The Joy of Snorkelling
2AM: BACKLIT BY A POWERFUL DECK-LIGHT that had lured the copepods and small fish that, in turn, had enticed the world’s largest fish to circle the Maldivian liveaboard’s stern, I watched the whale shark’s belly flash dirty white for an instant as my strobes fired.
I tried to follow as the shark cruised overhead and out of the beam, and was suddenly disorientated. Looking up, all was black. Attempting to surface, I found with my head the hull of the support dhoni that was tied alongside the bigger boat. Now, at least, I could see stars.
I had drifted below the boats and into the pitch darkness cast by their shadows. I swam out from beneath them, and snatched my first breath in 90 seconds.
Snorkelling was my introduction to the underwater world and I’m still smitten. In 1970, as a seven-year-old, I’d left the Midlands to live in a Gibraltar beach-front hotel. A modest house reef stretched out from the shore. The prime-time TV series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau was fresh in my memory, and I was drawn inexorably to the water.
I was instantly captivated. Lime-green anemones fluttered in the surge, iridescent starfish glowed cobalt against tan rocks, and black- and silver-striped bream caught the dancing yellow shafts of the late afternoon Mediterranean sun.
SOON MY AMBITIONS turned to scuba-diving. That proved a difficult transition. Back then you had to be 14 to dive, and training took place through an amateur club system. BSAC branches dominated training in England, to which I’d returned, but none was local to me.
At 16, armed with a scuba-set, a little informal coaching and a diving manual, I largely taught myself. At 18 I joined a branch in Cornwall to get trained properly. After 11 months of weekly meetings, I had ticked off only one set of pool scuba skills, so I returned to bandit-diving.
I was 23 before I got a formal qualification. By then it was possible to go to a professional PADI school and get trained and certified in five days, which is what I did.
One reason BSAC training was so drawn-out was the emphasis on learning snorkelling before you ever got near a scuba-set.
Historically, BSAC included snorkelling in its entry-level course to build watermanship, self-confidence and because, in the early days of the sport, when many dives took place from the shore, snorkellers provided safety cover for the scuba-divers. BSAC rarely revised its training programmes.
In the early 1980s, PADI began its worldwide expansion. Paring down its existing course, it concentrated on the essentials as it saw them.
Snorkel-training was all but deleted. What little remained was shifted, so that it took place after students had already learned basic scuba skills.
PADI’s radical restructuring was prompted by the belief that students found it easier to learn scuba skills before learning snorkelling, which requires breath-holding and a greater comfort level in the water.
PADI also embraced a business model that said: give the customers what they want. And customers weren’t signing up to scuba classes to become snorkellers.
In truth, even those scuba-divers who had gone through snorkel training rarely chose to use the skill afterwards.
Snorkelling is, however, a very rewarding and useful skill for recreational divers. It’s something you can enjoy when you can’t rent scuba tanks or get air, or to extend your time in the water between scuba-dives. And it can be a way to continue your explorations when age or ill-health calls time on your scuba career.
SOMETIMES, AS WE’LL SEE, snorkelling is simply the best way to enjoy some of the most spectacular marine-life encounters the oceans have to offer. As a former BSAC, PADI and NAUI diving instructor, I support the relegation of snorkelling to a minor part of scuba-training. But on a personal level, I and many others would encourage scuba-divers who haven’t given snorkelling a fair crack to think again.
Let’s draw a distinction between snorkelling and freediving. I had the pleasure of being on a trip with Mark Harris, author of the freedivers’ guide to underwater photography, Glass and Water. Nick Balban, our captain, remarked to me after one dive: “Wow, you were down longer than Mark!”
Of course I was. I had been kneeling in 10m, desperately trying to unpick my camera menus to take a photograph, and had lost track of time. But the long, deep snorkel-dives that champion freedivers such as Mark make so effortlessly are beyond me.
It is in the shallows that snorkelling has gifted me its finest moments. Mostly I’ve stayed within 6m of the surface, breath-holding for only a minute or so. This is well within most people’s capabilities, including children’s.
Among the main motivations for abandoning scuba for snorkels is the vibration and noise open-circuit and semi-closed-circuit scuba produces from exhaled bubbles.
Some fish avoid scuba-divers because of this. Divers either don’t see them at all or get just a glimpse as they rapidly seek the cover of the reef or safety of distance.
MANY TOP UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHERSand film-makers first learned to stalk shy fish with a speargun, and now combine the snorkelling skills and marine field-craft they learned then to succeed behind the camera now.
But it is with encountering megafauna that snorkelling often scores spectacularly over scuba. In 2001 I flew with Andrew (AJ) Pugsley, also a scuba instructor, to South Africa to photograph great white sharks under the expert guidance of those outstanding shark-wranglers Andre Hartman and Mike Rutzen.
