(Hatch is a U.S. expat who lives on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica)…
You know those diving masks that have transparent silicone around the lenses? They’re terrible. Sunlight reflects from the plastic lens rims into your eyes and reduces visibility drastically. You might as well just put a flashlight in your face or wear what Snorkel Man here is wearing (think he may have a little too much weight for snorkeling though). I personally like the soft black rubber masks that have two lenses on them (see right most photo below) – they have good visibility and there’s less water pressure on the lenses than the oval single lens masks have because there’s less air in the chamber of the mask. They’re simple, inexpensive, they fit your face better than the “classic oval” style masks and in my opinion they feel more secure. Make sure they are glass lenses and not plastic, which will scratch and get cloudy with age. They also have plastic clips which are easy to adjust (unlike the metal ones which are pictured on the oval mask below) It’s a good idea not to have any shiny metal objects on your mask and you should not wear any shiny jewelry which may glisten in the sun and look like a sardine to a barracuda (more on that later).
Toothpaste works great! Just use a very tiny bit to make a very thin film on both sides of the lenses and rinse it off when you get in. It reduces the surface tension of water on the lenses so it doesn’t bead up or fog but rather spreads out. Works beautifully.
Personally I don’t care for the snorkels that have float balls in them. I know they’re supposed to keep water from entering the tube, and it all sounds good in theory, but my own experience with them is that 1) they don’t do a very good job of it and 2) I don’t like the fact that I don’t have a completely obstruction free air tube. There is a slight delay created by the float which I find annoying and it just feels unreliable to me. I like a simple, comfortable snorkel with a little extra length than the standard fare and which has a larger diameter tube as opposed to the skinny ones that are available. It’s a simple matter to learn to blow the water out of the tube and it’s more dependable in my opinion. The snorkel should be black or dark colored with a fluorecent red stripe around the top so boaters, fishermen and others can see where you are.
I know there’s all kinds of expensive professional fins out there that the sports stores will be happy to sell you, and I’ve tried a lot of them. I still like the simple, soft rubber ones. There’s no straps to mess with or to cause chafing and they have more response and act more like a fishes tail. Also, these fins will put less demand on your ankles than the more rigid, longer fins will. Once you’ve had a lot of experience snorkeling, you can decide for yourself if you think all that fancy gear is necessary or not ;^)
Sometimes when there are a lot of people in the water it gets really nasty with all kinds of perfumed oils and tanning lotions. The fish don’t like it and it’s bad for the reefs. Sunblock is essential – don’t ruin your vacation by becoming a red lobster – it’s no fun at all and really bad for your skin. Also remember that we are only 9º from the equator in the south Caribbean zone of Costa Rica. The sun at high noon is a real scorcher. But do try to find sunblock which is odorless and environmentally friendly without unnecessary chemical additives. Also be sure to check your swimsuit pockets for anything that might get lose or litter the reef on your journey. I recommend that if you are beginner that you go out early in the day to avoid the direct overhead sun which can take it’s toll and wear out your energy. The visibility is usually better in the morning – colors are more vivid and they slowly wash out to dull greens and grays as the day wears on.
Although snorkeling is essentially a simple thing: mask, snorkel, and fins, it still requires a bit of finesse to do it in a relaxed, simple manner without wearing yourself out. Don’t over complicate it. Stay focused and relaxed the entire time. I see many beginners sit on the beach, put their fins on and try to duck waddle their way out to sea. Their fins get full of sand this way, which will cause chafing while swimming. And you will quickly find out just how difficult it is for a fish to waddle on dry land. ;^)
If your swim fins are the slip-on kind, they will go on much easier when they’re wet. If there’s any waves at all, they always have the most force right where they break at the beach. This is where people lose masks and fins because they’re fighting the waves on the way in and lose their grip on their mask, and one good waves rips them out of their hands. They also struggle with mask adjustments while waves are breaking over them, thereby getting stressed and tired before they even begin the journey.
