The Golden Years: It’s the Season for Snorkeling

By Joel Simon

“Snorkeling begins at 70!” These are not my words. They belong to Barbara Gillot, an energetic woman from Salinas, California, recently introduced to the wonders of the undersea world. Barbara is not alone. Many of her contemporaries share her enthusiasm for snorkeling both as a recreational physical activity and an exhilarating firsthand exploration of the aquatic wilderness.

Today’s seniors are more active than ever before-both physically and mentally. However, aging usually suggests making some concessions in the realm of sports. Happily, age has distinct advantages in the world of snorkeling.

While snorkeling is a recreation well suited to mature minds and bodies, it’s really an activity for all ages. The marine environment is appealing on a multitude of levels, ranging from appreciation of fish to detailed examination of species diversity. The engaging colors, dynamics and textures of the coral reef fascinate both children and adults. Snorkeling is perfectly suited to families, where children, parents and grandparents can share the experience.

Snorkeling is a skill anyone comfortable in the water can easily master, regardless of age. After several days snorkeling, Sue Hess, a 60-something bundle of energy, exclaimed: “I feel ten years younger and 20 years braver!”Although many people adapt easily to the activity, most novices will benefit from a few useful hints. Snorkeling is a training and, as with any training, you improve with practice. Don’t worry if things feel a bit awkward in the beginning. The equipment, while simple, alters habits formed over years on land. Many people customarily breathe through their nose. With a mask and snorkel, you become a mouth breather. When immersed in water, your normal upright orientation is flipped to horizontal. Plus, anything not attached to the bottom, snorkelers and fish included, is influenced by surge or current. Solid land is replaced by fluid and it all moves! Compound these elements with unfamiliar surroundings and the possibility of an encounter with strange looking creatures and it’s no wonder there may be a few tenuous moments in the beginning.

Individual aptitude for snorkeling varies. In addition to learning the fit and use of equipment, many people must cope with more complex issues: long-term fear of the water, feelings of claustrophobia or lack of swimming ability. Becoming comfortable in the water often involves as much psychology as skill development. Almost anyone who wants to see the ocean’s habitat through a mask can do it with the help of a patient instructor-someone who will encourage self-confidence and trust in the ocean at the snorkeler’s own pace.

Regardless of age, the recipe for successful snorkeling requires three essential ingredients: equipment, education and attitude. Simply put, the best attitude is relax and enjoy. Both safety and pleasure increase when the snorkeler feels comfortable and confident in the water.

The road to relaxed snorkeling is much smoother when you have appropriate equipment and have learned its proper use. The greatest assurance for enjoyable snorkeling is a properly fitting mask. Masks come in as many sizes and shapes as faces, so be sure to select one that matches yours. Fortunately, corrected vision masks are also available. Some optics companies will grind lenses to your exact prescription and bond them into the mask of your choice. Other masks are designed to accommodate interchangeable corrective lenses and bifocal corrections.

On a recent snorkeling program in Fiji, Suzie Harding, a delightful woman in her 70s, came to me complaining that her mask was leaking. We examined the mask and it seemed to fit perfectly. She put in the snorkel and swam away. In a few minutes she was back, her mask again full of water. She explained that at first it was OK, then she saw a lovely Emperor Angelfish and it filled up almost immediately. As we hung on the edge of the open skiff, I asked her to show me exactly what happened. As she visualized the fish, I immediately saw the problem. I’ve termed it dynamic facial topography. When she smiled, her cheeks bunched up, creating large gaps along the mask’s bottom edge. Hence, the more she enjoyed herself, the more miserable she became! We discussed the problem-she agreed not to smile and had a great time.

Another handy piece of equipment is a pair of fins. While they can facilitate fast swimming, their greatest asset is increased efficiency. Used gently, they let you glide nearly effortlessly along the surface, keeping your body in a relaxed horizontal position. Not only does this help keep your snorkel above water, it also keeps your face looking down comfortably.

Whereas energetic young whippers usually dash off, alarming both fish and friends, older (and wiser) snorkelers just relax and enjoy. Fish enjoy this too! Seventy-three year old Shirley Doyle shared her insight with the comment: “So soon old, so late smart. I can’t believe all the time and energy I wasted on aggressive snorkeling in my youth!” To best appreciate life on the reef, find an interesting area, a shallow coral head for example, and float quietly in one place. Many reef creatures rely on cryptic coloration for survival and are only noticed upon careful observation. By remaining still, small fish and other shy creatures grow accustomed to your presence and come out of hiding.

With fins, propulsion is by easy, gentle kicking. You rarely need to use your arms-let them rest by your side or float one in front of your head to act as a bumper. Gently lead your fins up and down, allowing the pressure to flex your joints-keep your knees and ankles loose. This lets your muscles expand and contract, promotes muscular respiration, diminishes lactic acid buildup and makes your legs far less susceptible to cramps. Used gently, fins can help encourage flexibility in aging joints and seem to benefit hip and knee replacements.

Older skin can be especially sensitive to the sun. While in the water, almost any kind of clothing will protect, from pajamas to Lycra suits. Men with thinning hair should remember that scalps are also sensitive to sunburn. Either sunscreen or a hat is a perfect remedy. Covering your body while snorkeling prevents sunburn and shields against stinging zooplankton and abrasion from encounters with corals or pier pilings. Incidentally, even small scrapes in the tropics, especially coral cuts, can become easily infected.

When you think you’re ready to plunge in, take a moment to check for jewelry, watches or other “land-based” items that might be lost to the sea. On one occasion a man from my group forgot to remove his hearing aids. After the devices made a full recovery, he said to me with a perfectly straight face that what he enjoyed most about snorkeling was the delightful silence of the underwater world.

Probably the most important responsibility while snorkeling is to listen and abide by your personal limitations. These change daily, depending on water temperature, surge or current, how much sleep you’ve had, your health or how much snorkeling you’ve recently done.

While many people measure snorkeling skills by how fast they can kick, how deep they can freedive or how long they can stay U/W, the real measure of skill is the ability to remain relaxed. Developing and maintaining a calm, easy demeanor in the water is your best key to unlocking the treasure chest of the sea’s fascinating mysteries. Most older snorkelers will agree with Natalia Brown, a 70 plus year old woman from Maryland who commented, “Snorkeling is for all ages, but the older the better to appreciate the continuity of life above and below the water and the connectedness of everything.”

For refreshing the mind, for rejuvenating the body, for exercise without effort-snorkeling works regardless of age.