It was a private charter. We hoped to dive uncaged, but conditions that year were against us, with poor visibility and feisty sharks. So we stayed inside the cages and were grateful for their protection.
At first we had breathed through regulators connected by hoses to scuba-tanks on Black Cat’s deck, but we quickly abandoned them. “We tried the hookah system, largely just because it was there,” says AJ. “Although we tried it only for a short time it seemed that the bubbles might be putting the sharks off, at least until they’d become used to it.
“The thing is that this isn’t some frenzy of large numbers of animals, it’s generally individuals that approach cautiously at first. We wanted to make the most of the limited time we had. The sharks need to keep moving, so make passes and then return. This meant that there was no real advantage in using breathing apparatus, only potential disadvantages.”
Off Gansbaai, feeding the sharks isn’t permitted. This might explain why they are more prone to evade bubbling divers than in other hotspots where they are fed, a reward for staying around and, perhaps, overcoming their aversion to exhalations.
The poor weather in the Cape of Storms that had silted the water had made it impossible to put to sea for some weeks before we arrived. Several professional film-makers and photographers had been unable to work, and were running out of time to get their shots.
We were asked if we would share our boat. David Doubilet, shooting a white-shark assignment for National Geographic magazine, joined us for a day.
Marshalled by Mike Rutzen, David had attempted to work briefly in the open with a lone great white. Mike had anchored near the edge of a kelp bed, using it and the boat to restrict the sharks’ approach, creating an arena to make it easier for him to control the encounter.
BOTH MEN CHOSE TO SNORKEL. They duck-dived together, David holding his camera, Mike an unloaded speargun to firmly push the shark away if needed.
Fading light quickly caused Mike to call time. Great whites wear dirty water like an invisibility cloak.
The following year, we left the cages. We watched the reaction that bubbles from an ungainly drysuited scuba-diver could provoke. As one photographer submerged, his strobe arm had collapsed. Reaching up to reposition it, air had gushed from his cuff-dump and the great white shark that had taken so long to attract bolted, never to return.
It reminded me of a US underwater photographer who had tried an early semi-closed rebreather when diving with hammerheads.
It had proven a disadvantage. “With open circuit I can hold my breath, so as not to spook the approaching shark,” he explained. “With the SCR, it just blows off bubbles at exactly the wrong time.” We used snorkels.
The art of Andre’s shark sense was to be able to create a situation in which bait lured four great white sharks close enough to us to make for a compelling experience, while knowing that each would make only a cursory examination as it swam by and departed.
“Andre,” our landlord Mervyn Meyer stated flatly, “thinks like a shark.”
During the long days waiting for whites, we would sometimes go snorkelling. Crossing the sand trails that split the seaweed canopies that we explored and hid in was like crossing a road for me. Look left, look right, look left again and swim for it. After all, we were in the sharks’ prowling grounds, and our bait flowed on the tide.
Among the tall fronds of kelp, AJ was zoomed by a seal. I watched the pair gambol together, barrel-rolling and turning somersaults. “Being in the water with the seal, both of us breath-holding, could best be described as the aquatic parallel to a three-dimensional game of chase with a dog,” recalls AJ.
“There was definite interaction, and on the practical side, being unencumbered by bulky equipment meant that I could move quickly, turn sharply and not worry about pressure changes.
“On the emotional side, it felt much more meaningful than it would have if I’d used scuba. On scuba it would have been a different experience, because you couldn’t play as much.”
WHERE FOOD DOESN’T WORK as a ploy to bring an animal in close enough to observe or photograph, having fun can. A marine biologist and expedition leader who alternates his working life between the Arctic Circle and the Antarctic continent, Jamie Watts is another scuba instructor who evangelises snorkelling.
Jamie is well-known to DIVER readers for superbly researched and beautifully written creature features. Playing is a tactic that Jamie, with his deep insights into pinnipeds, the family to which seals and sea-lions belong, recommends. He has used it to work with the only seal believed to regard humans as prey.
“I love leopard seals,” Jamie enthuses. “Of any animal I’ve seen in the water anywhere in the world, leopard seals are the most fluid, the most boldly inquisitive. They interact, they engage.
“They are the only seal I know that holds your gaze. They don’t just look at you, they interact with you on a level that most seals don’t. They are the only true seal that swims with all four limbs, more like a sea-lion. Their agility and the way they move through the water is unlike anything else on the planet. They are utterly beautiful.”
Jamie crewed the 2014 Antarctica Elysium project led by Michael Aw. He helped to organise snorkelling with the leopard seals for top photographers including David Doubilet and Emory Kristoff, and famed big-animals specialist Amos Nachoum.