There’s a much easier way:
A good rule of thumb is: be sure to save enough of your energy for the ride home. Don’t go manic on the way out, it will scare off the fish anyway. Also, if your’re a beginner it’s good to use the buddy system and go in pairs, keeping an eye on each other. But groups of snorkelers all huddled together will rarely see many fish, it looks like a gang of predators to the fish. Learn to be quiet and to hang on the reef (more on this below). Don’t let your swim fins splash above the water. Keep them under the water. The slower you go, the more life you will see.
Work with the energy of the currents and waves. It’s much easier than just trying to tugboat steadily through. This isn’t the time to conquer anything, so just relax and go with the waves. Even small waves contain a great deal of kinetic energy. Use this to your advantage. You can do what a motor boat can’t: you can feel the water and the energy around you and respond to it. If you just relax, you will start to become one with the rhythm of the waves, and will soon start to feel and understand more about how fish interact with the rhythm of the ocean. If you watch a small school of fish while they are hovering in a nook on a reef, you will see that they use very little energy but gracefully work with the current. When a wave pushes against you, just use minimal energy – only enough to maintain the headway you just made with your last strokes – and when the wave surges back with you, work with it’s energy to propel you forward. If you try to do the opposite and work against the waves, you will soon see that a human being is no match against that amount of energy. But working with the energy is fun - and it will give you the confidence of knowing that you can use waves a an unlimited energy source. Tap into it! The good thing is, it’s usually easier coming back than going out, and the waves will always take you home if you just let them.
It’s much easier to swim out along the along edge of a reef than trying to swim out in the middle of it. As waves come in they break on the reefs and the pressure increases and then dissipates sideways as it moves outward to the sides of the reef. Take your time and conserve energy as you go further out. Check your energy levels to be sure you’re keeping enough reserve for the return trip. If you’re just beginning, it’s easy to become more tired than you realize because you’re so buoyant.
It’s fun to get a little lost in exploring what’s under the surface, but not so much that you are unaware of what’s above you and around you on the surface. Be relaxed but alert. Be sure to check above the water regularly and study the reef ahead and how the waves are behaving. The waves are fairly predictable in that they always break in the same places based on the structure of the reef. You can use this to your advantage as you go out by staying to outside edge of the waves and working around the back sides of them as you go. Floating in the ocean can be a bit trance-like at times so be sure you’re not “spacing out” to the point where you are disoriented or unaware of where you are or just how far out you are swimming. Also, if the waves are breaking at the shore, you will want to be sure you have plenty of reserve energy left for the extra work that may be required to get back onto the shore.
Once you’ve gone along the edge of the reef out as far as you are comfortable and at your own pace, if the water is not too rough you can work your way back inside the reef. Go slow and just let the scenery come to you. You shouldn’t have to use hardly any energy at all, just drift with the current and keep a sharp eye all around you. Don’t get paranoid – there’s very little out there than can hurt you if you’re in Punta Uva, Cahuita or Manzanillo areas. Although there are very few motorized boats on the Caribbean coast compared to the Pacific side, there are still some motorized fishing and tour boats in the area. You can usually hear the whirring sound of the motor being carried through the water so keep an ear out for it and check above the water. If there is a boat in the area, be sure you make yourself known to them.
As you swim out, try to feel the rhythm of the ocean. The more relaxed you are, the less energy you will use. Think about conserving your energy – you never know when you may need it. Practice doing quick, forceful whale blows through your snorkel to clear any water from it. Try to swim slowly and quietly without splashing your hands or your fins on the surface of the water. The more you get into the rhythm of the ocean, the less energy you will use. Watch the seaweed beds for clues to this rhythm. Swim and breathe with the rhythms – you will have much more fun this way and you will reserve a storehouse of energy just in case you need it. If any water creeps in and is settled around your nose, it’s easy to get rid of just by gently blowing out of your nose, which creates positive air pressure and will clear the water out.
