Is Snorkeling Dangerous? 17 Mistakes to Avoid to Stay Safe

Learn to avoid easy mistakes to make snorkeling safer

Snorkeling is one of the most popular ocean sports on the entire planet with over 8 million people in the United States alone grabbing a mask and jumping in each year.

And, for good reason. It’s an incredible way to get in the water to explore expansive coral forests, swim with wild marine life, and just make memories with those close to you. And, since it’s way less expensive and difficult than something like scuba diving, snorkeling is easily available to almost anyone.

If you’re new to snorkeling, though, I wouldn’t blame you for having a question or two. Is snorkeling dangerous? Is snorkeling safe? What equipment do I need? How do I actually snorkel?

Snorkeling can easily seem a little foreign, especially to those of us who were born landlocked (like me!) So, those are all entirely valid questions to ask as you consider dipping your toe in the water.

In this article, we’ll focus on that first question (“is snorkeling dangerous?”), but we will also make sure to provide extra resources at the end to help answer questions about actually getting started with snorkeling and how to snorkel safely, if that’s something you’re interested in.

Is Snorkeling Dangerous? Is Snorkeling Safe?

Let’s talk about the safety of snorkeling.

If we’re honest with ourselves, pretty much anything that requires us to get out of bed in the morning has some measure of risk, and snorkeling is no different. What we want to know is, what are those risks, and do those risks make snorkeling too dangerous?

What are the risks of snorkeling? Let’s just be real. Snorkeling does come with risks. Serious things like strong currents, heart problems, drownings, weather changes, marine life, underwater objects, equipment issues, and others are all official risks of snorkeling and have caused deaths.

But, serious incidents are pretty rare in snorkeling. One study in Australia found an average of about 11 snorkeling deaths each year on the continent with over 2.2 million snorkeling dives on just the Great Barrier Reef alone in 2007, and notes that “reports of harm from snorkelling are rare, and it can generally be considered a safe activity.” [Source]

Is snorkeling dangerous? Snorkeling does include natural dangers from ocean currents, objects in the water or marine life, but many risks of snorkeling can be reduced by choosing safe water, using proper equipment and following established planning, training, health and safety precautions.

The risk isn’t zero for snorkeling or anything else, so we want to do as much as possible to make snorkeling as safe as we can for ourselves every time we’re on the water. Being smart pays off and lets us focus more on the incredible experience that snorkeling can be!

We always recommend that new snorkelers take a snorkel class or tour from a certified instructor to really learn hands-on how to snorkel safely. As a bonus, and while by no means comprehensive, here are our recommendations for a great place to start preparing for your class or tour:

1. Be Honest About Your Swimming Ability

The majority of what you’re doing while snorkeling is just good old-fashioned swimming. So, it’s no surprise that swimming is the main skill needed to snorkel.

You should definitely be honest with yourself about your ability to swim, especially in the ocean. Swimming the the ocean with currents, surf, and other factors to deal with is a different experience than a pool, and those who are confident swimmers in a pool can sometimes then feel uncertain in the ocean.

If you can swim well and unassisted in ocean conditions without problems, you’ll probably be able to get up to speed with snorkeling quickly. But, if that doesn’t necessary sound like you, you might want to consider using flotation to help you stay above the water safely.

2. Use Flotation if You Need It

Not yet being the strongest swimmer won’t necessarily keep you from snorkeling.

Using a life jacket is a totally normal way for beginners (and they are sometimes required for everyone on tours in certain countries like Mexico) to get in the water to snorkel at first. So, if you aren’t absolutely confident in your ocean swimming ability, starting with a life jacket while snorkeling is a great idea to be able to learn and improve more safely (and, you definitely won’t be alone).

It’s extra-smart to start with a snorkel guide who can teach you everything you need to begin if you’re still working on your swimming ability, and most snorkel tours will be able to provide a lifejacket for you to use. (Or, you can check out our guide on the best snorkel vests, life vests, etc. to find your own.)

Is snorkeling dangerous? Snorkel with a life jacket
Snorkeling with a life jacket can help immensely if you’re a beginner.