Of Elysium Jamie says: “The task Michael set the group was to produce the greatest visual representation of the Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia Sea and South Georgia area that had ever been done, and I think he probably succeeded.’
Jamie agrees with AJ that scuba equipment makes you clumsy in the water. “Scuba slows you down and makes you very cumbersome. By restricting your range of motion, it also tends to restrict your field of view, so you can’t turn and you can’t twist and you can’t engage.
“The other side is that from the animal’s perspective you become rather boring. As a freediver you can twist, turn and interact and be much more interesting to the seal.
“I know BBC crews who, when they want to film leopard seals, put someone in the water just to keep it interested so that it doesn’t get bored and move away. It’s a two-way thing. You have to be interesting enough to get the animal intrigued enough to interact with you.”
As with leaving the cages to encounter the great white, which now borders on routine, free-swimming with leopard seals is becoming more commonplace.
Partly this is because of people like Jamie, who have built experience in the water with the seals incrementally, despite their reputation.
THAT REPUTATION WAS REINFORCED by the 2003 death of British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientist Kirsty Brown, while snorkelling.
Kirsty was not deliberately seeking out leopard seals, and the animal was unseen before it struck her, taking her by the head and dragging her down to 70m.
“It wasn’t a completely isolated event,” says Jamie, who has worked for BAS. “Investigations showed that there had been more attempted takes by leopard seals, usually under ice or around the edges of sea-ice in winter and springtime.
“There were stories going back to early explorer times when seals had come up and broken through the ice and tried to take people, but not succeeded.”
Just as Andre and Mike had been open about the risks of free-swimming with great whites, Jamie is candid about the dangers leopard seals pose. “Of course, you’re choosing to get in the water with an animal that is much bigger than you are and can wipe you out very, very easily, so there has to be an understanding that this is completely at the whim of the animal, and that things could go wrong and the animal could turn.”
The manoeuvrability Jamie exhorts helps him, he believes, to respond in kind to the seals’ own displays and body language. “A recurring theme with leopard-seal encounters is that initially the seals seem to be interested, but stand-offish, and then they get a little bit more curious and a little bit more bold and a little bit more comfortable with you.
“We get what I consider to be greetings, which may involve them swimming straight at you and flashing teeth and then backing away.
“One of the accepted wisdoms, if we can claim enough experience to call it that, is that if you do something similar back, you’ve created an understanding of sorts. If you lunge back a little at that point, you set a boundary.
“Experience so far shows that this works. It might not work forever.”
I ask Jamie if he could have the same experience with marine mammals on scuba. His reply is unequivocal. “No, definitely not, not even close.”
Mark Koekemoer originally learned to dive through the South African Underwater Union. He went through a training programme that included a strong snorkelling content, similar to the early BSAC programmes I had experienced.
In the Strait of Gibraltar, Mark’s breath-holding skills would prove essential to successfully photographing pilot whales.
“There were two compelling reasons we could not use scuba in the Strait,” Mark explains. “The first was the speed at which we needed to get into the water to encounter the whales, and the speed with which we sometimes needed to get out to avoid shipping.
“Second, the way in which the whales themselves act meant that we needed to be fast and manoeuvrable ourselves.
“Once you’re in the water, you lose sight of the oncoming whales until they are almost on top of or underneath you, so you have to be ready to duck-dive and intercept them instantly.”
Bubbles can be unwelcome around mammals. “Blowing bubbles can be a sign of intimidation with a lot of seals and sea-lions. Sea-lions in particular blow bubbles as a threat display,” notes Jamie Watts.
AJ, Mark and I had also experienced this behaviour with the pilot whales. They often followed up bubbling with other threat displays, including feigned bites, tail-swipes and, most unnervingly, herding us against the surface.
By implication, a scuba-diver’s own bubbles may be interpreted as both a threat, causing the animal to leave or at least keep its distance, or a challenge to be met with force.
IT IS NOT ONLY THE EXOTIC megafauna encounters that make snorkelling so much fun, so intriguing and, for underwater photographers, so productive. It can also be the sheer amount of time you can spend in the water, free to work your subjects and able to chase the best light, unhindered by the rigid schedules of a dive-centre or dive-boat.
In Dahab, Mark and I had enjoyed wonderful diving from the pocket liveaboard Aeolus. Now we waited to depart as it backed up to its moorings.
In Egypt’s good times, brigades of divers had crossed the pier as they boarded and disembarked from the small fleet of boats that shared its dock, but few had cast their gaze down into its rich waters.
Mark did. “With the last dive of the charter over, I still longed to be in the water,” he tells me. “With not much boat traffic from the pier and being at the end of the lagoon, it was a very tranquil experience.
