Many snorkeling adventures begin from shore and it is important to be aware of your surroundings. Learning to evaluate the conditions such as weather and water conditions, marine life and currents is a responsibility that can not be taken for granted. Evaluating weather conditions is more than just holding out your hand with palm up to see if it is raining. Listen to the local weather forecast a night or two before your planned expedition. Also realize that meteorologists do not plan the weather nor can they change it and they are not always right in their forecasts but it is probably going to be a sure bet that their forecast will come close to the actual conditions.
Most of the information which follows can be applied to fresh and salt water environments. The best shore diving is done in what is called high slack tide. Tides are a result of the gravitational forces of the sun and the moon. We usually refer to them as simply high tide and low tide. Tides are pretty much predictable and tide tables can be found in newspapers of seaside communities. High slack tide is the time period in between the end of high tide till the start of low tide.
When snorkeling from shore you also need to be aware of the currents. Currents are primarily caused by wind moving across the water. Most currents are fixed and tend to move in a circular pattern which, in the Northern hemisphere travel in a clockwise pattern and in the southern hemisphere move in a counterclockwise pattern. There are conditions which should be considered common sense with regard to whether or not conditions are favorable for snorkeling. Even though some of the information can be considered basic common sense, it is always good to remind people that they have common sense.
If you see people surfing at your selected site, then I would consider conditions to be unfavorable.
Some beaches have a flag warning system which is used to to inform people of the water conditions in relationship to the activities that they wish to do. There will usually be a sign posted nearby as to what the flags mean.
If you are planning a trip locally it is advisable to let someone know where you are going and how long you plan on staying there. If the conditions in the area are not condusive to snorkeling and you decide upon a different location or if you abort the trip, it would be a wise to let that person know that the plans have changed.
You should also be aware of the various currents that may be present in that location. Many people are aware of the term Rip Current but ask them to explain what it is and the reply is usually " I don't know, but you're suppose to stay away from it". Well if you don't know what one is then how are you going to know how to stay away from it?
To understand how a rip current works let's look at how water is moved about on this big blue marble on which we live. As stated previously water is primarily moved by wind moving across the surface. As Isaac Newton stated in his laws of motion, an object in motion tends to remain in motion unless acted upon by another force. In the case of water, let's get it moving, as the wind sets the water in motion, then it should remain in motion unless acted upon by another force. We have the water moving now and if nothing gets in it's way then it should continue in motion unless something gets in its way such as a land mass. Hey let's throw an island in it's way. Since an island is protruding out of the water then the question which follows would be "Is that going to be the force that is going to interrupt the water movement? No. The force would be the water itself. If the water is moving, unobstructed at one speed, what is going to happen when all that water starts hitting shallower depths? The water that is making contact with the shallower depths is going to slow down while the water not hitting the shallower areas will continue close to the original speed. The slower water is going to be deflected upward which will lift eventually end up lifting up the water at the surface. Since the water at the top is going faster, it is going to end up getting ahead of the slower water which will not be able to support it. It will then fall over itself and you have a wave. You could say it is equivalent to someone tripping over something. The person's feet suddenly slowed down while everything higher than the feet continue forward.
You may have heard the term "breaking waves". A wave breaks when it topples over on itself. If you see waves "breaking" then there is a strong possibility that where they are breaking is going to be a shallower area. Now if you are standing at the shoreline of a beach looking out at the ocean, you may see waves breaking a goodly distance away from shore. The waves can also break again closer to shore due to the underwater terrain getting shallower. The waves breaking offshore usually are an indication that there is a reef in the water's way. The reef forms a barrier which helps keep the water from eroding the shore. Now with all of this water heading in to shore you may be wondering where it all goes once it hits the beach. The answer is that it does go back out to sea. It is going to find the path of 'least resistance' when it heads back out to the ocean. In this case, it is going to be the gaps in the reef system. The water will form feeder currents which move parallel to the shoreline. When it finds the path it will then head back out to sea which is the rip current. You can bet that the higher the waves are when they travel toward shore, the stronger the rip current will be.
If you find yourself caught in this current, the worst thing you could do other than panicking would be to try and swim against it. The proper procedure is to inflate your snorkeling vest and either ride the current out or begin kicking parallel to the shoreline. The water on either side of the rip current will be heading toward the shoreline. The beaches where the waves are crashing to shore is known as the windward side of the island and yes it is the windier side of the island. Another current is called a long shore current. Contrary to what is depicted in movies and T.V. not every beach is going to have waves crashing on to it. The beaches that do not have waves crashing into shore (on what I am going to call the sides of the island) will still have currents but they will be running parallel to shore. These are called long shore currents. The leeward side of the island is going to be the calmest area because it is protected by the island itself. This would seem to be the more idylic area in which to plan your adventure. If it includes currents you should generally begin snorkeling so that you are kicking against the flow of the current. You will be exerting more energy but it will be easier to get back to the location where you originally entered the water.
The reefs that protect the island are also home to an abundance of marine life which are discussed in the article Marine Environment. You will see marine life between the reef and shore but the majority will be found on or around the reefs.
By Roy Jamason
Updated Jan. 9, 2015