“Can I snorkel if I can’t swim?” It might seem like a strange question. After all, swimming is a lot of what you’re doing out there in the water while snorkeling. But, it’s a question I hear a lot, and the answer might not necessarily be what you’re expecting.
Snorkeling is one of my absolute favorite things on the planet, and it’s something I really believe everyone should get to try in life. It’s afforded me truly life-changing experiences like swimming alongside massive bus-sized whale sharks in Mexico, gliding through coral forests stretching farther than the eye can see in Indonesia, exploring lively reefs with groups of endangered sea turtles in Hawaii, or just hanging out with scores of colorful tropical fish as they go about their day on nearly every continent on planet Earth.
If some of those experiences sound out of reach for you right now, that’s OK. Everyone starts somewhere (myself included). Early on, it’s all about building skills and gaining confidence in the water so that one day you might be able to check off your own set of in-ocean bucket list items.
If you’re reading this, you may be starting from scratch (e.g., not being a strong swimmer) and might be wondering if it’s even possible to get in the water and enjoy what the ocean has to offer. So…
Can I snorkel if I can’t swim? Yes, it is possible to snorkel if you can’t swim if you follow specific safety guidelines like snorkeling only in water shallow enough to stand in, using a snorkel vest or similar flotation device, using snorkel equipment suitable for beginning snorkelers, and learning from snorkeling professionals.
To me, that’s amazing news! It may not be recommended (or even possible) to jump in with some of the more advanced snorkeling excursions that I mentioned above, but this means that you can at least start small and begin building your swimming and snorkeling skills so that you can get there in the future.
There are some specific things to keep in mind if you’re asking the titular question, “can I snorkel if I can’t swim?,” though. So let’s talk about snorkeling safety and walk through seven recommendations that can help you snorkel if you can’t swim.
Of course, snorkeling has inherent risks associated with it (as does anything in the ocean, and plenty of things on land for that matter) and ultimately it’s up to you to assess your own situation and keep yourself safe. But, snorkeling is widely considered a safe sport with relatively very few incidences of problems.
For example, an Australian study found that there have only been an average of 11 snorkeling deaths per year in the entire country (for reference, in 2007, 2.2 million snorkeling dives occurred on the Great Barrier Reef alone) and that “reports of harm from snorkelling are rare, and it can generally be considered a safe activity” [source], and many of the snorkeling incidents that do happen are thought to occur with folks who have existing health conditions [source]. (This is a good time to mention that you should also have a good level of fitness and health in order to start snorkeling.)
Snorkeling being generally regarded as a safe activity is great, but we still want to be extra cautious if you’re starting out snorkeling without being a strong swimmer (or even a non-swimmer). So, let’s get specific.
One of the most direct ways that you can work to keep yourself safe while snorkeling if you can’t swim is to snorkel in waters shallow enough that you can stand on the bottom with your head above the surface, if needed. That way, if there’s ever a problem or you feel uncomfortable, you can easily put your feet to the ground and reset, however you might need to. It’s not recommended to venture out into deeper water until you’ve gained swimming ability, but this will help you develop that ability needed to feel comfortable expanding your snorkeling horizons.
There are a handful of unique places (like Bonaire) that do exist where there’s amazing snorkeling just steps into the water, but otherwise this type of shallow water does usually mean more of a simple undersea landscape. There’s a good chance you’ll see groups of curious tropical fish that venture in toward the shore, crustaceans, or even different types of rays that like to patrol sandy-bottom areas, though the bigger and more interesting stuff does tend to be a bit further out. Starting out snorkeling in shallow water will help you build your swimming skills and help you build toward snorkeling in deeper water when you’re able, however.
Snorkeling from the shore into shallow water is typically pretty straightforward, but keep in mind what the sea floor looks like where you are and what you might need to have on your feet. A sandy bottom won’t require anything special for your feet, and snorkel fins, while extremely helpful when you start snorkeling further out, probably aren’t needed yet as they’re more awkward if you need to stand.
But, if you do happen to be somewhere unique where there is coral near the shore, make sure to avoid stepping on it or bumping it in any way since it can be extremely delicate (and it can cause a nasty infection if it cuts you). Or, if the bottom is rockier or covered with something besides sand (like fossilized coral), make sure you have water shoes (we recommend the ALEADER Men’s Mesh Slip-On Water Shoes [Amazon] for men or the same ALEADER shoe version for women [Amazon]).