3. Check Your Fitness & Health

A large number of the relatively small number of deaths that do happen while snorkeling are typically from something like a heart attack or stroke — things that likely are related to some sort of health condition that already existed.

Snorkeling is a workout, which is great for your health and wellbeing if you’re already able to exercise safely. You really do end up using your whole body to power against currents, guide yourself through the water, and plenty of other things that will get your heart and lungs going.

So, always check with your doctor before snorkeling to make sure you’re fit enough to get in the water, especially if you have any health issues or concerns.

4. Understand the Water Conditions

The ocean is awesomely beautiful, but also incredibly powerful. New snorkelers can sometimes be surprised by the raw power of currents, waves, etc., and even expert snorkelers can get caught in rip tides, undertows, and other dangerous situations.

So, it pays to know as much about the water conditions as possible before you get in. If water conditions are favorable, you’re much more likely to have fun. If water conditions are looking dangerous, you’ll know to just come back another day.

Beach warning flags chart
Understanding the common beach warning flags can help you understand what the water is like. [Source]
And, one of the best ways to gauge water conditions is through the beach warning flags system.

At a lot of beach-side hotels or public beaches throughout the world, you’ll often find a small flag pole with various colored flags raised depending on what the ocean conditions are looking like. A green flag means that waters are relatively calm, yellow means that increased caution should be taken, red means the waters are dangerous, and two red flags usually means the water is so dangerous that it’s straight-up closed. This can vary slightly depending on where you are in the world so it’s never a bad idea to ask someone to verify, but it usually holds pretty true globally.

Ultimately, it’s best to shoot for green-flag water conditions. If there aren’t any beach warning flags, that doesn’t guarantee safe water conditions, however, and in those cases you should make sure to ask someone knowledgeable like a lifeguard.

5. Avoid Dangerous Waters

Red flag on a beach

Avoiding dangerous water isn’t limited to only avoiding rough seas or currents during yellow- or red-flag days (which you should do). It could also mean avoiding dangerous marine life, like jellyfish or even certain algae.

If you see a purple flag on the beach warning flag pole, that typically means that there’s been dangerous marine life in the area and the water should be avoided.

It’s also smart to ask locals about the waters nearby. Maybe a wayward shark was seen recently. Maybe there’s some sort of hidden rock outcrop that you can’t see during high tide. Or maybe, they’ll just have a positive tip for you on an awesome secret snorkel spot.

6. Use the Right Equipment

Using the right equipment for the job is always important, but especially so when you’re spending time in the ocean. And, there are some differences in the recommended snorkel equipment between beginners and more advanced snorkelers.

First, you’re going to want a snorkel mask that fits snugly, comfortably and doesn’t leak. That one is the same no matter what snorkeling skill level describes you.

But, some difference does come into play with the snorkel itself.

Is snorkeling dangerous? Wear a snorkel mask that fits well
A well-fitting snorkel mask can help you stay safer in the water.

Traditionally, there was only one type of snorkel: an open tube with a mouthpiece that connected your underwater mouth with the air above the water. But, that’s no longer our only option.

Very smart people have invented what’s known as a “dry snorkel” which looks very similar to a traditional snorkel, but instead of an open-ended breathing tube, there’s a one-way valve on the tip that aims to keep unwanted water out while allowing the snorkeler to breathe normally.

These dry snorkels have been a huge advent for snorkeling for beginners, allowing them to focus less on managing water in their tubes, and more on snorkeling well and enjoying the experience. We always recommend dry snorkels for beginners. (Dry snorkels aren’t 100% foolproof, though, even though they are a huge improvement over traditional snorkels. So, always exercise normal awareness of water possibly entering your snorkel tube.)

Our favorite dry snorkel is the Oceanic Ultra-Dry 2 (Amazon) because of its excellent dry valve and a super-helpful purge valve (which allows you to blow any stray water that does happen to drip into your snorkel out the bottom of your mouthpiece). It’s also lightweight but well-made, and the mouthpiece is comfortable which is hugely helpful for longer snorkel sessions.

