The Ultimate Guide to Snorkelling - Australian Geographic (2023)

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There’s something about the ease and grace of snorkelling that makes it one of the absolute best outdoor activities. A tiny bit of practice, a minimal amount of gear, and you can immerse yourself in another world. Yes, I can scuba dive, but snorkelling just generally seems so much more fun than the ritual of strapping on weights, tanks and diving apparatus. The light gear is easily thrown in a daypack, and it’s an easy activity to do with family and friends. You’re not restricted by time like you are in diving and, let’s face it, on many dives the best colours, corals and sea life are in the first 10 metres anyway, so you can often see almost as much on snorkel.
Snorkelling off the Cocos (Keeling) Islands I’ve swept through schools of humbugs and tropical fish so thick it’s like swimming in an aquarium. I’ve met Nemo in the Great Barrier Reef and swum over coral palettes off Fiji. Even in the seemingly more mundane Sydney Harbour, I’ve seenblue groper, cuttlefish, big wrasse, octopus, wobbegongs, Port Jackson sharks, little diamond-back stingrays, seahorses, weedy seadragons and little things like nudibranchs and crustaceans. “The more you do it, the more you look for those little things,” saysMiguel Garrido, a snorkelling, freediving and scuba instructor.“Guides do the sites every day and so they know where all the cool stuff is – and the dangerous spots.”
Miguel recommends that wherever you snorkel, if you are not with a guide, always stay with a buddy in case one of you gets into trouble. If you are freediving (breath-hold diving), the rule is that one stays on the surface while the other dives.
Whether you are taking children out snorkelling for the first time, are with people who can’t swim well, or just have always found it hard to stick your head in the water and breathe through not much more than a straw, there are a few things that can make snorkelling easier.
First, try putting a mask and snorkel on in a bath, and see if you can relax and breathe normally with your face in the water. Some people find this very difficult, but with practice (and a lot of self-talk) most people should be able to do this. Then, find a snorkelling site with easy walk-in access that gradually gets deeper. That way first timers can swim out a bit and easily retreat or put their feet down if they are panicking. On the Great Barrier Reef, an island, cay or pontoon snorkelling tour will be much easier than an outer reef experience. A pool noodle or other flotation device can help poor swimmers, giving them something to hang onto.
Slow down! The temptation for many first timers is to zoom around crazily, which can scare off many creatures and you’ll miss smaller, hidden things. Don’t just look straight ahead or down: practise looking to the sides and occasionally behind you as sometimes larger fish will creep up on you.
“A lot of people come and are worried about sharks,” saysJack Glennon, a senior dive instructor.“But they’re amazing creatures and they’re not here to endanger us whatsoever.” On the reef, the most common sharks are blacktip, whitetip and grey reef sharks – and it’s worth remembering that objects appear about one-third larger underwater (so that “2m shark” you were raving about is probably only a bit over a metre).
Buy decent gear. It’s tempting to buy the $40 Kmart snorkelling pack, but if a mask doesn’t fit properly and the crappy rubber seal lets in water, you won’t see much and you won’t have a good experience. Good gear rinsed well after each use can last for many years – my dive mask, snorkel and fins are two decades old and still as useful as the day I bought them.
Expect to pay $40 to $120 for a decent snorkel. Many now have a small reservoir and purge valve at the bottom. This means that if a small amount of water collects inside the snorkel, you can blow it out the bottom without taking your face out of the water.“Shouting ‘two’ always works – if you make the ‘t’ sound it just works better,” Jack says. Other features on snorkels include splash guards to prevent water coming in the top, and auto-closure devices at the top that will prevent water from coming in the snorkel even if you go completely underwater. Most divers and experienced snorkelers don’t want these extra features though, as they are one more thing that could possibly break or fail.
Miguel says the most common mistake he sees with snorkels is people fitting them to the mask incorrectly.“Snorkels are typically designed to go on the left side, because a diver’s regulator goes on the right, so a lot are angled specifically for that left-hand use,” he says.
A few years ago, most divers were taught that you check a mask is a good fit by sticking it on your face and breathing in deeply through your nose. If the mask stuck to your face, then it was a good fit, so the theory went. Not so.“I can get a kid’s mask and breathe in and it’ll stay on my face, so it’s not a good test,” Jack says.
Instead, tilt your head back and place the mask on your face with no external pressure. You should be able to check (or have a friend look) whether there are large gaps between your face and the mask’s ‘skirt’. Some silicone can be black, which many beginner snorkelers don’t like as it doesn’t let in as much light and they can feel a little claustrophobic. The whole skirt should be made of 100% silicone – not silitex or rubber. Good masks – which will set you back $80–$180 – should have a second, inner seal.
Masks always need to be defogged, or cleared, before entering the water. Most people just spit in them, rub the spit around the inner lens, and then rinse it out. Dive shops also sell special formulas to do this. However, research by a science class on the Northern Beaches of Sydney has shown that the best anti-fog agent is a few drops of Johnson’s No More Tears Baby Shampoo smeared on the mask’s inside, then rinsed out.
Long, short, split, hard, soft, full-foot, heel-free – there’s such a huge range of fins out there it can be confusing. Snorkelling-specific fins are usually quite short and inflexible, and not necessarily suitable if you want to use them for diving as well. Freediving fins, however, are generally very stiff and very long. (For our ultimate guide to free diving, see here.)
Full-foot fins start from about $60, but they often suit narrow feet better than broad feet, and can cause rubbing or blisters, particularly if a grain of sand or grit gets in. Open-heel fins require the wearer to also buy neoprene booties, but Miguel says booties are ideal to protect your feet“if you’re snorkelling something like Bare Island, where you’re walking in off the rocks”.
He says one of the most dangerous things he sees is people running with fins on. “Don’t put your fins on until you’re at the water’s edge or, if there are no currents, when you’re actually in the water – go in about waist deep, then rock back and put them on. If you do have to walk around in them, walk backwards.”
Jack says some people have no idea in the water about how to kick. “They almost use their legs like they’re on a bicycle, which causes their fins to just stab in the water,” he says. The best and most economical kicking style for most fins is long, strong and slow kicks from the hips, keeping the legs straight. Split fins can suit more of a faster ‘normal’ kicking style, more akin to freestyle.
Sick of washed out, blurry blue photos when snorkelling? As red is the first spectrum to be lost when you descend, the easiest and cheapest solution to get better colours is to buy a clip-on red filter. If the water is greenish, you may need a purple filter.
Next simple solution is to make sure the camera is held steady. “People generally attach them to their head, but there’s so much movement you do with your head,” Miguel says. Instead, he recommends a selfie stick or cradle.
“But the absolute best way to get colour is to bring light down with you – something with a wide beam so it’s not hot-spotting particular areas,” he says.
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Is snorkeling good in Australia? ›

