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It's Florida--Get Out and Snorkel!

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On: Fri, Jun 25, 2010 at 12:19PM | By: Clay Ritchings

As summer heats up, Florida parks and pristine beaches are open for enjoyment. Get out and do some snorkeling; it's fun, easy, and can be inexpensive for a family of four! If you want to give it a try, here are a few things that you should know... and some of my favorite places to go!

Selecting a Mask and Snorkel

When selecting a mask, fit, and comfort are important. You don't want a mask that leaks constantly because it doesn't fit your face. So you need to go somewhere where you can try on the masks, most likely a scuba shop. Google 'Divers Equipment and Supplies' and you will come up with lots of places to shop in Florida. You can also look for the dive flag, usually prominently displayed on the front of scuba shops, around your town. I bought my mask from a dive shop in New Jersey 15 years ago and it is still going strong. Try to avoid the cheap Walmart stuff; you get what you pay for.

To try on the mask, move the strap out of the way, brush your hair out of the way, and just push the mask firmly onto your face. If it remains there unsupported, then it is making a good seal. Once you have determined which masks fit properly, other considerations are comfort, field of vision—some masks permit more view to the sides than others—and, of course, the cost. Get a snorkel also, and maybe a spare strap to hold it to your mask.

Just as there is a wide variety of shapes and sizes in scuba masks, there are many different types of snorkels. What you plan to do with them is a factor on what type to buy. A basic snorkel is a simple "J" shape, with a hard inflexible barrel, plastic snorkel keeper, mouthpiece, and drain chamber. A simple snorkel is just as effective as a complex snorkel, but with a complex snorkel you have more options.

Snorkels come with a variety of features, including flexible barrels and rotating mouthpieces, which allow the mouthpiece to move with you. My preference is a snorkel with a hose cover to prevent water from splashing down into your snorkel. This is especially useful when snorkeling in and around the surf or rough water. The other feature that I look for is a purge valve that will direct water down and out of your snorkel, make purging unnecessary when surfacing for air. Make sure the snorkel fits comfortably in your mouth; this allow you to purge water from the mouthpiece and hose quickly and help you to swim efficiently. But, the most important characteristics to remember when choosing a snorkel are its length and the diameter of its barrel.

The right snorkel can make breathing easier, reducing fatigue and extending the activity time.

Swim Fins

Fins aren't really a necessity for snorkeling, but they do help you to get down more quickly so you can see more of the underwater world on that breath of air. For me, the major concern here is comfort. Nothing will raise a blister faster than ill-fitting fins. Scuba divers wear neoprene foam "booties" with their fins and this helps immensely. But because of the thickness of the booties, this may require a different foot size of fins. Another variable is the fin area. A larger fin area may allow you to swim somewhat faster but requires more "horsepower" to operate. A larger fin size will also be heavier, may make you clumsier in the water, impossible to walk in on land, and may be damaging to the underwater environment. Another great reason to visit your local dive shop: they have plenty on hand for you to try on and lots of experience they can share.

Using the Mask

In order to prevent the mask from fogging up in use, a little preparation is required. When you are in or next to the water and ready to snorkel, spit on the inside face of your mask and smear the spit fully over the optical surface with your finger. Then give the mask a quick rinse in the water and put it on. This should keep it fog-free until you take it off again. If you dislike the idea of spitting into your mask, you can purchase a product at the scuba shop to prevent mask fogging. But this "industrial spit" will work no better than your own.

Using the Snorkel

To keep the snorkel upright while you are swimming face down on the surface, the snorkel strap will need to be adjusted properly on the mask strap. Since the snorkeler cannot see the snorkel while it's in use, it may be helpful to have someone watch you and help you find the proper adjustment. For me, it's with the strap well forward, almost against the mask. Now you can swim along the surface, breathing through the snorkel and observing the world below. When you see something interesting, you can hold your breath and dive down to have a closer look.

In order to stretch your time below, it is important to be relaxed and not expend a lot of energy. It also helps to be able to get down quickly. To start down, rotate your body so that you can put your head straight down and stick your legs straight up and out of the water. Then let gravity do its thing and you should be on your way down without moving a muscle. When your downward speed has deteriorated, you can begin kicking to continue.