(Learn more about dry snorkels over at our full guide on the best dry snorkels.)

Next, using fins is also a great idea. They allow you to move farther, faster, and ultimately help you to conserve energy and see more while you’re on the water. You’ll want to make sure you are using fins that are made for casual snorkeling (and not something like free diving), since those type of fins will have a much more manageable size and shape for beginners.

Our favorite fins for beginning snorkelers are the Mares Avanti Superchannels (on Amazon). They do a great job at harnessing some more advanced fin technology (there’s actually a lot out there) without requiring the higher prices of more fully-advanced fins, so they strike a great balance for those just getting into snorkeling.

(Check out your best options for snorkel fins by reading The Best Snorkel Fins for Beginners, Advanced Snorkelers & Travelers.)

And, of course, if you feel like some extra flotation (through a life jacket or snorkel vest, which is kind of a lighter-duty life jacket) would benefit you, make sure it fits snugly and securely, and doesn’t pull up past your chin when fastened and lifted from the shoulders.

Lastly, you’ll likely have no problem snorkeling comfortably in warm tropical waters with just a bathing suit, but as the water starts to cool, it takes your body heat with it. So, if you’re snorkeling in cooler or even cold water, make sure that you have a wet suit rated for the conditions.

(Check out our guide on getting started with the best snorkel gear while doing it affordably.)

7. Know How to Use Your Equipment

Now that you have the right equipment, make sure that you understand how it works. Take some time on shore to take a look at how everything fits together, how it adjusts, etc. Try it on and make sure that everything fits well. Your mask should be snug without being uncomfortable, and your snorkel should attach securely to your mask strap at a distance that allows its mouthpiece to rest comfortably in your mouth. Your fins and life jacket, too, should fit snugly and minimize wiggle room.

Snorkel mask test
Take some time to check how your snorkel equipment fits and works before taking it out in the water for real.

Learn how to clean and defog your snorkel mask. Then, take some time testing out your equipment by taking a test snorkel in a safe, shallow area. Glide around a little to see how everything feels, making sure that you aren’t finding any unexpected leaks in your mask or snorkel. If you need to make any adjustments, just head back up to the beach and make those tweaks.

(For more on snorkeling from the beach, read How to Snorkel from Shore at the Beach: 4 Great No-Boat Tips.)

8. Practice Getting Rid of Water

One of the most important skills to gain in order to snorkel more safely is how to deal with unexpected water, both in your mask and in your snorkel tube. With a well-fitting mask and a dry snorkel, any intruding water will be much less frequent, but it does happen.

A few drops of water in your snorkel mask usually won’t be enough to derail your dive, but if you end up with too much, you’ll need to clear it. Some masks have a purge valve included on the side of the mask that allows you to hold the mask firmly against your face and blow out through your nose to force any pesky water out of the valve.

If your mask doesn’t have a purge valve, the old fashioned way to clear water is just to tread water so that your head is above the waterline and lift up the bottom of your snorkel mask, wiggle it around a little, and let the water run out of your mask.

Many snorkels also have their own version of purge valves, like our favorite Oceanic Ultra-Dry 2 (Amazon), which usually looks like a small reservoir that extends past the bottom of where the tube curves toward your mouth. This reservoir collects any drops of water that find their way into the snorkel and allows you to blow into it to easily force water out the bottom of the purge valve.

For snorkels without purge valves, you’ll again need to tread water with your head above the water line, then tilt your head back slightly (but not so far that the tip of your snorkel touches the water behind you) and blow firmly out of your snorkel tube. This should eject any water out of the top of your snorkel.

No matter what type of mask or snorkel set-up you have, definitely take some time in the shallows practicing how these water-ejection methods work. Many of the problems that do happen while snorkeling do so because the snorkeler was surprised by water and wasn’t prepared for how to deal with it, so a little practice can go a long way toward helping you to stay safe.

9. Snorkel With a Buddy Group

Maybe the most crucial mistake to avoid is snorkeling by yourself. Instead, always snorkel in a group and pick out a buddy where you and her can keep tabs on each other.