Diving allows you to get up close and personal with the reef. The closer you are, the more vivid the colors become, and depending on the visibility, you might only be able to see the colors by getting very close to the reef. Start with short practice dives, and if you feel too much pressure in your ears, equalize the pressure by closing your mouth, holding your nose closed and blowing some pressure into your ears. If you do this, and dive a little deeper each time, you will slowly be able to dive deeper and deeper. As soon as your head surfaces do a whale blow to clear the snorkel.
Aerobic swimming is a strenuous sport but snorkeling should not be. Almost every swimming motion you make is scaring something away. Small fish dart away, and in an instant this alerts the whole fish community near you that something big is churning above them. If you are very tranquil and non-threatening, large schools of fish will allow you to swim with them. They will keep a wary eye on you at first, but once they sense your vibe they will go back to what they were doing, with you as a trusted traveling companion. You will see much, much more life, and see it behaving in it’s natural manner, if you just stop and hang out. Relax, quiet yourself and just observe. It’s truly fascinating, and the difference between what you will see when you are swimming and what you will see when you’re just hanging on the reef is tremendous.
First and foremost: DON”T GO OUT if you’re not a decent swimmer and DON”T GO OUT if you’re a beginner and the water’s rough. Many people pressure themselves to get into the ocean simply because they’re on vacation and they’re bound and determined to get in the water before they return home. People can get themselves into trouble this way. Be sure you’re going out in an area that doesn’t have strong rip tides. Don’t try to snorkel on Playa Cocles if you’re a beginner – there can be very strong rips there and there are days when it may not look that bad from the shore but in reality it is a day for advanced surfers only. Just because you see someone out there does not mean it’s safe. That person you see out there may be an incredibly powerful swimmer and in top physical condition. If you are such a fit swimmer or if it is a very calm day, there is excellent snorkeling along the submarine wall at the little island at Playa Cocles. The water stays shallow for most of the way and then drops off. But it is also because of this lay of the sea floor that there can be strong rip tides when it’s not calm. When in doubt, ask the local surfers or fishermen about the conditions before going out.
The further out you go along the reefs, the more life you will see as the water gets deeper and colder. If you go out deep and long enough, you may want to wear a wet suit, even here in the Caribbean, to avoid too much heat loss. If you plan on going out any distance it’s a good idea to take a safety float and some fresh drinking water. This can be a small inner tube or a five gallon empty plastic water bottle that’s been securely sealed up at the neck. A bottle will have less drag on the surface of the water than an inner tube will. Tie a thin black nylon cord on it that’s longer than the maximum depth of water you plan to dive to, and tie the other end to your suit so that your hands are free for swimming. Just let it float behind you. Make sure that you tie a quick release knot in case you need to free the line from yourself. Be aware of the line and make sure you don’t dive under a reef ledge in such a way that the line gets tangled and caught on the coral. I like to carry a stainless steel pocket knife securely tucked in a velcroed pocket just in case. You can rig the bottle up so that you can hang a couple of bottles of fresh drinking water on it and perhaps a high energy electrolyte drink. I recommend that you bring plenty of fresh water – the sun, salt water and the swimming will demand more liquid for your body, and it will restore your energy. The safety float insures that, in the rare occurrence that you get hurt or simply run out of energy, you can use the float to hang onto.
Yes, there are barracudas out there at times. They spawn throughout the dry season here and feed on the massive schools of sardines that move through the shoreline. It’s extremely rare that one ever bites a human. Millions of divers swim among them unharmed, so don’t panic if you see one. I have seen them many times out there and been surrounded by up to seven large ones – they’ve never bothered me but they do warn you if you get near their territory. The mothers protect their young and watch over them in the shallow reefs. If you see one she will usually swim very fast up to you and flash you a warning with a quick approach and then just as quickly snap back away from you to let you know that you’re in her territory. Just be respectful and make it known that you are swimming in a calm, steady and deliberate direction away from her. Sometimes you can tell if there are sardines running if there’s pelicans diving and fishing them. Pelicans = sardines = probably barracudas where the pelicans are.
