Hawaii Snorkeling Safety tips – How to Keep Safe in the Water

Snorkeling is, on the whole, a fairly safe past time, however, accidental drowning is one of the leading causes of death amongst tourists in Hawaii. On average on tourist, a week dies in Hawaii, often from drowning. We say this not to scare you out of the water, but to take proper precautions and be wary of the potential dangers. Our Hawaii Snorkeling Safety tips should help you keep safe and sound when snorkeling in most places in Hawaii.

Hawaii is not Disneyland, it is a wild and rugged place and at times the serine ocean can turn on you in a very scary way. Take a look at the below video, we were snorkeling safely that morning, a front rolled in and this happened, snorkeling in this would not be fun!

As we said, this is not meant to scare you or be an overtly “nanny” state type website. Over 8 Million people visit the Islands every year and the vast majority leave with nothing but fantastic memories and lighter wallets. This guide is meant to ensure you are one of those.

Division of Aquatic Resources

These Guys are in charge of ocean safety for the Hawaii Government so always read and take on board what they have to say.

Marine Safety Tips

About Me

Maui Hawaii Attractions

I should take a second to explain myself and why I feel qualified to write this. This is all my own observations from hundreds of snorkel trips in Hawaii and other locations around the world along with some very extreme open water swimming experiences and a good amount of dives in both Hawaii and other places. I live in the water whenever possible. And the joy of Hawaii for me is the access to fantastic ocean water year round.

I am a long distance swimmer (Ironman Triathlete actually) and have swum in many varied and “interesting” locations from fast flowing rivers to frigid freezing lakes, and wild oceans. I have snorkeled, swum, and dived all over the world. I have broken every rule I am about to make and experienced the consequences. I have been gripped with fear and panic for real and imaginary reasons and genuinely wondered if I was going to make it out alive.

Alcohol

Before we go any further. Don’t drink and Swim. This is the single quickest way to get yourself dead. I said above I have broken all these rules, but not this one. Alcohol limits every single one of your facets except inhibition, this leads you to be more confident, exactly at a time when you need to be less. It is a dangerous combination that has resulted in many many deaths.

An Ice cold post Snorkel beer is one of the best things in the world, so wait to after to crack one open.

A Serious Hangover is also no condition to be going Snorkeling either…

Ocean

Wild Hawaii Ocean
Hookipa Beach, Maui, Hawaii

“Never Turn your back on the Ocean!”

You will See or hear this phrase on every piece of ocean safety advice you ever see in Hawaii. And while it is great advice, we hate it.

Why? It sounds too poetic, it’s too much of a proverb and doesn’t carry any real advice. The true meaning behind it is sound advice, and once you understand the reasons for the phrase it will stick with you forever. But too many people are just fed the phrase with no substance and do not understand and simply ignore it.

The Point is the Ocean is wild, raw, and unpredictable. It should be treated as a wild animal. If you were close to a bear, or tiger, would you simply turn your back on it and focus on something else? Not Likey right. What if it was sleeping? Still not very likely.

The Ocean in Hawaii is very similar. It can at times be incredibly peaceful and serene, an ocean of stunning Topaz calm and quiet. It is hard to imagine is as anything but safe. It can also be a wild and uncontrollable monster. And it can do this in an instant. The big worry is Rouge Waves. Waves can travel a long way out on the ocean and they travel at different speeds. Sometimes one wave catches another and they become one big wave. Some times this happens a few times and they become one giant wave.

These rogue waves can hit at a moments notice, even on calm water. This can knock a person straight off their feet and drag them out to see in seconds. One the rocks it is even more dangerous as the person then has no way to get back out of the ocean. If this sounds alarmist then you are right that it is a rare occurrence, but it does happen more often than you think.

This is an Extreme example, but it shows the awesome raw power of the ocean. Never underestimate the sheer power of even small amounts of white water.

As said, this is all easily protected against just keep your eye on the ocean!

For the most part, when snorkeling it’s impossible to no to turn your back on the ocean you are within it, consumed by it, so it’s not applicable, but any ocean activity will require you to approach and enter the ocean and its this point where the vigilance mus occour…and yes we have been bowled over numerous times by unexpected waves.

However, we also feel this applies to unexpected ocean conditions. where flat calm conditions start to become more choppy as the wind shifts or builds. If you notice a deterioration in conditions you should exit the ocean and monitor the situation. If it has gone downhill, it could quite easily go downhill further and very very fast!

