Snorkelling is one of the best ways to appreciate a coral reef – in shallow water where the sunlight is bright and the colours of the reef can really be appreciated. Snorkelling requires little equipment, and one can become totally absorbed observing the wide variety of corals or watching reef creatures going about their business in their own environment. A few hours of snorkelling practice before departing on a holiday, particularly for those who are new to it or who haven’t done it for several years, will be well rewarded when the time comes, because the brush-up on basic skills will make it easier to relax in the water, which is the key to enjoyment.
Equipment for snorkelling
All that’s needed is a face mask, snorkel, and fins. Its important to have a mask that fits well, for a leaking mask is not only annoying but it interferes with relaxing. Anyone who intends doing much snorkelling should consider purchasing their own mask rather than leaving it to chance that they’ll find a good fit among those provided by a cruise operator. And, it’s wise to purchase a mask at a dive shop rather than a supermarket, for example, because dive shops stock a wider range, and they know how a mask is supposed to fit. Test the mask by holding it against the face with the index finger, making sure that all hair is away from the part that seals around the face, then breathe in gently through the nose. The mask will be sucked against the face and should stay there without being held, even when the head is shaken gently from side to side.
Snorkels come in a variety of models, some with features such as adjustable mouth pieces and purge valves, which make them very comfortable to use, but basically a snorkel is just a simple tube, and the simplest model can be quite adequate. They’re not expensive, so when buying a mask, its a good idea to get the snorkel as well, and that way they will always be together in your bag, properly assembled.
Fins come in three or four size ranges, and it’s usually quite easy to find a pair that fits among those provided by the cruise operator.
Water temperature in the Whitsundays
The water in the Whitsundays is relatively warm all year round, but even so, most snorkellers wearing only a swimsuit find that 20-30 minutes is about as long as they can go without beginning to get chilled. A wetsuit with short sleeves and short pants (a ‘shorty’) may give some added comfort in the cooler months, although the minimum average temperature in mid-winter (21°C) is certainly not too cold for ordinary swimming.
Enjoyable snorkelling depends on one’s being able to lie face down in the water completely relaxed, keeping the body flat on the surface and breathing easily. Being relaxed is the key to staying parallel with the bottom, which is the correct position for viewing. If the body is tense, the feet and legs have a tendency to sink, and you find yourself churning the water to stay afloat, perhaps even kicking the bottom if you’re in shallow water, which will certainly frighten away any wildlife that you might hope to see. Newcomers to snorkelling should practise in the shallow end of a swimming pool or near a beach (where it’s easy to stand up) until breathing through the snorkel feels natural.
Finning is an almost straight-legged action, with knees slightly bent. Some say it helps to imagine having splints on your legs. It’s sometimes easier to get the feel of it on your back.
Watch out for currents and for sunburn
Surface currents can be quite strong in the Whitsundays, particularly at times of spring tides. Keep an eye on the boat to see that you haven’t drifted too far away.
Sunburn can be a potential hazard for snorkellers because one feels no heat, and it’s possible to get a burn on the back of the legs and upper back while absorbed in the underwater scenery. Always put on plenty of water-resistant sunscreen, or wear a T-shirt; some snorkellers wear a Lycra suit, or shirt and trousers, which gives good protection from the sun and also protection against scrapes and scratches.
When in the water
There are few aggressive creatures to be encountered, although some are curious about snorkellers just as snorkellers are curious about them. It’s a good idea when entering foreign territory to behave like a guest in someone else’s house. In this state of mind, interaction with the local inhabitants will almost certainly be polite and pleasant. As a general rule it’s wise to be a passive observer and not to handle the animals.
Don’t splash around on the surface making a lot of noise, impersonating a wounded fish; you may send out the wrong signals. Marine creatures depend on a spectrum of low-frequency vibrations for communication, navigation, and for detecting wounded prey.