If any problems do come up and you’re by yourself, you’re pretty much stuck. But, if there’s a problem and you have a buddy keeping an eye on you (and vice versa), they can alert the bigger group and you’ll have a lot more people ready to help.

Snorkeling with a group is critically important for beginners and expert snorkelers alike, so make snorkeling a social activity.

Snorkeling family with life jackets
Always make sure to snorkel with a group and pick a buddy.

10. Keep Visual Contact

When you’re snorkeling with a buddy and a group, keep an eye on them! Make sure that you can see them, and that they can see you. The buddy group dynamic doesn’t really work if you get too spread out to see one another.

Also make sure to keep a landmark in sight if you’re near the shore, or the boat in sight if you’re in open water. It’s really easy to get so engrossed with what you’re seeing underwater that you can float a lot further away from where you started without realizing it, which can cause you to be separated from your group or end up so far away that it may be difficult to get back. So, just pop your head up above water every few minutes and keep tabs on where you are.

11. Keep Your Hands to Yourself

Keeping your hands to yourself while snorkeling applies to pretty much… everything. Coral, fish, turtles, etc. In general, it’s just good form (you wouldn’t go into someone else’s house and touch all of their stuff, right?), but there are actually a lot of different reasons for this.

For one, coral has become increasingly fragile over time and takes a crazy-long time to regrow once damaged, if it’s ever able to. And, coral can be sharp and has been known to cause nasty infections in cuts, so it’s to both parties’ best benefit to keep a safe distance.

Then, there’s marine life, which is usually what’s behind the most epic snorkeling experiences. There’s nothing like snorkeling alongside graceful sea turtles, mammoth whale sharks, curious dolphins, or just massive schools of fish. But, keep your hands to yourself.

The majority of marine life is usually content to let you join their world so long as you are respectful of them. Touching them isn’t respectful, and is usually a bad idea. For one, there are plenty of marine animals that can cause you harm if provoked like turtles, octopuses, certain types of fish, and lots of others. And for another, the oils and organisms on our skin can sometimes cause harm to sea creatures. So, give all of the majestic creatures you encounter a wide birth and enjoy them naturally and respectfully.

Is snorkeling dangerous? Make sure to keep your hands to yourself
There’s so much to see underwater, but make sure to keep your hands to yourself to keep you and it as healthy as possible.

12. Ask Locals About the Snorkeling

There’s only so much that you can learn about an area through beach warning flags or researching conditions online.

One of the best ways to really learn about an area is to ask the people who actually live there and enjoy the water as part of everyday life. Hotel concierges, dive shop owners, lifeguards, and other snorkelers or scuba divers can all be great resources, and most everyone is more than happy to share what they know about what to avoid and where some of the best spots are.

13. Use the Right Sun Protection

Sun protection might be an afterthought when thinking about snorkeling safety, but it’s hugely important. It’s not uncommon to be in the water for an hour or more, and if you’re snorkeling without the right sun protection with your back, neck and shoulders all pointed up toward the sun, you can really get zapped by the sun.

Is snorkeling dangerous? Make sure to apply sunscreen
Sunscreen might feel like an afterthought for snorkeling safety, but using a waterproof and reef-safe sunscreen is crucial to both your health and the health of the ocean.

First, you need a sunscreen that’s going to work well for snorkeling. That means two things: water-resistant and reef safe.

Using a water-resistant sunscreen is essential because if your sunscreen just washes off within a few minutes of jumping in the water, it’s really not going to do you any good. And, reef-safe sunscreens are imperative because some ingredients in traditional sunscreens have been linked to significant damage to coral reefs and marine life [source]. I always use the Alba Botanica Sensitive SPF50 sunscreen (Amazon) because it covers well, has a nice SPF, and is reef safe and actually biodegradable.

We also recommend using a rash guard, which is sort of a slim-fitting, water-resistant shirt that you can wear in the water with you. Rash guards primarily provide excellent sun protection across your shoulders and back (which means that you can use less sunscreen overall), and they also serve to insulate your core a bit should you find yourself in slightly cooler water.

