our first turtle, we were keeping our distance and admiring him for only a few seconds before some douche bag swung in a massive selfie stick, shoved it in the little guy’s face and then proceeded to kick my mask with his fins as he thrashed around for a closer look.
The turtle of course, immediately swam away. Grrrrrrrrr…….
The thing is, if these people were just given a few basic guidelines, they would really enjoy the entire thing a lot more. They’d see more fish, they’d end up less tired, they’d avoid a negative impact on the environment, and they’d piss off a lot less people.
So without further ado, here is how to not suck at snorkeling.
Rule #1: Chill the fuck out.
Snorkeling is supposed to be relaxing. There is no rush. It’s such a simple thing, yet so many people get into the water and try to chase every pretty fish they see. You cannot outswim them. They are fish. Swimming is their thing. Not yours. Thrashing around on the surface only makes them swim away from you faster.
Instead, swim slowly and calmly with your mask pointed downwards. If you’re wearing fins, you don’t even need to use your arms. Breathe slowly and deeply through the snorkel. Use even strokes. You’ll find that not only will you be less tired from the whole thing, you’ll be able to observe sea life just doing their thing on the reef, instead of just swimming away from you.
I do know that this isn’t as easy as it sounds for people that aren’t used to swimming in the ocean. When I snorkeled for the first time years ago, I was nervous and a little bit scared. I probably did some flailing around. You will get more comfortable in the water as you get more experience, but until then, just work on chilling the fuck out.
Rule #2: Leave the animals alone FFS!
If you see something cool (like for instance, a turtle) don’t swim right up to it and get in it’s face. It doesn’t like it. I mean, would you? It’s almost guaranteed that the creature will swim away from you. To it, you look fucking weird and scary. Instead, keep your distance – you are only there to observe.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen snorkelers crowd around sea turtles, not giving them the room to surface and breathe. One day, I’d love to see one of them take a bite out of one of the swimmers so they’ll get the hint. Those beaks are sharp!
And for godsakes, don’t try to touch or grab fish, turtles, whales, sharks, dolphins, eels, lobsters, crabs or anything else you see moving in the water. Not only is it bad for the animals (DUH!) but it’s actually illegal to touch many of those things. Don’t be that asshole.
Rule #3: Don’t touch the reef.
The fish are not the only living things out in the water. If you’re snorkeling, you’re 95% likely to encounter a coral reef.
IMPORTANT TO KNOW: THE REEF IS ALIVE. It’s an essential part of the underwater ecosystem. It is a colony of polyps, and it offers both food and shelter for the marine life. Without the reef, there would be no fish.
Reefs are very sensitive – when you touch it, the oils on your hands are strong enough to kill it. Snorkelers who don’t know this will constantly try to touch or stand up on the coral, destroying it in the process.
Reefs are in danger from idiots all over the world who don’t realize how important these organisms are for the planet. SO. DO. NOT. TOUCH. THE. REEF.
In case you don’t know what coral looks like, here are some examples of coral reef:
Some reefs look like rocks, so don’t be fooled into touching or standing on those. If you aren’t sure if something is a reef, then use this rule: If it isn’t clearly sand, then it’s a reef.
Rule #4: Mind your fins.
Your fins make you over a foot longer and taller than you are outside the water, so be aware not to kick other people (or reefs!) behind you and under you. It helps if you follow rule #1 and don’t thrash around like a drowning rat.
If you accidentally kick someone’s mask, you could knock it off, disorient them and cause them to inhale water. Then they may wish to drown you. Best to avoid that kind of scenario.
Rule #5: Pay attention to where you are.
Especially if you are snorkeling with a group, stay aware of where you are. Every 30 seconds or so, peek above the water to orient yourself. Make sure you can still see your guide. Some people are so distracted by what they see under the water, they lose all track of where they are in the water.
I saw a very panicked grown man freaking out because he’d lost his guide and large group at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in Belize. Since we were in some decent swells and a mile off-shore, being separated from your group can quickly get dangerous. We directed him back to his boat, but I don’t know what would have happened had we not been there.
Also – be aware of the other snorkelers around you too. There’s nothing more annoying than someone swimming full speed and knocking right into you because they aren’t looking where they are going. It happened more than once to me and the Brit in Akumal. If you follow rule #1, it makes being aware of what’s around much easier.
Rule #6: For the love of God, leave the selfie stick at home.
AGGHHHHHH#*&^&@*# FUCKING SELFIE STICKS!
I get it, you want an epic selfie with a sea turtle. If you must, nothing longer than a foot long is necessary for that epic selfie. Anything else is just fucking annoying to everyone else around you.
It’s not easy to control a 4-foot long selfie stick underwater. You’ll hit someone with it. And then they will want to punch you.
Have your friend take your picture. It will be a better photo anyways. And you’ll be forced to put your narcissism aside for a few moments and speak to another human.
Rule #7: If you do a snorkeling tour, choose a responsible operator.
This means asking how many people will be in your snorkeling group before you book. If it’s over 10 with only one guide, look into going with someone else. Big groups with such little supervision aren’t fun, and they can be irresponsible and dangerous for everyone.
It’s dangerous for you because you’ll have a harder time getting help if you need it, and it increases your chance of being separated from the group. It’s dangerous for the ecosystem because the guide isn’t able to monitor everyone to make sure they aren’t touching the animals or kicking the reef.
Also, having a small group with a knowledgeable, responsible guide makes your experience richer. He or she can give you great info about what you’re looking at and you’ll appreciate it more. You’ll see more fish and less thrashing legs of fellow snorkelers. Plus, you won’t have to listen to “STAY WITH THE GROUP!” on refrain.
Rule #8: Do your part.
This is something goes above and beyond not sucking at snorkeling. This makes you a freaking hero of the ocean. And it’s really easy:
If you see a piece of plastic floating in the water, grab it and take it back to the boat/shore with you to properly dispose of. I usually wear board shorts when snorkeling so I can use the pocket for this reason. Or if you see some trash on the beach, pick it up. Every little bit helps, and you’re making the ocean just a little bit cleaner for everyone else.
As it turns out, we were able to enjoy our day in Akumal as long as we managed to keep our distance from the big groups. We saw fish, some lovely bits of reef and even got to hang out with a couple of adorable turtles as they munched quietly on sea grass. So if you do end up in the area some day, I would definitely recommend you pay the turtles a visit!
But don’t forget to keep these recommendations in mind. The ocean is a beautiful thing – let’s try to keep it that way!