Another really effective way to boost your snorkeling safety if you’re looking to snorkel if you can’t swim is to use a flotation device like a snorkel vest or a life jacket. Both can go a really long way toward having a good time in the water for non-swimmers.
Both snorkel vests and life jackets are very similar flotation devices with the difference being that snorkel vests are more or less just lighter-duty life jackets. Ultimately, if you truly can’t swim, a life jacket will probably provide you more security while if you feel like you just need a bit of a boost to your floating ability, a snorkel vest might be better because it will provide you a little more freedom of movement.
Fortunately, both options are plenty affordable and easy to pack for a trip since many varieties easily deflate for packing and can then be re-inflated before you snorkel. If you’re looking for a snorkel vest, our pick is the Seaview Palawan Snorkel Vest (here on Amazon) while our go-to for a life jacket is the O’Neill Superlite Life Jacket (here on Amazon), typically best-fitting for men, along with the O’Neill Superlite version fit especially for women (Amazon). In either case, make sure that you buy the right size for you, considering both the size of your torso as well as your body weight.
(To learn more about helpful flotation for snorkeling and the needed sizing info, recommendations, and more that you should know about, check out The 3 Best Snorkel Vests, Life Jackets and Flotation for Snorkeling [Adults & Kids])
It used to be that snorkels were just open tubes that connected your mouth to the air above the surface of the water. These typically worked fine, but it was also pretty common for water to get sloshed up into the opening of the snorkel and down into your mouth as you swam, which isn’t as fine. Expert snorkelers become adept at dealing with this water over time, but it would definitely be an unwelcome surprise for me if I’m looking to snorkel if I can’t swim. Ultimately, that’s not something I want to have to worry much about.
But, snorkels have come a long way and dry-top snorkels with purge valves make dealing with the inevitable water sloshes and splashes a lot easier for beginning snorkelers.
First, dry-top snorkels incorporate a special one-way valve attached the the top of the snorkel which will automatically close if water tries to enter the snorkel while still opening normally while you breathe. Then, snorkels with purge valves will typically include a small reservoir below where the tube bends up into your mouth which will catch any water that might dribble in (which does happen, but it’s a lot less than it would otherwise be without the dry-top valve) so it doesn’t run into your mouth, then another one-way valve lets you blow that water out of your snorkel while you’re swimming normally in the water.
Both advents are wonderful for beginners and those who want to snorkel if they can’t swim, but I ultimately recommend dry-top snorkels to absolutely every snorkeler of any skill level (unless you’re a very advanced snorkeler that has a special purpose for an open snorkel). They make that big of a difference for safety and comfort, and my personal favorite is the Oceanic Ultra-Dry 2 (here on Amazon) since it includes an excellent dry-top snorkel valve, a leak reservoir and a purge valve, each of which get high marks across the board and work fantastically well.
[For more on dry-top snorkels, check out our guide at The Best Dry Top Snorkel This Year: A Clear Winner.]
Snorkel masks have also come a long way from what they used to be with better materials, larger fields of view, and better durability. To get started, though, you typically don’t need anything fancy — just a mask that fits your face well — and we often recommend the Cressi F1 Frameless snorkel mask (on Amazon) for beginners who aren’t yet committed to snorkeling which you can often pick up very affordably. However, if you plan on sticking with the sport for any length of time, an a few extra bucks for an upgraded mask like the SCUBAPRO Solo (Amazon) or the Atomic Venom Frameless snorkel mask (Amazon) can provide a lot of extra benefit and be very worthwhile.
[For our overview on picking the right snorkel mask, check out The 3 Best Snorkel Masks for All Levels: Beginners, Intermediates & Advanced.]
In any case, once you get your hands on a snorkel and a mask, make sure to test them out first. Put them on and wade out into the water and see how they feel when you stick your head in the ocean. Are there any leaks in your mask that you might need to adjust for? How does it feel when the dry-top snorkel valve activates against water? How much effort does it take to blow any dribbles that have collected in the reservoir out through the purge valve?
Just having a frame of reference for how each of these feels and what to do when a little water makes its way inside your equipment will go a long way toward knowing what to do when it eventually happens while you’re actually snorkeling and will help you build confidence to work toward more advanced snorkeling scenarios.