My go-to rash guard is the Volcom Men’s Solid Short Sleeve Rashguard (Amazon) since it provides nice sun protection while still giving me excellent freedom of movement throughout the arms, and my wife really likes the REKITA Women’s Long Sleeve Rashguard (Amazon) since it also provides great sun protection but with a little extra insulation for the arms and hands.

14. Stay Hydrated and Energized

You might not realize it, but you’re going to sweat while snorkeling. Probably a lot. It’s a full body workout; arms, legs, core, the whole deal. That means you’re also going to burn a lot of calories.

So, make sure to stay well hydrated and that you’ve had enough food to provide the energy you need to move around safely in the water. And, it’s probably a good idea to mind your grandma’s old adage about eating an hour before you swim to avoid any unnecessary cramping.

15. Check the Weather

A lot of safe snorkeling has to do with planning ahead, and the weather is definitely part of that. It’s smart to check and monitor the forecast for your area so you have a good idea what to expect, both while you’re in and out of the water. If the weather is looking suspect (wind, lightning, etc.), it’s definitely best to hold off on snorkeling until another day.

Checking forecasts isn’t only limited to the skies, though. Many areas have surf reports that you can find online that will give you some idea of the water conditions throughout the day, which is important because often times a weather system well offshore (that you might not even be able to see or find in normal weather forecasts) can affect the temperament of the water near land. The more information you have, the better, and checking out surf reports can help you identify times to avoid being in the water.

16. Take a Tour

Is snorkeling dangerous? Take a snorkel tour to learn safety
Taking a snorkel tour with a licensed operator will get you access to safety instruction as well as a boat to far-off snorkel spots, and searching and booking online through Viator has made finding a tour way easier than even just a few years ago.

Taking a licensed snorkel tour is one of our biggest recommendations for beginning snorkelers. Hopefully the tips in this article give you a great place to start when learning how to stay safe while snorkeling, but there’s nothing quite like learning under the watchful eye of a professional who can teach you as you go and answer any questions that might come up.

Plus, they usually have the boats and know-how to take you to find the best snorkeling!

My preferred place to look for snorkel tours is at Viator. It’s pretty simple to just punch in my location, dates and then be able to check out what tours are available, read reviews, book directly, etc. Give it a look.

(For more info on snorkel tours, check out our guide on booking the best snorkel tours along with how much they should cost.)

17. Have a Blast!

Lastly, if you’re a cautious person and like keeping track of what mistakes to avoid in order to stay safe out there, that’s awesome! We hope this article has been really helpful for you.

But, one other mistake that you might unwittingly make is to get entirely caught up in what not to do and forget to enjoy the experience. Snorkeling is incredible! There’s so much to see, and you’re certain to experience beauty like is only possible in the ocean if you take a moment to look around and take it in.

Women having fun while snorkeling
Don’t forget to let yourself have a ton of fun out on the water!

The Deep Dive

Snorkeling is simply an amazing way to get out and uniquely experience the water while making incredible memories alongside beautiful marine life on their turf. Plus it’s just a blast. But, like most any activity, it does have some dangers that come along with it that are best to avoid.

The name of the snorkeling safety game is using the proper equipment, choosing safe snorkeling water, and practicing established preparedness, training, health and safety precautions.

Risks for most things in life, including snorkeling, will never be zero and safety is never a guarantee, but by using the above tips as a good starting point as well as doing other things like learning from a professional guide, starting small and practicing, and being honest with yourself and taking responsibility for what you’re ready for (and not pushing yourself too far), you can learn how to minimize those risks as much as possible and have an amazing, safe time out on the water.

Happy snorkeling!

Up Next

If you’re interested in more articles about getting started with snorkeling, check out the guides below:

Alex Axon snorkeling

Alex Axon

Alex was born landlocked, but has been hooked on the ocean ever since first wading in. He's obsessed with snorkeling as a beautiful and easy way to experience the underwater world, and having been able to learn first hand from in-the-water experience across the world what gear, tips and trips work, he shares that knowledge in the hope that it will inspire others to find their own underwater adventure.

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