I can’t swim. I took a few lessons when I was in elementary school, but swimming simply wasn’t something that has ever really appealed to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t like getting water up my nose. Whatever the case, given that I can’t swim, it didn’t seem like the smartest idea to go snorkeling, but somehow I did it anyway. And I’m here to tell the tale.

In addition to ziplining and luau-ing, one of the activities I did while visiting Maui was snorkeling. This was a part of the Discover Molokini tour with Trilogy Excursions. They take you to Molokini Island and Makena Bay, giving you the opportunity to swim with tropical fish and sea turtles, as well as see the intricate (and delicate) coral reef. It’s all quite beautiful… but it can also be frightening if you’re not comfortable in the water.

Leading up to our trip to Maui, I did several searches on the Internet about snorkeling when you can’t swim or don’t know how to swim. There were a couple of forum threads, but I couldn’t find any kind of real “guide” to snorkeling for non-swimmers. And so, I thought I’d write my own.

Before getting to the tips below, perhaps you’d like to see the underwater video that Susanne shot during our snorkeling trip. This will give you a sense of what you can expect to see if you go snorkeling in Maui.

1. Keep Calm and Carry On

It sounds so basic and so obvious, but it’s something that has to be stated: don’t panic. Seriously, don’t panic.

As mentioned above, Trilogy Excursions took us to two locations for that morning of snorkeling. At the first location (Molokini), I spent pretty well the whole time with “Mike” from Trilogy, hanging on to his surfboard for dear life. I knew I was panicking, but I couldn’t get myself out of it. At the second location (Makena), I was able to calm down and the snorkeling became a lot easier.

Keeping calm accomplishes several goals, but if nothing else, it provides you with greater clarity and awareness. Remember that you’re wearing some sort of floatation device, so it’s really unlikely that you’re going to sink to the bottom of the sea.

2. Use a Boogie Board

Your experience may vary, depending on which “adventure” company you choose, but Trilogy provided us with float belts. These aren’t really the same thing as life jackets, because they’re more like floaty cummerbunds. Try to push it down closer to your hips as that will help you get your legs up (and your body parallel) for some kicking action with the flippers they’ll provide you.

They’ll have a limited supply, but request to get a boogie board (or bring your own). For me, it served as a very useful “crutch” where I could plant my hands and maintain some sort of balance with that float belt. Don’t put any kind of real weight on the boogie board, though. Try to keep your arms straight out in front of you, put your open hands on top of the board, and you should be able to stay afloat. I never tried moving around without the boogie board, so it’s up to you if you want to take that next step.

3. Float Better by Getting Lower

The natural instinct when you don’t know how to swim is to figure out how to get as much of your body above water as you can. That doesn’t work with snorkeling. Not at all.

You’ll have to step outside your comfort zone for this, but you’ll do a lot better if you simply let yourself get lower in the water. Get as horizontal as you can; having the float belt, as mentioned above, closer to your hips rather than your chest will help a lot with this. Then, lower your chest and keep the water level around chin or neck level. This will actually help you float better than if you frantically try to push “up” above the water.

Snorkeling in Maui

4. Breathe More Slowly

This goes back to the first point about not panicking. On the first outing, I was breathing way too quickly. You don’t need to do that. Calm down. Breathe slowly.

Make sure you have a really tight seal around the snorkel mouthpiece and remind yourself only to breathe through your mouth (and not your nose). Breathing out through your nose (which is covered by the mask) will create a gap where water can get in. Remember that the top of the snorkel stays (mostly) above water, so you can breathe at a more relaxed pace.

What I found worked was I’d take in a big gulp of air before dipping my head in the water. At the very least, I was able to get in several seconds of underwater viewing before having to take a breath.

5. Dip Just a Little Bit

This might sound obvious, but it has to be stated. You don’t have to submerge your head underwater. In fact, all you really have to do is get just the front face of your goggles into the water. That’s it. As soon as you break the water’s surface with your goggles, you can see everything that the sea has to offer you.

By only dipping in your head a little bit, you are probably better able to keep calm, but it also means that the top part of your snorkel is as high above the water as possible. This makes it easier for your breathe and less likely that water will get in there; that helps with eliminating your desire to panic too. You’ll still get a little water in your mask and snorkel, but you’ll manage.

You Can Do Snorkel Even If You Can’t Swim

Yes, snorkeling can be a terrifying experience if you don’t know how to swim, seeing how you’re floating in the middle of the ocean… but even non-swimmers can snorkel. I would highly recommend going on one of these tours, though, rather than snorkeling on your lonesome off some beach. You get instruction, you get guidance, and you’ve got a lot of people to save you if anything goes wrong.