Snorkeling with Children
Snorkeling with Children
Growing up in the Rocky Mountains, my children are more accustomed to hiking, sledding, and wanting to Build a Snowman™ (yeah, you’re singing that song now) than anything ocean-related. Yet, they have a great passion for marine life. Perhaps it comes from our great aquarium in Denver or their parents’ love of scuba diving. My son, at age three, cast aside all young boy aspirations of being a police officer or firefighter for the noble profession of marine biologist. It has been three years since his first proclamation and he has not wavered. Lucky for us all, our family visits family in the Caribbean every year, including one of our favorites, Coral Beach Village in Utila.
Once your family decides to start snorkeling, there are a few things you will want to know. Preparing ahead of time sets the stage for success, so that all ages have fun!
Swimming skill and comfort level
Getting children snorkeling in the water is the first step in raising future divers and marine biologists. My kids have always enjoyed the pool. They began snorkeling at about age three or four, though our Caymanian cousin was easily free diving by that age. Your child’s comfort level with water is the more important than age. Remember that swimming skill can be aided with the same devices you use in the pool. Greater buoyancy in salt water helps as well.
Gear is essential. However, some pieces are more essential than others. The key is to select with comfort and safety in mind. Feel free to try the gear out in the pool first for added confidence.
Snorkel and Mask: Obviously, a snorkel and mask are required. However, pay attention to that mask. Check for fit by having your child hold the mask up to the face, hair pulled away, and breath in to make a vacuum. It should hold on its own without leaks. Now, tackle fog. It is miserable to get the child in the water, ready to go, only to have the mask fog up two minutes later. The tempered glass of new scuba/snorkeling masks have a film that attracts the water vapor your child’s little face will give off. Put that glass against colder ocean water and you get condensation. Not only will your child not see fish, a foggy mask is disorienting. You have to remove this film to get a clear view when in the water. No fun for adults or children to snorkel in a fog.
Experienced divers have their own rituals for good mask behavior. Our family recipe is Soft Scrub on the glass (both sides), followed by a drop of lemon Joy dishwashing liquid, rubbed around, gently rinsed off. Then, when at the ocean, spit into the glass, rub it around, and rinse with ocean water. Disgusting? Perhaps. But it is effective.
Many new snorkels have water stop capabilities. Look for these, especially with children who are not as experienced in the water.
Fins: I suggest no fins until the child is comfortable. They are a must for parents, who may need to schlep a kid back in. However, for children, it is just one more piece of gear that makes the entry process from the beach or boat difficult. Fins also can cause damage to the reef on a snorkeler who does not have good control of his or her body. Once the rest of the gear is easy, let them have their fins.
Wetsuit: Ah, warm tropical water. However, 80°F is still a cold tub for the human body. A child’s little body works hard with swimming and learning and growing. Why add temperature regulation to that list? In some weather and with some bodies, it is not necessary. However, I have spent sessions where my kids were shivering and blue lipped by the end of it. No fun! Plus, the wetsuit adds buoyancy, which can help keep the little snorkeler swimming easily.
Swim vests or floaties: Use the same protection as you would in the pool. This should not be an exercise in danger. You want your child to feel capable in the water, not terrified. Just make sure the kind you choose allows a swimming position so your child can get that mask underwater. If you don’t mind being a little encumbered and you have one available, a large inner tube float attached to a rope is a great thing to drag along. Tired swimmers can take a break by holding on. We have even put our kids into the tube for the drag back to the beach.
Cameras: Everyone wants to get a picture of Junior snorkeling for their Facebook page. However, for the first few trips, you may want to keep your underwater camera under wraps. Your children will need your undistracted focus. Once they get the hang of it, snap away! Documenting the sea life and identifying later in the day is a great learning tool for the whole family.
Parent to Child Ratio
This depends on the age and swimming ability of the children. My family has a one to one ratio. This is perfect for us. Invariably, one kid will have a spaz out about salt water in the eyes or clearing a snorkel while the other will be going full speed to the next section of reef. Don’t dash the dreams of the reef lover by having to rein her in to deal with her screaming brother. You want to support those moments of delight when they happen.
We don’t always have the luxury of picking the days. Vacations are short enough–we should be in the water every day. However, calm waves, no offshore pull, and warm sunny skies that amplify the color down there are ideal if we can get it. Some days, we don’t push it. As an adult, would you enjoy snorkeling in rough and cloudy conditions? Neither would your kid.
As with any of the tasks we ask our children to do—learning to ride a bike, skiing, reading—repetition is key. Snorkeling is as good a place to teach perseverance as any, for parents as well. On our first snorkeling vacations, my children typically disliked the first day, mildly tolerated the second, and then loved it by the end of the trip. Hopefully, with the information in this article, you will skip some of the mistakes that made our first few days difficult.
After all this preparation, what are we hoping for? For me, it was the first time I heard a squeal of delight from my daughter, who quite suddenly stopped her complaints about her mask and the cold, in order to take off after a simple yellow-tailed snapper. In that very second, a Whole New World™ (yup, now you are singing that song) opened up to my child. What was once a glass sheet of blue and grey turned into a fantastic realm full of color and life. My girl became a mermaid, a future diver, a marine lover, and a confident adventurer. The hidden bonus of family snorkeling: after all that work and fun, there is nothing better than your child passed out for an afternoon nap in a hammock, allowing mom and dad some well-earned rum-beverage-of-your-choice time. Go ahead, you deserve it!