“I enjoy the freedom of not having to go with the extra scuba gear. I love not having to constantly check my pressure gauge – I can just fully absorb the experience, and time goes out of the window.
“We had seen schooling lionfish from above the pier, so I knew there had to be at least that spectacle to capture on camera. I got right in the middle of the action, photographing lionfish preying on baitfish.
“Two geometric male morays were battling it out with each other, either over territory or a female. A big common octopus had taken residence beneath the pier. It provided ample photo opportunities and posed gracefully for us as it leapt from pillar to pillar.
“Dwarf scorpionfish lined up along the pier supports. They presented a great opportunity to try out my bugeye lens.” Over the next couple of days, we returned again and again to take pictures in the shadows below the boardwalk and on the sprawling sun-dappled sandflats surrounding it.
In Mikidani, Tanzania, Mark had also spent hours taking pictures beside a sea-wall bordering the coast road of the small town in which we were staying.
He describes one of his best dives. “It was late afternoon, after our last scuba-dive. It was serene, not a soul in sight. The lagoon was flat, the surface like a mirror, the sun beginning to fall.
“Stingless jellyfish were in abundance. I wanted to get some shots against the dappling sunlight. I spent ages in the water, photographing jellyfish from all angles, and as the sun descended, the light transformed the images one by one.
“As the final rays disappeared beyond the horizon, I could hear, but not see, the creatures of the lagoon coming to life. It was like the sound of a city waking up in the early hours of the morning.
“I walked back along the bay road, in almost pitch darkness, heading toward the one or two street-lights in the distance, reflecting on the wonderful experience I’d had all alone in the lagoon.” Mark’s point is well made. The quixotic pursuit of deep water by scuba-divers often means that we can overlook the rich bounty of opportunities passed on the way.
SNORKELLING CAN ALSO KEEP you in the water when the opportunity to scuba-dive has passed. Richard Thorn, pushing 60, is a veteran scuba-diver who recently needed to have a rethink.
“Over the past few years I have realised that the cost-benefit ratio for diving, given my interest in photography, has not been as clear as it used to be,” he says.
“As I’ve got older the effort of getting in and out of boats and up and down slips and steps loaded with gear, drysuits, weights, SLR camera and housing and lights has rarely matched the reward of making good pictures.
“Having dived for many years, been everywhere I wanted to go, achieved all I could as an instructor and been national diving officer, president and vice-president of the Irish Underwater Council (IUC), I was starting to wonder how much I was getting out of diving.”
After a hip replacement in April 2015, Richard was back up and about by mid-June. “As part of the rehab I was doing a lot of snorkelling, and I found that with just wetsuit, light weights and fins, mask, snorkel and camera I was really enjoying the freedom of no heavy gear and no pressure to rush for boats.
“Perhaps crucially as well, I found that snorkelling allowed me to make the sort of images I like to make. Not having scuba equipment was not really an issue.”
Then Richard suffered a near-fatal medical emergency that required an ascending aortic dissection – surgery that has a survival rate of about 10%.
“To get this is relatively unusual; to survive it is very unusual. To be a diver and get it and survive it is unheard of,” says Richard. A graft inside the aorta from where it leaves the heart goes around and down the descending part of the aorta, and there has been no research on the impact that changes in pressure internally would have on the graft.
“In consultation with the president of the medical commission of the IUC we decided that it would be best if I was not a guinea pig,” says Richard. “So I took the decision to give up diving. However, the president was quite happy that I could continue snorkelling.”
AS A SCHOOLBOY I had weaved my way through the tide-pools left by an ebbing tide off Looe in Cornwall, belly-flopping seal-like across the kelp-slicked reef to reach the next oasis. I found myself in the company of gobies and shrimp and tiny scuttling crabs.
The basins held so much trapped life at which I could marvel, at such close range and none in more than half a metre of water. I was entranced for hours.
Last summer, in a small sea-pool in Lanzarote that all but dries out at low water, I was reminded of that experience 40 years ago. I was watching blennies.
The fish were bold. They flicked up onto a small boulder, staring me down. Sunburn had left my shoulders peeling, and I was suddenly aware of a sensation of the skin being ruffled and then tugged.
Then I got bitten. A shoal of bream had set about me. Emboldened by snorkellers hand-feeding them bread, the fish were used to snatching a meal from incautious sun-worshippers.
A gangly young boy wearing mask and snorkel slipped in beside me, arms and legs flailing about the place. Those few fish enthralled him and, perhaps, in that modest lagoon, he’ll find his own life-time’s inspiration to scuba-dive, as I did in Gibraltar nearly a half century before.
But, if he does, I hope he will never lose the joy of snorkelling.