Almost Free Diving — Part One

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How many loyal readers of the CHESAPEAKE remember watching the courageous exploits of Lloyd Bridges who played Mike Nelson in the T.V. series, “Sea Hunt”?

I sense this very fictitious but thrilling show spawned a generation of undersea adventurers who later adopted Jacques Cousteau as our more practical mentor.

One of the most differentiating realities between both Lloyd Bridges and Jacques Cousteau and us is the very expensive cost of scuba diving in exotic locations around the world. The men who swam with whales, fended off sharks, cut the exhaust hoses of foreign agents, and wrestled with that stuffed alligator could afford to jump into the water in the most exotic locales.

Their trips were paid for courtesy of the T.V. networks.

Unless you’ve got as good a gig as a movie star, you are going to have to pay your own way to experience the kind of undersea experiences we have all witnessed on television.

However, if you’re willing to avoid the cost and hassle of scuba tanks, regulators, weight belts, and extensive certification process, you can enjoy the world of underwater wonder for the small investment of a mask, snorkel and fins. This sport is called snorkeling or free diving though there is a minimal cost for the gear.

The most important piece of equipment needed to view beneath the surface is obviously the face mask. Years ago, good masks were made of rubber with a tempered glass faceplate. Now, silicone rubber is the industry standard with two tempered glass lenses. The silicone seals out water well and lasts for many years.

If you have good eyesight, you can purchase your mask almost anywhere. However, if you are a first timer, drop by a local dive or water sports store and ask a knowledgeable staff person to help you select a reasonably priced, quality mask.

They should then show you how to put the mask to your face with the strap hanging loose. Inhale trough your nose and the mask should stay in place with no leaks. If the mask will not stay in place or a steady stream of air flows in as you inhale, try on another mask. Stick with a simple mask that fits well.

For those of us who need corrective lenses, particularly for nearsightedness, a good dive shop will have lenses that you can try out to get as close to your prescription as practical before opting for a custom ground mask. Since water magnifies objects by twenty-five percent, the dive shop solution usually works fine. Though your choice of mask skirts may be limited, the ability to see is why you’re buying the mask in the first place. You can make the fashion statement with your bathing suit (or lack of one).

Though you can see underwater with a dive mask, unless you invest in a snorkel, you will regularly have to lift your head above water to breathe. A snorkel turns a person into a porpoise by putting the breathing hole above the water behind your head.

My most sincere recommendation is to purchase the simplest solid snorkel you can find. Today, many snorkels have a valve below or beside the mouthpiece. In another article in this issue of the CHESAPEAKE, you can read about a friend of mine who nearly drowned due to this option. Stay with a solid tube of reasonable diameter and a comfortable mouthpiece.

I still prefer the old J style tube which was invented by Captain Jean Jarboe when he had to hide from Piscataway Indians in the swampy waters of Jug Bay up the Patuxent River in 1638. But, that is another story. Also, the J-tube makes it easy to hang your mask/snorkel combo anywhere for quick access.

Attach your snorkel to your mask strap with a simple rubber or silicone snorkel keeper. My scuba dive instructor insisted that the snorkel hang from the right hand side due to placement of the scuba air supply hose. However, if you like the left side better, we still live in a free country.

Choosing a comfortable pair of fins may be the most difficult part of the three piece package. For most of us, a slip-on pair of fins that matches your shoe size is the best option. Make sure they fit snug but have no chafe points. Also, insist on a floating pair of fins. A fin that floats on the surface is a heck of a lot easier to find than one that sinks to the bottom.

Should you intend to do a lot of snorkeling in rocky beach areas, you might want to make a larger investment. You can buy coral shoes with a pair of adjustable strap fins to make your entry into the water as painless as possible. Talk to the dive shop staff about this combination if you intend to become a world traveled, seasoned snorkel diver who intends to explore reefs beside limestone or volcanic islands.

Finally, you should invest in a gear bag to keep your equipment together. This is probably the most personal choice you will make. Initially, use a small mesh bag that holds all of your snorkeling gear. Later as you decide to travel different places you can purchase a bigger bag to hold beach towels, a water bottle, and fruit or snacks or whatever else you might carry on day excursions. The small mesh bag will still come in handy as a compact carry-all folded in with your stuff.

With your gear assembled, you are ready to make your way to a swimming pool to get used to learning to snorkel and practicing in a calm safe environment.

This is where we end Part One of “Almost Free Diving”. Next month, in the March edition of the CHESAPEAKE, I will teach you how to use your new gear effectively and look like a snorkeling pro anywhere in the world you might go.

Contact Larry Jarboe at


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