Snorkelling from kayaks

Having covered most areas that I can reach by swimming, I have recently taken to renting kayaks to increase my range, then snorkelling by jumping out the side of the kayak.
Here are some boy-scout tips for if you are planning on renting a tourist kayak and taking the whole day to paddle-out to that little rock on the distant horizon.    If you’re just pootling around off the beach, none of this applies.


Sea conditions
Obviously, don’t go out in the first place if the sea conditions aren’t safe. Stay within your limits. It’s good practice to tell someone where you are going and when you will be back.

Your kayak
Most tourist rental kayaks are meant for sculling around off the beach, or up a local river.  They might not be suitable to take out on the open sea.

Generally, tourist kayak design is a moulded fully-enclosed plastic-shell, filled with air and having drain holes/plugs at either end. You just sit on top of it, on moulded ‘seats’.  Check out your boat before you use it. Are there any cracks in the plastic?  Are the proper bungs in the drain holes?  When you get out in choppy water, is water going to splash inside any of the openings and fill the inside of the hull with water?  Check for any water already inside the hull.

When you eventually get to your destination and go snorkelling, you will want to tie-up your kayak to a mooring buoy or, if there is a current, tow it around with you. So you’ll need a decent length of line (say 3 metres) tied to the bow of the boat.  In life – you can’t have too much string/line.  You can find 3mm nylon line washed up on the rocks/beach in most places. Or carry some around with you (you can also use it to hang up your hammock!).

I tie the paddle to the kayak.  Most paddles float these days, but while you are swimming around looking at the pretty fishies, you don’t want your paddle to fall off the kayak and get blown a kilometre away, where you can’t see it because of the choppy water.  Make the line long enough that you can still use the paddle without untying it.

On the subject of paddles, if you can, try and choose one with those little plastic rings on the pole.  When you are paddling along – each time you take the blade out of the water, the salty-water will run down the pole and splash off your hands and into your eyes.  This gets pretty tedious after a few hours.  The little rings on the pole try to keep the water off you. If there aren’t any rings it might be worth making your own by tying loops of string/plastic bag around the pole.


You will probably want to take a few belongings along with you.  Use line/string to tie the bag to the boat, in case you tip over.

Learn a few knots so that what gets tied up, stays tied up and that you can untie it when you want to.


What stuff are you taking along?  Make it as little as possible.

There is always a chance that the kayak will tip over, so think about whether the stuff you are taking will (1) be damaged by sea water (2) sink like a stone before you can get to it.

Take enough drinking water, in screw-top bottles.  Drink a bit out of each bottle, so they contain air and will float. If you have an underwater camera, take fresh water to rinse it between snorks – the hot sun will soon crystallise the salt from the seawater in its delicate nooks and crannies.  Take sun block and hats, clothes, etc for sun protection.  Going for the whole day? – I take some rice along in the Tupperware box that I usually carry my mask in.  Maybe take a bit of cash with you in case of demands for National Park fees or to make a donation to someone who helps you out of a tricky situation.

Bringing dry-cameras/cellphones?  Well, this is up to you, but plan for them getting dropped in seawater. Have you got one of those waterproof bags ?   Have you ever tested it?   Put some dry toilet paper in it then seal it up and swim round with it for half an hour and see just how ‘waterproof’ it really is.

Spare camera battery ?  – Get a small Tupperware container for it.  Then it is waterproof and it floats.

Most stuff that you take on a kayak is going to get wet, so just accept it.  I suggest collecting everything together in a plastic bag then tying that (with a piece of string) to the kayak.  It just means that if you tip over, you only have one thing to worry about, instead of ten, Maybe keep a bottle of water and some sun cream outside the bag, for easy access.

Life on the ocean wave

The tropical sun in the middle of the day is evil. In a kayak, it is not just the rays beating down on your head that you have to consider –It is those being reflected up from the surface of the sea, too.  Wear that peaked cap, but realise that it isn’t going to be enough by itself.

You face and nose is going to get fried.  I don’t have zinc crème and I’m still experimenting with ways to stop getting my face sizzled.  Those fullface/balaclava hats that you see road-builders wearing are a good start. But mine gets heavy and reveals my nose when it gets wet. Airline eyemasks positioned over the nose seem a reasonable solution to nose protection.

Obviously, wear sun crème on any exposed skin.

I wear a long sleeved shirt and long shorts.  But I always manage to get the inside of my knees burned. I can’t emphasise enough how much you need to cover-up/protect every square inch of skin if you are going to be in a kayak in the middle of the day.

Going over ?

There is a chance your kayak will be flipped upside-down as you are paddling along – maybe by a wave or just a bit of a bad balance.    Decide beforehand what your priorities will be if it happens. Which belongings are you are going to chase-after first? You’ll get nowhere if you can’t see under water, so keep your mask dangling round your neck while you are paddling.  Putting it on will probably be priority #1.  If you have fins, keep them on while you are paddling the kayak.  You’ll look stupid, but you’ll instantly be more agile underwater and it is one (well, two) fewer things to chase as they sink to the murky depths.

You’ve got valuables like room keys and waterproof cameras tied to you or in zipped-up pockets already, right?

