Ah, the warm sun, the fluffy clouds, the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean. As you might guess, some of the most popular excursions off the cruise ships are snorkel expeditions. So, when you first board the ship, you look over the excursion list and put a check mark next to "Coki Beach Snorkeling" or "Magens Bay Snorkeling." In the fine print are those important words, "snorkel equipment rental included in excursion price." Great! you think.
So, you arrive at the beach. You strip off your clothes (of course, you wore your bathing suit under them), and the snorkel excursion operator hands you a mask, snorkel, flotation vest, and fins.
Suddenly, doubts assail you. Will the mask fit? Will it leak? Will the fins fit? Will they be comfortable? Who had that snorkel in their mouth last? What kind of dread diseases did they have? Did the excursion operator clean everything well? Will the vest fit? Does it have the type of straps you like? Who used that vest last, and inflated it with his/her mouth? Has the nozzle been cleaned?
But, you bravely don your equipment and wade out in the water. You quickly discover that the equipment works OK, but you still have your qualms...and one other problem. Without your glasses, you can't tell for sure what kind of fish those colorful blurs down there are!
Well, there is a way you can avoid these questions and problems. If you're going to do snorkeling as an excursion on a regular basis, you might be money ahead to purchase your own equipment!
WHERE TO SHOP
If you're located anywhere near a metropolitan area, you should be able to find a dive or scuba shop in your area. Call around first and find one willing to work with a novice and explain just what you need. We found a very agreeable shop in Grand Prairie, TX.
You might be able to find equipment at larger stores, depending on the season. Oshman's carries some, and even Wal-Mart might have some of the things you need. But don't expect the kid who works there as a summer job to be able to help you with any of your decisions!
Perfectly good snorkel masks, made from silicone rubber, are available from about $50. The shop operator should demonstrate how to test the mask for correct fit. The basic drill is like this: Place the mask on your face, without putting the straps over your head. Breath in through your nose until the mask is held onto your face by the suction. Hold your breath for a while (don't keep trying to breath in!). If the mask stays tight, not admitting any air, it also shouldn't let in any water.
Do not even consider any non-silicone masks, or those with plastic lenses instead of tempered glass lenses.
Should you fall into the "blind as a batfish" category, as I do, you might want to get prescription lenses in your mask. This isn't as expensive as you might think. Get a copy of your prescription and take it with you to the dive shop. The operator will tell you into which masks he can install his standard lenses. Keep in mind that the lenses only come in increments of .5 diopters, and they don't correct for astigmatism, but you should be able to get close enough to your prescription to make your snorkeling much more enjoyable. Bifocals are even available, if you want to read your fish ID chart or romance novel underwater.
We bought our masks for $49.95, plus $33 for each prescription lens. This makes a total of $116. You can even get your mask in a variety of colors.
The idea of a snorkel, of course, is to make it possible for you to breathe while your face is in the water. Ideally, a snorkel would be designed in such a way as to make it impossible for water to go down the snorkel. In fact, that's not possible. The next best thing is to have a way to easily expel what water gets in. Many snorkels have a small reservoir at their lowest point, with a one-way valve to expel, with a quick exhalation, the water that gets in.
Snorkels are available from about $10 to $50 or more. The $10 ones are hard rubber, with no water valve. This is the type you're likely to find on the snorkel excursion. More expensive ones have a flexible section and mouthpiece made of silicone rubber, in addition to a water expelling valve. This will greatly increase your comfort. We paid about $30 each for our snorkels.
You can also get your snorkel in colors coordinated with the mask.
You might want to stop at this point, if the quality of the fins and vest is not a concern to you. A mask and snorkel can easily be packed, so you have the most important and most portable of the necessary equipment.
Fins come in two conformations. They either have the full-foot fit, or a back strap. Those with a back strap are designed to be used with a scuba boot. The full-foot type is what you really want for snorkeling.
Snorkel fins are NOT the same as scuba fins. Scuba fins are larger, since the wearer has to move more weight.
Full foot snorkel fins start at about $40. That's what we paid for ours. Again, they come in various colors.
A flotation vest is NOT necessary for snorkeling. However, it can make your snorkeling more enjoyable, allowing you to "drift" more easily on the surface. The vest is inflated by mouth, to the point that you feel comfortable. The vests usually have a waist strap. The best ones also have a crotch strap, preventing the vest from "riding up."
Vests are available from about $40.
The complete outfit would come to about $225, if you didn't go hog wild. As I said, a mask and snorkel would come to less than $100, unless you get prescription lenses. While this sounds like a significant investment, it's an investment in increased enjoyment and piece of mind.
Mike Blanche is an experienced cruiser who has contributed previously to The SeaLetter and cruised with us on both the 1997 & 1998 Cruise Bashes. Mike is also a member of the Cruise Staff of the CompuServe UK Travel Forum and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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