How to Read Ocean Conditions for Safe Snorkeling

Safe Snorkeling
 Learning to look at the ocean and read its waves may seem like a skill that only really benefits surfers and some other water sport enthusiasts, but it is actually excessively useful to snorkelers. Knowing what sort of conditions the water may feature even before touching a drop of it can make sure you have both an enjoyable and safe snorkeling experience. It can mean the different between a peaceful day around the reef instead of experiencing the terror that is being dragged out in a rip tide.

While a number of different ocean safety officials may tell you if an area is particularly troublesome, knowing how to read the ocean yourself is as simple as knowing what to look for.

Ocean Conditions and How to Spot Them

The ocean, she is truly a fickle mistress that doesn’t always feel the way you think she feels. However, she has some tells in that wide blue body of hers that will tip you off when things are about to get dangerous and you need to give her some time to settle. Here are some dangerous snorkeling conditions and how to spot them in the ocean’s subtle waves.


Of all the ocean conditions you need to know when preparing to snorkel, knowing the currents is perhaps the most important. The ocean isn’t a river that is sandwiched between two relatively close slices of land. If a current drags you away from land in an ocean, you may never see land again.

Do note that just because the waves travel one direction, that doesn’t mean the current is traveling that direction. While waves are caused by wind, current can be caused by a number of different factors like the change in tides, changes in salt content in the water, temperature changes, and even the density of obstacles in the water like reefs.

It is difficult to spot how strong a current is from shore, but you will know when you get in the water. The current, even a slight one, will feel like being in a river. It could drag you left or right as well as out to sea.

The easiest way to gauge a current is to look at the ocean floor and try to see how fast you move from one landmark to another. You can technically do the same by looking at landmarks on land, but unless it is a very fast current, the results won’t be as easily spotted. If you are in a fast current, it might be best to consider another snorkeling spot, just to be cautious.

It is important to note that even light currents can be dangerous, especially if it is taking you out to sea. The further you go out, the harder it will be to swim against that current to go back, and that is hugely dangerous. The extreme case of this is a rip tide, a current that quickly takes you away from shore. May people panic, try to swim against it, get exhausted, and, in the worst cases, drown. If caught in a rip tide, always remember to swim parallel to the current until you escape it, then go back in. Rip tides are caused by, as the name suggests, the changes in tide and are most common at low tide. The are even more prevalent when swimming in a bay area with a channel that goes into the open ocean. It is best to avoid snorkeling during this time and in situations where you are near a bay channel.

Wind and Waves

Like when the currents are too strong, you will want to avoid snorkeling in conditions that are too windy. Wind creates waves and waves will create movement. They will move you close to shore or whichever way the wind is blowing. If the tidal current is moving against the wind, this can also dramatically increase wave size.

Honestly, even attempting to snorkel in windy conditions is an effort in futility. The motion makes everything shaky, you have to constantly swim back to your spot, water will likely keep splashing into your snorkel, and even then the visibility underwater is terrible because of all the debris being stirred up. If you can’t see anything, why go? Maybe trade out your snorkel for a surfboard or a windsurfing kite instead for the day.


Many people consider surge to be just waves. However, instead of individual waves that move up and down, surge is more akin to the ocean itself moving up and down. Commonly used to describe storm surge, a low pressure system doesn’t need to be moving in for surge to happen, although it can be a contributing factor. Surge is most dangerous in the shallow areas you consider safe, like reefs. The ocean could suddenly drop out on you and you might find yourself with a few nasty coral cuts. It is similarly dangerous in cliff overhangs where a surge can easily rise you up and press you against the roof.

The good news is that if you are snorkeling a shallow reef in a cove area, you are usually pretty safe from surge. However, shallow areas in open ocean conditions need to be explored with caution.

Expect Any Condition to Change

While you can read the winds and the waves from shore and the current as soon as you touch the water, what you get when you first set out to snorkel can change in literal minutes. The tide could start to come in or go out, changing the current and the waves, the wind could pick up, and everything could become chaos.

This is what makes knowing potentially dangerous ocean conditions so important. The ocean is, again, a very fickle lady. You need to be able to realize as soon as possible if a current has got you and you need to know that if the water is getting choppy and there are rocks dangerously close to you, you might need to slip out of that water ASAP.