Currents

The next big danger for snorkelers are currents, especially rip currents. These nasty little currents form as waves roll onto a beach. Eventually, all that extra water washing up the beach has to go somewhere. That is when rips are formed these channels form between the breakers and can pull you out to sea far faster then anyone can swim.

The Tendency is to swim against the current which will induce fatigue and panic and get you no closer to shore. Your only hope now is the Coast Guard…assuming someone knows you are gone!

Strong rip currents are not huge threats to snorkeler as they form on surf beaches where snorkeling is pretty rubbish. But currents can and do form on many parts of the island chain. The most dangerous ones for snorkellers are the weaker ones where you don’t notice you are in one and simply float along happily enjoying the reef, before realizing you are much further out than expected.

Break the Grip of the Rip

With any current, the most important thing is to NEVER fight it. It is stronger than you and will win. If a rip has taken you out to sea do not swim directly to shore. Swim parallel to the shoreline before then heading back in. This will avoid you getting fatigued fighting the current and inducing panic.

If the current has whisked you off down the coast again don’t swim back just head back to shore and walk back up the shore. If you have been swept away from a beach and along a rocky coast, do not attempt to exit along the rocks. This rarely ends well, especially if there is a swell. instead, you may be better continuing with the current until you find a bay or beach where you can then swim to shore.

Of course, the key is not getting into this trouble, to begin with, and this is best done by actively monitoring your location. Don’t become lost in your undersea world but continually monitor where you are compared to where you need to exit!

Buddies

The Number one rule to Snorkeling is the Buddy system. Never Snorkel alone. There are numerous reasons all increase your chances of getting back to shore alive in the event something goes wrong. Having two heads, 4 legs, and 4 arms is just far safer. You can rely on each other, bounce ideas off each other and even help each other rest should you become fatigued.

There really is no good reason to go out alone as far as safety goes. Of course, this can cause a problem if one person loves snorkeling and the other doesn’t. In this case, we recommend a tour. This way you will be in the water with a load of other people and have top cover and already be in a pretty safe location. Yes, it is not as exciting as heading out from the beach at your condo or hotel but the chances are you will see far more and be safe.

There are certain spots, mainly contained coves where the danger is less and currents are minimal. Here, if it is very busy, and there are lifeguards, and you tell someone on shore to keep an eye out for you, AND you are a VERY strong swimmer. Maybe you could try it. But we do not recommend it at all.

Of Course, there will be those that are unaware of this advice or wilfully ignore it. Their example is not one we recommend following. The are also quite possibly local, or extremely competent swimmers, someone who really knows what they are doing and aware of the risks. If you are reading this we doubt that is you!

Fatigue

Fatigue is a constant danger. While snorkeling is a fairly low effort exercise it is always possible to overdo it. This is best avoided by staying well within your means. We tend to follow a one-third rule. That is never venturing further away from an exit point more than one third the distance you can comfortably swim without a break. so if 400m at a swimming pool is the best you can do without taking a break, stay within 130 meters from the exit point. Say you can manage 1500m then you can venture up to 500m knowing the swim back, even if it’s into a hard current, will be no issue.

Of Course, this means knowing how far you can swim and how far distances actually are when in the water. We always advise reacquainting yourself with swimming in a pool before a Hawaii trip if you intend on snorkeling. So this is no biggy, and Google maps is fantastic for planning out Snorkel adventures the Measure Distance tool easily shows how long a Surface swim any particular reef is from shore.

Remember, 150m out to sea will feel like a long way! 500m is frankly scary. so these sort of limitations are perfectly normal and should not stop you enjoying your snorkeling at all.

Over Exertion

This is different from fatigue and a more immediate danger. Fatigue is where you tire and run out of energy, it’s very dangerous as there is no real way back. But Over-Exertion can clear after a minute or two of rest. This is where you have just swum too hard for a few minutes and your heart rate and breathing are too high. Like climbing a big flight of stairs. A quick breather and you can get back at it.

The problem is, unlike a flight of stairs overexerting in Open water can be lethal. With your heart rate pumping and you breathin at the limit, it is very easy to fall into a state of Panic.

Panic

Many things can cause Panic, like the above overexertion, or grabbing a lungful of water, or a spooky shadow, or just feeling too far out, or that the current has you, or you have become fatigued.