Whether you’re looking to snorkel if you can’t swim or you are an established and advanced snorkeler with hundreds of swims under your belt, my recommendation is always the same: snorkel with a buddy.
And, that recommendation is even more important if you want to snorkel if you can’t swim (and in this case, your buddy should be a strong swimmer and you should stay right along side them throughout your swim).
Snorkeling with a buddy has always been part of smart snorkeling basics and is big for safety. If there’s a problem, your buddy can either help you directly, or go find help if needed. It’s really as simple as that. Snorkel with a buddy!
Snorkeling in rougher waters or water with underlying currents can be a challenge for even the most seasoned snorkeler, so I should be looking to avoid tricky water completely if I’m wanting to snorkel if I can’t swim.
This is typically pretty easy to accomplish. A visual inspection of the water to make sure there aren’t waves coming in is easy enough, and the vast majority of the time any currents nearly on the shoreline are going to be very minimal. However, there certainly are spots around the globe (the area around Los Cabos and the Baja Peninsula in Mexico comes to mind) where even if the water looks relatively placid, some serious currents that can pull swimmers underwater or out to sea can swirl under the surface.
So, it’s smart to do a little research before getting in the water. Look up the area online to see if there are any well known reasons not to snorkel (like in Los Cabos) or ask around the beach with other snorkelers or lifeguards, or inquire at your hotel.
It also pays to look for a flagpole near the water in more established areas (like a public beach or at a resort) that will often have different colors of flags raised depending on the conditions in the water. The varying different colors mean several different things, but we’ll only want to go in the water if a green flag — meaning that the water is calm and a low hazard for swimming — is raised.
Once I had all of my equipment and appropriate snorkeling strategies in place, the next thing I would seek to do if I want to snorkel if I can’t swim is to look into taking a snorkel lesson or beginners tour wherever I might be traveling.
There are always tons of snorkel lessons and tours here on Viator at pretty much any tropical destination, and linking up with a professional who can show you the ropes while keeping you safe will go a long way toward not only having a great time in the water that day, but for quickly building skills that will help you progress toward more involved snorkeling. Plus, local guides always know the best spots for snorkeling and may be able to take you somewhere safe that still has a ton of underwater life which can end up being much more interesting than snorkeling on the beach.
There are plenty of snorkel tours and lessons geared specifically towards beginners out there, but if you aren’t confident in your swimming ability it’s a good idea to reach out to the tour operator before you book to make sure they can have the right people there to accommodate you. But, once you find the right tour, this is probably the best way to safely get your feet wet snorkeling if you can’t swim.
The Deep Dive
The undersea world is a magical place and it’s more than understandable for you to ask, “can I snorkel if I can’t swim?” if you yourself are a non-swimmer but still find yourself interested in the ocean and all it has to offer. Fortunately, the answer isn’t necessarily no. It is possible to snorkel if you can’t swim by following basic safety practices like snorkeling where you can always stand up and always being near a strong swimmer, using the right equipment like life jackets and dry-top snorkels, and learning from professionals the best ways to snorkel safely.
Snorkeling does have inherent risks that come along with it (like anything in or around the water for those who can’t yet swim), and ultimately, your safety is up to you. You should start small and with safety in mind to work up to bigger things with snorkeling as you gain ability, but, by following the tips in this article (and other resources like our guide with tips for snorkeling for beginners), you’ll have a head start on matriculating with snorkeling and being able to enjoy it safely and smartly.
First, you can check out more info on the recommended gear from this article (snorkels, masks, life jackets, etc.) at their Amazon links below:
- Seaview Palawan Snorkel Vest
- O’Neill Superlite Men’s Life Jacket
- O’Neill Superlite Women’s Life Jacket
- Oceanic Ultra-Dry 2 Dry Snorkel
- Cressi F1 Frameless Snorkel Mask (for beginner snorkeling and those who aren’t sure if they want to snorkel longer term)
- SCUBAPRO Solo Snorkel Mask (for beginner/intermediate snorkeling and those who would like to continue snorkeling)
- Atomic Venom Frameless Snorkel Mask (for longer-term intermediate and advanced snorkeling)
Then, if you’re new to snorkeling, check out some of our other beginners guides that can help you get started well in the water: