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What not to touch when snorkeling?

Here is Why You Should Never Touch Marine Life

We are sensuous creatures, we rely on our senses, most animals do after all. Sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. We garner information about our surroundings this way. We are also a tactile species.

Don’t become that diver, just don’t

Our hands have evolved to manipulate objects; opposing thumbs distinguish us from our nearest living relatives. In short, we touch and change our world almost instinctively, just look at a baby and how it grabs things.

So when someone says “Don’t touch marine life” it does go somewhat against our inbuilt desire to do the opposite. That person be it your Mother, Father or Divemaster or Mother-of-all-Divemasters, who does utter those words, is not however doing it just to hear their own voice.

Here’s why you should never touch marine life

Both animals and plants underwater possess many defense mechanisms, they have to otherwise they would be something else’s dinner. That is why you should not touch marine life.

Spines whether they are concealed or apparent are everywhere and in more places than you’d realize. Sea Urchins are obvious, but many fish have them too. Most spines are found on a fish’s fins, they form the structural strength a bit like fingers allowing the fish to move them around and erect them when necessary. They are sharp, hard, and the fish will use them to defend itself.

Those like the Triggerfish have a modified dorsal fin that is locked upright to make it vastly harder for large predatory fish to swallow them.

Another defense mechanism that I have to admit I’ve fallen foul of, are found in the Surgeonfish family. Where the tail fin meets the Surgeonfish fish’s body, a part called the Caudal Peduncle, a set of VERY sharp, blade-like appendages is found.

While the fish with these added blades doesn’t wield them about like a Samurai, they are certainly enough to damage the mouth parts of many a predator trying to eat them. If the prey fish can inflict some pain on the predator causing them to let go, then those blades have served their purpose.

If sharp spines and razor blade appendages aren’t enough, many are also loaded with poisonous chemicals. Lionfish are one of the most obvious examples, but there are other much more insidious fish out there.

Poisonous Master of disguise

Stonefish and Scorpionfish are two examples where the animal utilizes camouflage to hide, and poison loaded fin spines to inflict sometimes fatal injuries on anything attempting to eat them. We can fall foul of this by not looking where we are going or touching anything without looking.

Extensive tissue death can occur from the powerful toxins these fish carry, those that have carelessly been stung experience incredible pain also with wounds taking months and even years to heal.

A huge number of soft and hard corals also possess mechanisms designed to inflict damage upon anything that touches them. Jellyfish to carry within particular parts of their bodies structures called nematocysts that inject tiny syringes of the toxin into anything that activates them by touch. Fire Corals get their name from this very painful defense mechanism.

So you see there are many ways that marine creatures defend themselves, passive adaptations that stop things from taking a bite.

(Article continues below)

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Moray’s hole and it doesn’t have anywhere to flee to, you find out what it’s like to have all those needle sharp, backwards pointing teeth sink into your hand. I would imagine it’s excruciatingly painful, not to mention the total lack of sympathy you would get from me.

Contrary to what Hollywood and certain sensationalist TV shows would have us believe, animals are not inherently aggressive. They don’t swim around looking for the next diver or swimmer to bite. If an animal does bite, it’s because it has either mistaken you for food or it’s a last resort defense after severe provocation. It risks being hurt in the process so if there is another way to get away it would rather do that.

Other reasons why you shouldn’t touch animals underwater

Things like corals and fish have a layer of mucous covering them which is anti-bacterial. It keeps out or kills parasites, helps fight infection and keeps them healthy, so when someone comes along and strokes the Napoleon, or cuddles the Grouper it removes much of the protective coating.

This causes problems in the long run. In one particular case, I have seen Groupers become infested with lice once they became tame and were being handled by scuba divers time and time again each day. The animals started to look quite sick with open wounds and lice all around their eyes and mouth.

Repetitive petting is also commonly associated with feeding. Quite often small scraps of food are offered to get the animal close enough to pet, and this disrupts the natural feeding behaviors.

This can have other disastrous effects where the animals become so used to being fed they expect it, and injuries to divers can occur when the animal bites. Feeding frankfurters to a Napoleon may seem innocent but to a Napoleon fingers also look like Franks and mistakes are made.

What not to put in dishwasher?

And finally onto my ultimate point. you may be reading this and think, “All of this doesn’t matter to me because I wear gloves. After all, that’s why we wear gloves isn’t it, to remove the risk of hurting ourselves?” Well, all I can say is, with that attitude you are more likely to touch marine life and cause damage to the reef and it’s inhabitants.

Far too many times I have seen qualified divers compensating for their lack of buoyancy control by using their gloved hands to push off things, grab hold of things to pull themselves along or just man-handling reef creatures. This is not the right way to do things. This is the wrong philosophy. It should be discouraged everywhere possible as it breeds the wrong diving mentality.

Wreck diving maybe, commercial diving certainly but for your every day recreational diver in warm water gloves are not necessary.

Now my last point. Why you should not touch marine animals

Imagine if you were a reef inhabitant and some alien comes along and starts trying to grab you, plucks you out of your home or safe territory on the reef then sticks you back or worse yet just drops you? Where do you end up?

Have you been fatally wounded in that process? Will you be able to find your way back to your shelter before you are eaten? Have you had your home destroyed? Have you been so stressed by their groping and grabbing you flee away from your security?

So maybe the Golden rule of diving might be “Never hold your breath” , if you consider and care about the animals you are there to see, it could also be “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

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Is snorkeling dangerous? 6 tips to deal with snorkeling risks for beginners and experienced

“Is snorkeling dangerous?” I’m always surprised by how often I get asked. Snorkelling is, after scuba diving, my favourite water activity. The underwater world is often very peaceful and always fascinating. It is incredible how many new things you can learn during a snorkelling adventure. When I mention our underwater adventures, I sometimes see more worries than excitement in people’s eyes.

I understand not everyone is as excited as I am: there are snorkeling risks that turn people off from the activity. I am not confident because I ignore these risks, but I am confident because I know how to deal with them.

Most of the time, people are worried about snorkeling risks because of a lack of knowledge or experience of the situation. I was not at ease the first time I went snorkeling, but the more I did it, the more confident I got. And the more I enjoyed it. It inspired me to make that list of snorkeling dangers and how to deal with them to build up your confidence so you can enjoy snorkelling as much as I do!

Tips for peace of mind when snorkeling

I find it easier to enjoy adventurous activities when I know I have a backup in case something happens. That’s why I recommend purchasing travel insurance for peace of mind (more info here). I also don’t like to stress about my car keys or other belongings when I’m snorkeling – see here how I keep them safe!

Woman snorkelling next to a turtle on Lady Elliot Island

Do you find scuba diving scary? I know the feeling. I have now done more than 200 dives, so I’ve shared my experience about overcoming my fear of scuba diving in this article; I hope it can help!

My tips to deal with snorkeling risks

I do not pretend to be a snorkelling expert, but I have snorkelled and scuba dived a lot and in different environments during my holidays and weekend away. I have learnt a lot during all my adventures underwater and at the surface and I like to share my passion and convince other people to give it a go.

Let’s start with a couple of obvious reminders to minimise the dangers when snorkeling.

Why do you think snorkeling is dangerous?

Snorkeler smiling and doing the okay sign underwater

It’s normal to not feel at ease with an activity you don’t know. It’s actually safe and wise to understand the risks so that you don’t put yourself in danger. But sometimes, people have fears that are not rational. I always find it helpful to take time to think about why I find something (here, snorkeling) dangerous. It’s a good way to identify options to minimise the risks. Am I not skilled enough? Is snorkeling dangerous for me? Do I need equipment? Are my fears irrational?

It’s always a good idea to research the site you are going to snorkel.

Snorkeling is dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Some sites are harder than others, so you need to assess if it’s within your level. If you can talk to locals, they may have important information to reduce the risks. For example, that’s how we learnt that we needed to wait for the top of high tide at the Gold Coast Seaway or at Nelson Bay, to avoid strong currents. Boat and jetski traffic can also be a danger when snorkeling in some areas. Staying near the rocks or the shore is often the safest option. It’s important to understand the channels where they go, and maybe bring a buoy* with you to make sure you’re seen.

What makes Gen Z stand out?

If you have doubts or don’t feel confident, it’s often possible and safer to book a tour and go with a guide. Having someone waiting for you on shore (or doing the lookout from the boat) is always a good idea.

Like for any sport, having the right equipment reduces the risks of something going wrong.

You may only need a mask and a snorkel to see underwater. But fins are essential for safety, wetsuits can protect you, and it’s safer to carry a cutting device (a knife* or an Eezycut*) if you snorkel in a zone that’s popular for fishing. Find out more about snorkel gear here.

It’s important to know how your equipment works before you start using it in open water. If you go snorkeling for the first time without testing your equipment, then snorkeling is dangerous. I recommend taking it to the pool to make sure you feel comfortable. If you’re not a strong swimmer or if you get tired easily, you may want to consider taking a floating device or using a rope from the boat.

Now that we’re down with the reminders, scroll down to see more tips, based on my personal experience. If you have any more tips to add to reduce risks when snorkeling, feel free to do so in the comments below!

Snorkeling with sea lions

1. Don’t panic if a problem arises

I know it is easier to write than to do. But keep in mind that panicking – especially when you are in the water – will not help at all. Keep your mask on. Control your breathing. And find a solution to the problem. Hopefully, there will be an easy solution listed in the snorkeling tips that follow.

2. Stay in buddy pair when you’re in the water

Snorkeling on top of a coral reef

Many snorkeling risks will be easier to prevent and fix if you have someone with you. So try to have someone with you or at least another group of snorkelers nearby. You’ll notice it can be hard to hear someone calling at the surface when your head is underwater. So stay close to each other and communicate regularly, even just to show each other something you’ve found. With two pairs of eyes, you double your chances of seeing great things!

3. Don’t underestimate the risks of free diving

Snorkeling is a lot less dangerous if you stick to the surface and just float.

Whether you do it for the sensations or to get a closer look, free diving is something to take seriously to minimise the snorkeling risks. I am not a free diver, so I won’t give extended advice here as it would not be appropriate. The basic is never to do free diving alone nor at the same time so you can take care of each other. It is recommended to remove your snorkel. Remember to equalise when you go down and not to force to equalize your ears if you feel pain. Finally, don’t free dive if you’ve dived just before as it adds up nitrogen to your blood.

4. Don’t touch underwater creatures

Snorkeling with a sea lion

I like to watch only. And my big rule is not to touch anything, especially if I don’t know what it is. Marine animals are only dangerous if they feel they need to defend themselves. Also, avoid grabbing and touching the ground. If you have to, then do it carefully and gently. Three fingers should be enough and check first if there is nothing there that could get scared or hurt you.

That works for corals too. Some corals can hurt (sharp or skin reaction), but they won’t if you avoid touching them! If that’s something that you’re really anxious about, even without touching, you can protect yourself with gloves* or a wetsuit*.

Be careful as you enter and exit the water. You don’t want to step on a stingray before you put your fins on or grab a rock to find your balance but put your hand on something that can hurt (hello urchins or stonefish).

It’s always a good idea to ask locals what you should look for. They’ll have tips about animals or things you’ll be excited to see, or things you should avoid!

Responsible travel tip: Even if you know that something doesn’t hurt or if you’re protected, it’s always better not to touch any living creature when you’re snorkeling, so you don’t jeopardize conservation.

5. Keep in mind: it’s not the small one who will eat the big one

Is snorkeling dangerous - snorkeling with sharks

I know many people are scared of sharks when snorkeling. I am no longer scared of sharks. I’ve seen them many times while snorkeling and scuba diving now. It’s actually super exciting when we get to spot a shark. Most of them are placid and will not think of biting you if you don’t annoy them.

If you’re nervous about sharks, remember no one underwater will want to get in trouble with you if you look impressive. It is great to be discreet and quiet to observe as much life as possible. But if you feel in danger, like a shark who might be too curious to your taste, get closer to your buddy and form a group to create a bigger shape. This way, you will look more impressive!

What personality type is Lady Diana?

It does not mean small creatures will never come to you in an aggressive sneaky way. Smaller fishes can feel the need to protect their territory. It is impressive how brave they can be, trying to threaten something that is 100 times their size. They would come straight to you, and they do sometimes try to bite. Although it is not a pleasant experience and it can be a little bit annoying, a bite will not actually harm you. No reason to be scared here. I always get away without a bite by changing direction and keeping my fingers close to my body. I don’t want to annoy them; they are right to defend their territory as it’s their home more than mine.

There are two types that I would sometimes see doing that:

  • The one we call “bastard fish” (officially named damselfish, but I don’t think it deserves this name!): a small black fish that would often come to annoy us and photobomb when we are watching beautiful colourful fish like clownfish – ah jealousy!
  • The picasso fish (from the triggerfish family): it is usually friendly, but when we visited New Caledonia, it was the baby season for them so they would protect their progenitures.

6. Know what to do with jellyfish

Underwater photo tips jelly fish

Most of the time, jellyfish are not dangerous, but they are an annoying, common beach injury. It is always good to know what jellyfish live in the area where you intend to snorkel. If they are common, you may choose to snorkel with a full-body wetsuit* to minimise the risk of getting stung. If you get hurt, don’t panic: jellyfish stings can be painful, but many will only give you a skin reaction and pain. I did my scuba diving certification in a river full of jellyfish: it was uncomfortable but entirely safe.

Going back to shore and following local and professional advice is always the safest option.

From my experience, jellyfish are more present at the surface so to get away from a jellyfish zone; I try to duck dive in the water to avoid more stings. For the ones that got me, I removed the tentacles with salt water; it was a lot easier than out of the water. Back to shore, it’s important to ask for local advice. From my experience, vinegar does the job quite well, but you may need to soak the stung area in hot water or apply ice if the pain persists. If you suspect an allergy, take an antihistamine as soon as you can. I always have one in my first aid kit. If it looks serious, seek medical advice. Don’t hesitate to call an ambulance in case of severe allergic reaction or if you met a box jellyfish (mainly for the Australian adventurers on the North of the East Coast).

I’d like to conclude this article by reminding everyone that snorkelling is a fantastic experience. I hope you no longer see snorkeling as a dangerous activity.

By using common sense, it is most of the time a safe activity that will allow you to spend wonderful moments with beautiful and interesting creatures. And just a quick collection of snorkelling photos from my Instagram feed should be enough to convince you:

instagram photos snorkelling

Do you think snorkeling is dangerous? Or do you have advice for a better experience? Share your experience in the comments below!

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Why You Shouldn’t Touch Coral, Fish or Other Sea Life While Snorkeling

There you are, gliding through cool tropical water on a sunny day. Your mask isn’t leaking, your snorkel is comfortable, and there’s a beautiful coral reef a few feet below you. Fish of all shapes and sizes abound, and then you see it… A sea turtle has come up right beside you! All you have to do is reach out with your hand and…

I know it can be tempting to reach out and pet that sea turtle swimming next to you, or to pick up that cool-looking seashell you spied. Humans are not only curious, but we are also very tactile. Remember when you were a kid and just wanted to touch anything that looked in any way soft, spongy, tickly, fuzzy, or bumpy?

Sea animals are so unlike anything you might find on land. They can be bright and colorful and have otherworldly textures. They have a way of bringing out the curious, tactile kid in us. Reaching out to touch coral is especially tempting because of how strange and beautiful it looks!

Our parents once told us to, “Look, but don’t touch,” when we visited zoos, museums, and other public spaces. As snorkelers, we need to listen to the echo of that voice in our heads when we’re in the ocean.

Look, but don’t touch!

There’s an old adage among experienced snorkelers and divers that goes like this:

“Take only memories, leave only bubbles.”

That’s because the beautiful reef habitats you have the privilege to enjoy are precarious and fragile, as are the plants and animals that call them home. Treating them with the respect and care they deserve is part of being a responsible and ethical snorkeler.

What keeps radiation out?

At this point, you might be wondering to yourself, “But surely, one small brush of the fingers over a sea star, or nicking one tiny piece of coral as a souvenir can’t make such a difference, can it?”

Well, there’s your problem…

You’re only thinking about your own actions, not the actions of everyone else.

There’s no potluck if everyone decides not to pitch in, and there’s no reef if everyone decides just one little piece of coral is worth taking, or one animal is worth disturbing.

Remember, reefs that are accessible to snorkelers and divers get tons of traffic each year. That’s tons of folks feeding stingrays, petting turtles, and breaking coral with clumsy fins. It’s up to each one of us to decide for ourselves that we don’t want to contribute to the destruction of these precious environments.

Plus, ocean ecosystems (reefs especially) are already stressed from climate change, pollution, increased acidity, and overfishing, so they really can’t afford destructive behavior from tourists. Ethical snorkeling means considering your actions in context with everyone else’s!

Touching marine life is harmful to the animals and their ecosystems

Yes, if you touch coral you could kill it

Corals may look like strange plants or rocks, but did you know corals are actually animals? They can eat small fish and invertebrates by stinging and trapping them, and they are evolutionary relatives of jellyfish! Their bright colors come from a symbiont that lives inside the coral polyps called zooxanthellae. The coral polyps receive most of their food (up to 90% in some species) from the zooxanthellae, which are photosynthesizing micro-organisms similar to algae. In return, the zooxanthellae get carbon dioxide and other nutrients, as well as safe and sheltered access to sunlight.

Coral polyps protect themselves (and their zooxanthellae partners) from infection with a mucus layer that is home to a rich microbiome, just like your own skin or gut! By touching coral, either directly or accidentally, you damage this protective layer. Not only can this action expose the coral to pathogens, but the damage will also trigger a stress response. When corals are stressed, they will eject their zooxanthellae. This event is called “bleaching” because without the pigmented zooxanthellae the coral polyps lose their color and become white.

If the disturbance is only temporary, the coral polyps may eventually recover their zooxanthellae. But sometimes the damage is too severe and the polyps will die.

There is always a chance that coral will die if you touch it or step on it.

Multiply that by thousands of tourists over decades, and then add in climate change, boat damage, and pollution and… well, you get the picture!

If you accidentally damage coral, it should feel as if you accidentally hit someone’s kitty or puppy on the road! If you’re a driver, you learn to navigate the roads defensively and with high alertness at all times to avoid such a thing, right? Inexperienced snorkelers on a coral reef are like a bunch of freshly licensed teens on a road full of cats and dogs.

It’s your responsibility to ensure that you’re a practiced snorkeler. You must be able to control your movements and position at all times without standing, holding, or pulling on anything in your environment.

What about other animals like fish, turtles, and dolphins?

When it comes to snorkeling with marine animals, there are three clear (and easy!) rules for you to follow:

And all of those basically amount to: Don’t disrupt any animal’s natural behavior. Simple!

A snorkeler reaching to touch a stingray with big orange

1. Don’t touch coral or other wildlife.

You may think you’re being gentle or that the animal isn’t bothered, but you are likely causing the animal stress. Even if a curious animal approaches you, don’t reach out to touch it. Not only is it better for the animals to keep your distance, but it’s also for your own good! The last thing you want on your trip is a nasty bite or sting from an animal you’ve touched or irritated. Many reef fish have spines near their fins and tails to deter predators, some of which may even be venomous. Reef fish also have a mucus layer that protects their fragile skin from wounds and pathogens. Like coral, even just touching a fish can harm them enough to kill them.

Underwater of two snorkelers swimming after a sea turtle. Text overlay reads, Don

2. Don’t chase wildlife.

Besides not directly interacting with marine life, there are a few other things you should do as well. Your goal is to make your presence as non-threatening as possible for the animals whose home you’re a guest in.

For one, do your best to minimize splashes, bubbles, and loud chatting. Most marine animals are sensitive to sound and physical disturbances in the water. For bigger animals like sharks, turtles, and dolphins, keep a distance of at least a few meters from them. The only time a closer distance is acceptable is if they choose to approach you (and even then don’t touch!) Behave passively if approached. Marine reptiles and mammals (e.g. dolphins, turtles) also must surface to breathe. So be sure not to position yourself directly above them!

What PB stands for?

In some jurisdictions, it is even illegal to approach or interact with certain marine animals, and doing so can net you a hefty fine.

Underwater photo of a hand holding out food and surrounded by reef fish. Text overlay reads, Don

3. Don’t feed wildlife.

Food webs are complicated aspects of nature. Adding a whole new source of energy to them (remember it’s not just you doing the feeding, it’s thousands of people every year) is a recipe for disaster. Entire trophic systems can be upended when you change an animal population’s diet and feeding habits. Conditioning animals to expect feeding can also disrupt critical behaviors that they need to survive and make them more vulnerable to ship strikes, intra-species aggression, and disease transmission.

Just don’t do it, and definitely don’t participate in tours that feature feeding wildlife!

Don’t touch coral to get a souvenir!

Image of a blue butterfly creating circular ripples on the surface of a pond.

Responsible snorkeling means you treat the surrounding environment, as well as the animals, with respect. That means the only thing you should be picking up is trash and debris. I know it can be nice to have a physical souvenir from an amazing trip, but please leave that cool seashell where you found it. Remember, there’d be no reef if everyone decided it was okay to take a small piece of it home. Plus, reef ecosystems are complicated, so think of your actions as having a Butterfly Effect… where even the smallest change can have a compounding effect.

What if I accidentally touch coral?

Sadly, even the most well-intentioned snorkeler can end up damaging coral or wildlife if they’re inexperienced. That’s because you must never touch coral or stand on it. After thousands of tourists, a poked and prodded coral reef can easily weaken and die (and don’t forget the other stressors they’re dealing with too!)

The solution? Get some pool practice to develop buoyancy control and proper finning technique. While this won’t completely eliminate your chances of accidentally damaging coral, it will significantly reduce them!

Even if you’re a strong pool swimmer, kicking with fins correctly takes practice. I mean this not just in terms of technique, but in being aware of their physical presence in the water. Learning to think of your feet as taking up several times the space they usually do takes some getting used to!

You also need to develop buoyancy control, so you can be deliberate and precise about your body’s position in the water.

Flailing about with your arms and legs because you aren’t used to currents and waves is a surefire way to accidentally kick and grab at coral! Even kicking up sediment can be damaging to coral. Settling sediment will block sunlight that the coral symbionts (zooxanthellae) need for photosynthesis.

Ideally, you will have some time to practice finning technique and buoyancy control in a pool at home or at your hotel before your expedition. Unfortunately, casual snorkelers usually don’t learn or are even aware of these skills. That’s why SCUBA diving websites and blogs are the best places to start understanding them. Pay special attention to mastering your frog kick and your breath control. Learn to stay prone and floating as much as possible. If you must come up to tread, be sure to tuck in your knees to keep your fins from touching coral or the seafloor.

Responsible snorkeling isn’t just about your intentions, it takes practice!

Photographers can also be terrible news for coral reefs because they have extra equipment and like to get close to wildlife! When you’re hung up on getting that perfect shot, your chances of agitating the sea animals or accidentally touching coral are greater. If you absolutely must bring your underwater camera, avoid using the flash. The quick bursts of light can be quite disorienting not only to the wildlife but to your fellow snorkelers as well!

Responsible snorkeling sometimes means taking only memories, not photos!

Final tip: Use good quality snorkeling gear that fits you correctly

Image of many masks and snorkels arranged in a collage with text overlay saying,

To snorkel with good buoyancy control you need to be using equipment that you’re familiar with and that fits you properly. This is a big reason why it’s a better idea to buy your own gear rather than to rent it.

If you’re totally new to snorkeling, and you’re not a strong swimmer, then I highly advise you use a flotation vest. Not only is this a safer option for you, but the increased stability provided by the vest will also keep you from flailing your limbs. This means you’ll be less likely to accidentally touch coral or other animals. If you’re bringing any children on your trip, then they should definitely be wearing one.

Responsible snorkeling isn’t just about protecting ocean environments, it’s about your own safety too!

Simple blue wavy line with curled ends. Tide Trek

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