It is a very real threat as you are in a totally alien environment, one that may have all of a sudden become really real and scary. By Panic we don’t mean a bit jumpy we mean a full-on panic or anxiety attack. These are really horrible and very debilitating. They can and do happen to anyone (Iron-distance swimmer here with his hand in the air!)

If it happens to you, first of all, tell your buddy! Let them know you are really not happy. This is why they are there, it is unlikely you have both suffered an attack at the same time. Next Stop doing anything.

Maintain your airway. Put your snorkel in and breathe. With your airway open and you just floating in the water the calmness will return then allow your buddy to help you gently get back to shore or a safe point.

Attacks are not real, they are your mind playing tricks on you, the key is to calm down and then get yourself back to safety. The desire is always to “GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE” But this often ends in exacerbating the situation. Relax and let the panic clear.

Cramp

Cramp is a hidden danger. There are very few markers or warning for it and it can strike with almost no warning. Leaving you crippled and panicked in deep water in pretty intense pain. Ugh!

There is really very little you can do about it. If cramp strikes you just have to ride it out. However painful and terrifying it can be. In this instance, forewarned is forearmed. If you are hit with the dreaded Cramp, you just need to do your best to stay calm and ride it out. Then head immediately back to shore. Once cramp has set in it rarely goes away.

Personally, I often experience cramp in my toes as a precursor to calf or thigh cramp. Toe cramp is a very minor issue but for me, that’s the end of the session as I know serious cramp is on the way. However, this could be unique to my personal physiology. But any signs of cram are usually indicative of a pending full-blown attack…time to go grab a beer.

Rocks

Napili Shoreline

Here we have the number one biggest danger snorkelers and swimmers face in Hawaii. At some point, we all fall foul of this hidden menace. Fortunately, it normally results in nothing more than a stubbed toe and a lot of swearing.

Nearshore Rocks are a constant nuisance as they stick out of otherwise soft sand. But they are unlikely to cause much more than a split toe. Unpleasant but not life-threatening. However bigger risks from rocks are where reefs become very shallow. The swell can be nearly nothing in the deeper water but as it, and you, approach a shallow reef they can rear up significantly.

It does not take much of a wave to lift you up and slam you down onto sharp pointy rocks with quite a force. Even bone-breaking, or concussion causing force. Be very careful if you are investigating shallow areas near deeper water or getting too close to rocky shorelines. This is a very common cause of injury and can result in serious injury.

Colored Water

Always avoid colored water. If for no other reason than it is just rubbish snorkeling. But there are other reasons. It is impossible to know what is lurking underwater and by this, we mean rocks, Coral, or anything else that you just wouldn’t want to swim into.

Hawaii’s waters are also naturally pretty clear. This means Murky water is caused by something, usually fresh water runoff, but it could be a whole host of other muck that you don’t really want to be swimming in.

It is also one of the only places sharks might be actively hunting. More on this later. There are some sites on Hawaii where the murky water is contained at the shore, and if you swim far enough out it clears. It is still not overly advisable as, I can assure you, it is really not a pleasant experience.

Diving Under

Diving under is the only way for a snorkeler to get closer to the action. It provides a stunning an unique take on the underwater world. It is highly advised you learn to master this technique. It does bring about it’s own risks. Mainly running out of air.

The body has very good safeguards built in that Strongly urge you to get your ass back to the top. Listen to these signals and all should be fine. However, there is an element of risk creeping in from the sport of Free Diving.

In Free Diving the aim is to stay down as long as possible, for one reason or another. One way to achieve this is hyperventilating on the surface. Saturating your body and blood with oxygen. This gives you precious seconds extra underwater. But it comes at the risk of blacking out while still underwater.

In basic terms, as the process is rather complex, Hyperventilating does not actually increase the Oxygen content of the blood. This is already at 98-99% under normal conditions. What it does is decrease the Co2 Content of the blood. The body’s urge to breath is not actually related to the Oxygen level in the body but instead in response to rising Co2. By hyperventilating you lengthen the time you can comfortably hold your breath but it does nothing for the amount of time you can remain conscious.

As such people run out of oxygen before the urgent urge to breathe kicks in. Alone this is deadly, but even with a buddy, they will have to act very swiftly to return you to the surface and possibly begin CPR to save your life.

This is easily avoided. Just don’t hyperventilate before diving under. During our PADI Dive training, we were advised to limit to 3 breaths, before a Dive. This may seem alarmist but we have seen it happen. It also happens regularly in Free diving circles and has resulted in many deaths.