For the return to the surface, tilt your head back and watch where you are going. You don't want to bang your head on the bottom of a boat. You should reserve enough air in your lungs so that after you break the surface—with your head still back so that the open end of the snorkel will be pointing down—you can send a quick burst of air through snorkel to help expel any remaining water. And you are ready to continue swimming on the surface, face down, breathing through the snorkel. Scuba divers are taught to ascend with one hand stretched upward to prevent striking an object with your head and to be more visible to boat traffic when surfacing. It's not a bad idea for snorkelers to do the same.

Clearing Your Ears

If you descend more than a few feet from the surface you may begin to feel some pressure on your ears. If so, you will need to equalize the pressure before proceeding further. For some, this may happen naturally; others may need to make a conscious effort; and for some it may be impossible to clear the ears due to a cold or other sinus problems. Pressure on the ears is equalized by holding your nose and blowing gently. You should hear a crackling sound and feel the pressure subside. Try it now. It is actually better to do this before pressure is felt since the unequalized pressure tends to collapse the passages that are used to equalize. Scuba divers may even do this exercise before arriving at the dive site to insure that passages are clear and they are ready to equalize. If you have a problem, return to the surface, attempt to equalize again, and then start down. Under no circumstances should you do anything that is painful for your ears.

Places to Go

What makes a good snorkeling site depends on so many factors and varies with weather conditions, so it is best to get some advice from locals who snorkel. Dive shops are a good source of information and probably offer snorkeling expeditions, as well. A lot of sites are most easily accessed by boat.

One such site I really enjoy is Sombrero Reef in the Florida Keys. This spectacular site is approximately 4.5 miles south of Marathon and within view of the historic Seven Mile Bridge. It is marked by a 142-foot lighthouse that was constructed in the early 1860s. The reef ranges in depth from about two feet to 25 feet. It is home to a wide variety of indigenous corals and almost every kind of tropical reef fish in the book, from the very large Jew fish to very small goby.... Spectacular!

Hands down one of the most recognized snorkeling and scuba diving areas in the country is John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo. The completely submerged Pennekamp was the first undersea park created in the United States and is home to innumerable breathtaking sights. The park, combined with the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, encompasses 178 nautical square miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove swamps. Boat trips run by the park depart three times a day

Another great area for snorkeling is Sanibel Island, Florida. More than a dozen artificial reefs lie within a 15-mile radius of Sanibel and Captiva, making these Florida barrier islands great for snorkeling and scuba diving. The beaches are great for snorkeling and sea life abounds, but if you are into collecting shells, you can snorkel 50 yards off the sandy white beaches and find lots of beautiful shells. Just be careful not to grab one that is still alive and put it in your bag.

My favorite freshwater snorkeling destination is most definitely the crystalline waters of the Rainbow River. Located in Dunnellon, Florida (which is in the southwest corner of Marion County, Florida, about 20 miles southwest of Ocala), The Rainbow River is a gently winding 5.7 mile-long river that merges with the Withlacoochee River at Dunnellon. The headwaters, Rainbow Springs, are the anchor for the Rainbow Springs State Park. The park is a popular destination to swim, snorkel, canoe, picnic, or stroll on the walking paths to enjoy the many plants and animals that abound here. This is a great trip when the temperature hits the mid 90s because the water is around 72 degrees all year long...

Take Simple Precautions When You Snorkel

Whether you are snorkling with snorkeling gear or scuba diving, it is strongly advised that you have a buddy. You and your buddy can look after each other and help should there be an emergency or problems. Make sure your snorkel buddy understands your goals for the day, whether it is leisurely swimming over reefs or snorkeling at a beach. Your buddy is more likely to stick with you if he or she understands and shares the agenda.

Always check the weather conditions beforehand. You don't want to be swimming offshore or from a dive boat and be surprised by a sudden storm.

It sounds obvious, but don't drink and dive. Snorkeling, swimming, and diving require you to be alert and focused.

Don't swim too far from the dive boat or too far offshore. Especially when you are snorkeling, it is easy to get distracted by the beauty below. Before you know it, you've drifted farther out than you planned. If you are swimming back to shore against the current, try swimming in a diagonal direction toward land.

If you are snorkeling off a boat, you should always put up a dive flag. This flag will help other boaters know there are divers beneath the water who could emerge at any time. Other boats that see these flags displayed should give the area a wide berth. While boating anywhere near a diver down flag, keep a lookout for bubbles breaking the surface which could indicate divers who have strayed away from their boat.

I am not an expert; these are just a few things that I have learned and experienced... go out and enjoy!

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