Clear blue water, unending coral reefs, tons of fish species and marine turtle, more than half of the world's ray and reef shark species. Australia has one of the best marine life in the world, making it a paradise for the snorkelers.

What is the best month to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef? ›

The best snorkeling can be done between June and October, with crystal clear waters that let you enjoy the reef at its fullest. Beware that is the peak season though, so if you want to snorkel the reef with less crowds then shoot for April or May.

Is it better to snorkel from Port Douglas or Cairns? ›

Port Douglas is actually closer to the outer reef than Cairns offering snorkelling, scuba diving and boating tours. If it's wildlife adventure you're after then Port Douglas is closer to the Daintree Rainforest where you can go on a Daintree River cruise to spot crocodiles in the wild.

Is snorkel good for lungs? ›

Improves breathing and cardiovascular health

Snorkelling assists in increasing your lungs' capacity to hold oxygen, as breathing through a tube is more difficult than regular breathing – think of snorkelling as a form of breathing exercise.

What should you not do while snorkeling? ›

Do not touch corals, fish or turtles. The only thing you can touch safely is sand and rock and water (that means with your fins also). Read our snorkeling etiquette page for learning how to develop skills for taking a break in the water without having to stand. Don't use harmful sunscreen.

Do you need to wear stinger suit on Great Barrier Reef? ›

It is recommended to wear a stinger suit as a precaution for any water activities in the Great Barrier Reef. Even if the chances of being stung is low, we wouldn't want anything life-threatening to be happening to you! Best you grab a stinger suit and explore the Great Barrier Reef waters safely.

Can you snorkel Great Barrier Reef if you cant swim? ›

The short answer to this? Absolutely! Despite being submerged in the deep ocean water, you don't have to be a swimmer to see the underwater wonderland that is the Great Barrier Reef.