Coral takes time to grow. It protects the shores from erosion, provides food and protection to many species of fish, eels and plants, and is very fragile. The reefs are protected from fishing by tourists and are already in trouble from bleaching, higher ocean temperatures and other factors – so please don’t stand on the reefs! Don’t break it and don’t take home souvenirs because it’s illegal and you want your children and their children to hopefully see in their lifetimes what you have seen out there in yours! (for more info see: Consensus Report on Coral Reef Futures) Also bear in mind that fishing on the reefs is allowed by locals, and many depend on it for their families’ food supply. If you see fishermen, please give them plenty of berth and don’t intrude on their fishing spots – there’s plenty of fish out there to see in other spots. Likewise, if there are surfers in the area try to find another area to snorkel in because the two just don’t mix. There are some times of the year when snorkeling and surfing tend to overlap, but usually surf season is poor snorkeling and vice versa.
If the water is calm, just stay relaxed, swim to your exit point and when the water is shallow enough just reverse what you did getting in – slip your mask down around your neck, slip off your fins, and slowly walk out of the water, getting your land legs back as you go.
If the waves are breaking rough on the shore, it can get interesting getting back out onto the beach. Usually if the waves are breaking rough on the shore, it’s not very rough at all just a short distance away from the shore. Just do what the surfer’s do – hang back behind the waves where they are gently rolling and watch them. Look along the shore to see if there’s a spot where they are not breaking. Find the calmest place to exit. Take your time and determine how the current is moving. Before you start swimming towards the shore, swim laterally along the back of the breaks and get into position directly in front of your exit point first. It’s much easier to navigate sideways and get into position first than it is to battle sideways in the waves. Once you are in position, take the time to see if there are any large rocks or coral there. Make sure you exit in the calmest area of sand you can find. Now just swim in with the waves. If they are curling, they can be deceptively powerful. If you have no other choice, ride a wave in, making sure you stay on top of the wave by making climbing strokes with your arms. Right when the wave is starting to toss you out, shoot your arms firmly out in front of you and pretend you are a rigid surf board. This will keep you from tumbling and if you do it right it will shoot you right onto the shore. Crawl quickly up to the dry part of the shore before the next wave breaks.
Be sure to rinse yourself and your gear off with fresh water to remove all salt residues which will deteriorate your gear and chafe your skin.
Please note that according to environmental protection law you are required to snorkel with a guide in Cahuita National Park. There is no such requirement for Playa Negra, Playa Cocles, Punta Uva or Manzanillo.
HAVE FUN, and I sincerely hope that you have a wonderful, exciting and thoroughly enjoyable time exploring the marvels of the ocean and the coral reefs!
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Upcoming events for Puerto Viejo and the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica
Mostly sunny now…
Had sun this morning, now overcast.
Sunny & warm!
Partly cloudy and cool today.
Mostly sunny now and warming up. Clouds are dissipating…
Had our nightly rain shower last night, now overcast with cool temperatures.
Had a good downpour this morning which eased into light drizzles. Cool temperatures.
Clear sunny skies – beautiful temperatures.
Had rain showers yesterday morning, then some sun in the afternoon. Also had rain showers this morning, now it’s just very light drizzles.
Clear and sunny today with warner temperatures.
Title: Earthquake Benefit Concert
Location: Basketball Court, Puerto Viejo
There will be a benefit concert to benefit the folks affected by the earth quake which ocurred recently north of the Central Valley
There will be gospel music and donations of food and clothing are accepted.
Get in touch with Veronica Gordon at the macrobotic (health food) restaurante in Puerto Viejo to lend a hand.
Start Time: 10:00
End Time: 18:00
Sunny now, moderate temperature – nice!
Partly cloudy with ocassional sun peeking through. Cool temperatures.
Steady rains since 9pm last night. No serious flooding so far. Will keep you posted.
Overcast this morning with cool temperatures.
Calm & overcast this afternoon.
Mostly sunny this afternoon.
Cloudy, overcast this morning.
Had some steady light rain this morning, then some sun. Currently overcast.