Wildlife

While the Ocean can be pretty wild and deadly in Hawaii, the wildlife, on the whole, is pretty tame. There is very little in the sea that is actually likely to hurt you. However, there are a few things to look out for but on the whole, it is something you can stop worrying

Jelly Fish

Man O war Jellyfish
Portuguese Man’O’ War

There are few Jellyfish in Hawaiian waters, especially compared to many ocean locations. But they are still a threat. The remote location makes jellyfish rare visitors to the islands. The Deadly Box jellyfish is a very visitor to Hawaii. there are less deadly but still painful varieties in the Hawaiian waters but these are more prevalent on windward sides where snorkeling is less practiced.

The bigger threat is the Ocean Going Man’O’War jellyfish. These are not deadly but really do pack a punch. These are purple/blue bags of air and jelly that float on the surface and dangle their tentacles into the water. If you spot one avoid like the plague.

If stung the Hawaii Division of Aquatic resources has this to say:

If stung, remove tentacles from the skin, and apply full strength vinegar or a paste of vinegar and meat tenderizer (unless the victim is allergic to papaya). Get medical attention immediately if the reaction is severe.


http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dar/marine-managed-areas/hawaii-marine-life-conservation-districts/mlcd-safety-tips/

The old wives tale claims you should urinate on the stings but science no believes the ammonia has very little effect on the stings, however, it won’t hurt if you really want to give it a try. Just don’t let it delay you getting real treatment as per above!

Coral

Honolua Bay Coral

Beware the dreaded Coral. These devious critters have a habit of sneaking up on you, which is pretty clever for an inanimate creature! Yes, Coral sits there doing its own thing but is responsible for more injuries than any other creature in Hawaii. Why, well it’s pretty sharp and point and can cause minor to fairly serious injury if a wave or swell smashes you against it.

On its own it is not dangerous but should be treated like rocks and care taken in shallow water. You should also take great care NEVER to walk in Coral, but this is for the sake of the Coral more than yourself.

Sea Urchins

Like Coral, these are scarcely dangerous. They do however hurt like hell when stood on. The little the rocky entry points of snorkel sites and can fill your feet with painful spines that can easily become infected. Water shoes are the simplest answer to avoid this problem.

Sharks

Galapagos Shark at Molokini Back Wall
Galapagos Shark Molokini, Maui

There are Sharks in Hawaii’s waters, a lot of them actually. There are many species of sharks found in Hawaii’s waters. Fortunately, most of them are zero threat to humans. However, some of the most deadly sharks can be found in these waters. Including Great White Sharks, Tiger Sharks, and Oceanic White Tips. However, and we stress this very strongly, your chances of encountering one accidentally, let alone being involved in an attack as infinitely small. You are more likely to win the lottery than come across a shark capable of hurting you while snorkeling on a clear reef.

You are definitely more likely to be injured slipping in the shower, and far more likely to be injured in a road accident than chomped on by a shark. If you come across a shark in Hawaii, you should be extremely thankful. These are incredible creatures and on the most part completely harmless, unless you are a fish. Most shark attacks are mistaken identity, and mainly they are mistaking you for a seal.

Unfortunately, seals are very rare in Hawaii, and as such any sharks here are not hunting seals. and as such unlikely to be very interested in you at all. We have never once accidentally seen any shark while snorkeling. And only seen harmless reef sharks when looking for them. We have seen slightly more exciting sharks but only when scuba diving in remote places.

In Summary

We don’t want to scare anyone out of snorkeling. It is a wonderful activity to do in Hawaii and the highlight of all our trips there. If we couldn’t snorkel daily we probably wouldn’t go! But we are aware of the risks and take sensible steps to manage them, as highlighted above.

No one want’s to become a statistic and everyone want’s to come home unscathed. We should mention the precautions we state rarely detract at all from the snorkeling. My high level of swim ability means I have explored very far out and very remote locations on the Islands and, to be honest, there isn’t that much to see. Once the seafloor drops off, it is just a blur of dark shapes. The best snorkeling action is in the sallower brighter sections of the reefs where coral growth is at its peak.

If you want to explore the deeper waters it’s time to upgrade to Scuba Diving!

Have Your Say?

Got any Salt tales of woe? Any misguided adventures or near misses toy want to share? Let us know the safety techniques and rules you apply to keep safe? or maybe you think we are just fear mongering nanny state worriers? Whatever you have to say, we would love to hear it. If you have any questions just fire away in the comments below

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