Are there box jellyfish in the Great Barrier Reef? ›

Description. More than 100 species of jellyfish have been recorded along the Great Barrier Reef, including the notorious stinging blue bottles and box jellyfish. One of these, the infamous Irukandji jellyfish, is one of the smallest (roughly one cubic centimetre) and most venomous jellyfish in the world.

What time of day is snorkeling best? ›

In most locations, snorkeling in the morning is best because the waters are calmer and the winds are fairly smooth and calm. Many experts believe that the ideal snorkeling conditions exist when you have a gentle westerly wind, warm water, and a low tide.

What is the most important thing to remember while snorkeling? ›

Snorkeling (Boogie Boarding below)
  • 1) Snorkeling is a buddy sport. ...
  • 2) Never turn your back on the ocean. ...
  • 3) Watch surf, current & surge on reefs/rocks. ...
  • 4) Avoid wana (“vonna”)–black sea urchin. ...
  • 5) Enter and exit from a sandy beach area.
  • 6) Never swim against a current. ...
  • 7) Avoid snorkeling at dusk or dawn (gray light).

Where is the clearest water for snorkeling? ›

The Best Snorkeling in the World: Top 10 Places
  • Ilha Grande, Brazil. ...
  • Great Barrier Reef, Australia. ...
  • Komodo Island, Indonesia. ...
  • The Big Island, Hawaii. ...
  • Kadhdoo Island, Maldives. ...
  • Great Blue Hole, Belize. ...
  • Palawan, Philippines. ...
  • Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
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Where are the best coral reefs in Australia? ›

The Great Barrier Reef

It's home to over 1,600 species of fish, 411 species of hard coral and 150 species of soft coral, more than 30 species of whales and dolphins and six of the world's seven species of marine turtles.

What city in Australia is closest to the Great Barrier Reef? ›

By far the closest, and easiest city to choose is Cairns, being the to-go place for Great Barrier Reef tours. Submerge yourself in the city lifestyle before hopping on board a boat and getting up close and personal with this world-famous marine attraction.

Where is the clearest ocean water in Australia? ›

Whitsunday Islands, Australia A list of the bluest water from around the world would not be complete without honouring the Whitsunday Islands. The region is widely recognised for being a gateway to the Great Barrier reef, however the 74 islands that make up the magical paradise have plenty more to offer.

Can you take coral from the beach Australia? ›

Corals, clams and shells

Many corals, clams and some shells—and jewellery made from these items—need a permit to bring them into, or take them out of, Australia.

Who has the best snorkeling in the world? ›

The Best Snorkeling in the World: Top 10 Places
  • Komodo Island, Indonesia. ...
  • The Big Island, Hawaii. ...
  • Kadhdoo Island, Maldives. ...
  • Great Blue Hole, Belize. ...
  • Palawan, Philippines. ...
  • Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. ...
  • Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands. ...
  • Island of Culebra, Puerto Rico.
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What is the best month to visit Cairns? ›

During the winter months (June to August), Cairns is at its most pleasant, with temperatures ranging from about 17 to 26 degrees. The weather is usually dry with clear skies and calm winds, meaning almost any activity is perfect – particularly sailing and other activities that rely on calm weather.

What is the best island to stay on in the Great Barrier Reef? ›

The Great Barrier Reef island with by far the most amenities, Hamilton is one of the best options in the region if you're after a wide choice of activities.

How long does it take to drive from Sydney Australia to the Great Barrier Reef? ›

Go from Sydney to Brisbane (a 16-hour ride) then wend your way slowly north to Cairns, which adds another 29 hours to this journey. As the cost of the trip is comparable to catching a 3.5-hour flight, this method is the least appealing way to travel.

What is Australia's number 1 beach? ›

'Misery' Beach named Australia's best in 2022

A little-known Western Australian beach called Misery has taken out the title of Australia's Best Beach.

What is the most polluted beach in Australia? ›

Some of Sydney's most popular swimming spots have recorded eye-watering levels of pathogens, up to almost 40,000 per 100ml. The highest levels recorded this year were at Tamarama and Bronte in the city's eastern suburbs, with 39,000 and 30,000 enterococci per 100ml respectively.

Where is turquoise beach in Australia? ›

Visitors can opt for do-it-yourself snorkelling straight off the beach, or take a guided snorkel tour. Turquoise Bay is located approximately 63 kilometres from the Exmouth township, inside the Cape Range National Park. Shuttle bus services from Exmouth are available seasonally.


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