There’s a little secret that divers will confess to if you catch them feeling particularly honest under a palapa-roofed bar at the end of a diving day: Most of wonders of the ocean can be seen just fine within the first 15 feet below the surface. What this means is, if you can hold your breath, you can wander unassisted by scuba gear to scope out fabulous underwater gardens on shallow reefs everywhere from the Baja to Bali. This breath-holding skill, part of what scuba and snorkel fans call a “duck dive,” allows you to make the acquaintance of everything from darling clown fish and huge whale sharks to spooky moray eels and friendly parrot fish.
Rest between your duck dives -- also called “pike” dives -- to reoxygenate your body and to allow your breathing to return to normal.
Avoid experimenting with holding your breath while snorkeling, especially if you are of an older age and a tourist on vacation, or if you are not in reasonable physical shape to avoid risk of drowning or a cardiac event. And avoid the temptation to stay down just a little bit longer -- head up to the water’s surface in good time.
Recruit at least one buddy and preferably a group of snorkeling friends to practice. With practice you may learn to hold your breath and duck dive just as quickly as a baby duck does, and if you are atop a reef, you need extra eyes to focus on currents, tides, high sharp coral outcrops that can lead to cuts and boat traffic. So take advantage of safety in numbers.
Put swim fins on each foot to allow you to propel your body effectively as you dive during a breath hold. Enter the water gently feet first off a boat or swim out from the beach to inshore reefs, with your mask fitted on your face, hair brushed away from its rim, and the snorkel in your mouth.
Inhale and exhale deeply, five seconds for each at a time, for about two minutes as you float in a lazy, relaxed fashion over your area of duck-dive interest. Allow your heart rate to slow and lungs to become fully oxygenated. Your goal is enter a meditative state such as is encouraged during yoga classes to lessen your body’s oxygen demand. Avoid hyperventilating though -- while this is how professional free divers prepare, it can cause a newbie to black out.
Signal with a thumbs-up to your snorkel buddy that you are about to dive. Take a deep breath through the snorkel to fill your lungs to 80 percent of lung capacity -- in other words, short of full capacity, as increasing water pressure during your dive will compress the torso and lungs -- and hold this briefly.
Scoop your arms down, pulling your upper body straight down below the surface. Go into a tuck -- torso upside down, knees folded to chest, just as a duck swoops down for a piece of bread. Straighten your legs so your feet stick above water and the weight of your legs helps you slide into the water like the sinking "Titanic."
Hold your breath as you make a direct line to your goal; an isolated piece of coral about 10 feet down, surrounded by a safe, sandy bottom works well, for example. When you feel you cannot hold your breath any more, slowly exhale small bubbles, scull the water gently a time or two and head to the surface. Relax your body so natural buoyancy does most of the work, with some help from gently kicking your fins, as you rise. Check in with your body during your entire breath-hold dive so you come back up for air in time without experiencing distress.
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An award-winning writer and editor, Rogue Parrish has worked at the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun and at newspapers from England to Alaska. This world adventurer and travel book author, who graduates summa cum laude in journalism from the University of Maryland, specializes in travel and food -- as well as sports and fitness. She's also a property manager and writes on DIY projects.