If you’ve got those bases covered, when you tip over it should be a simple matter of chasing after your plastic bag of suncremes and drinking water.

Turning a kayak the right way up should be reasonably easy – from halfway along it, climb up on top of the hull, grab the kayak on the other side, below the waterline, then fall backwards into the sea, turning the kayak the right way up as you go.

Arrivals lounge

So you have arrived at the spot you want to snorkel at. First, make a note of the wind – how strong is it and which direction is it coming from. Are there mooring buoys?  Are you intending to use them?

If there is an option to tie the kayak to a buoy and come back to it after you have finished snorkelling, you need to figure out what the current is doing.  If there is a strong current, then it would be unwise to tie your transportation to a stationery buoy that you won’t be able to swim back to (against the current).

If there is a current, you will need to tow the kayak around while snorkelling, so that you and it are in the same place when you want to get out again.

If there is a current and you want to look at a particular feature (like a small rocky island), you need to start at the up-stream side of it, so that the current does all the work – taking you (and the kayak) along the length of it.

You probably won’t know whether there is any current until you get in the water, so expect to have an initial dip into the water to figure out the current.  You might need to get straight out again, to paddle the kayak to a better position before you start your actual snorkel.

Getting on and off

So how do you get from the kayak to the sea in deep water without tipping over the kayak?

Put on your mask/snorkel/fins while you are in the kayak.  Throw the paddle off the side (it’s tied to the kayak, remember?) then dangle your feet off the side of the kayak.  It’s a bit of a knack, but try to use your two hands to lift your butt off the seat and slide into the water at the same time.  If you are going to the right, you bend your right elbow as you go in, to keep the kayak level.  When you are in the sea, put the paddle back on the kayak, lengthwise.

You probably won’t be able to get back on the kayak from the side without tipping your belongings into the sea.  It’s best to come up over the back (stern), but if your belongings are stored there, you can come up over the front (bow), too.   You are looking to haul yourself up with one leg on each side of the kayak; and the kayak between your legs like a huge, yellow penis. To start, throw the paddle into the sea (it’s still tied on, right?), then position yourself at the end of the kayak. Pull the tip of the kayak underwater then haul yourself (face down) on top of it. Keep your body as low as possible. If necessary, keep your legs splayed out for balance.  Keep hauling yourself (face-down) along the length of the kayak until you reach the seat.  Only then, try to roll-over and sit upright.  Roll-over in small stages, holding on to the sides of the kayak, lifting up your midriff as necessary.

So, assuming you’ve got in the water, figured out the current and paddled your kayak to where you want to be, you’re ready to snorkel.  Drop back in the water again.

If you are tying-up to a buoy – do it from in the water and use the line you tied to the bow/stern of the kayak, not the middle.  Be aware that the tide might rise while you are there, so leave enough slack. Also leave a long enough line for other boats (e.g. tourist long-tail boats) to tie-up on the same buoy.  While you are snorkelling, have a look back occasionally to see that your kayak is still there and that you will be able to swim back to it when the time comes.

If there is a current, don’t tie your boat up – keep it with you.  If there’s a current and no wind, you can probably just let you and the boat drift along on the same current while you dive-down to look at the reef.  The worst case is if there is a strong underwater current taking you in one direction and a surface-wind taking the kayak in the opposite direction.   You really don’t want to get separated from your boat.  If you have currents and winds going in different directions, hold on to the line (that you tied to the kayak) at all times, towing it round like a dog on a lead/leash.  Obviously this limits the depths can dive, so to the longer the line, the better.

Do you want to look at both sides of the island?  Simple – kayak to the upstream end of the island, jump in the water and drift down one side of the island.  They get back in the kayak, paddle back up to the upstream end then jump and drift down the other side of the island.

–    – –
Well, that’s about all I’ve got on the subject.  It sounds a bit scary-mary, but the point is that if you plan for risks, then they won’t happen.

o o o o o o o o o o o o o o
A couple of kayakey stories.

I once stayed at a small island on the very far west of Thailand.  On the horizon (about 30 km away), you could see the enticing looking islands of Southern Myanmar.   Three French kids decided that they were going to use the resort’s rental kayaks to go over there.   They were eventually picked up by a Myanmar immigration boat. Myanmar immigration beat-up on Thailand immigration.  Thailand immigration looked embarrassed and beat-up the resort owners. There were only the two owners of the resort and they had to close-up for a week while they went back to the mainland to get a telling-off from immigration.  The French kids got sent back to France.

Another lad took a kayak to do a trip around the island.  He was intending to stay out overnight and sleep on a beach.  But he didn’t tell anyone that this was his plan.  The sea was pretty rough and the resort owners spent the whole evening chasing around the island, trying to find out his contact details and whether anybody knew where he was. There was talk of calling out search parties, and/or his embassy or parents to report him missing. He was eventually spotted on the remote, other side of the island about 10am the next day, blissfully paddling away on the second half of his adventure.  If you are planning on taking a rental kayak overnight, it seems pretty obviously that you should tell the owners of your intentions.  Just be sensible.


Written: Feb 2014


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