Long to snorkel, but your vacation budget is more Virginia Beach than Kona? Don’t despair. You can learn or brush up on your snorkeling skills right here in Virginia. With July temperatures usually in the high 80s, the water is plenty warm for snorkeling but cool enough to be a relief from daytime highs.
While snorkeling is accessible for most people, it can at first be disconcerting to put your face in the water and breathe through a tube. Practice in shallow, still water, such as a lake or swimming pool, before snorkeling in moving water. If water gets in your tube, blow to clear it. You can also rent or buy a dry snorkel, which has a valve that seals shut if your snorkel goes underwater.
For safety’s sake, snorkel with a buddy. Confident swimmers—at least those able to dog paddle—will be more successful. Beginning snorkelers will probably feel safer walking in from a beach than jumping from a boat.
Since snorkeling is all about seeing beneath the water, it’s not so fun for people with poor vision. Invest in a custom-made prescription snorkel mask (around $250), or one that approximates your prescription (starting around $65).
If you’re ready, here are a few of the state’s best places to don a mask and breathing tube.
Lake Phoenix (formerly Lake Rawlings)
This former quarry southwest of Richmond is known for clear, spring-fed waters and warm water temperatures. Visibility is usually 30 to 60 feet, with even better visibility in winter when the lake’s algae dies. Priority is given to divers here, but snorkelers are also welcome. In addition to the usual rocks and fish, underwater attractions include a Nomad 22 airplane, two school buses and several cars and boats.
Several spots along the James River near Richmond offer good snorkeling opportunities. Try the seven-mile stretch called the Fall Line. This line of waterfalls and rapids separates the Piedmont’s hard bedrock from eastern Virginia’s softer coastal plane. Expect to see river clams, crayfish, stripers, big catfish, carp, smallmouth bass and possibly a long-nosed gar or American eel.
At Pony Pasture Rapids Park, you can snorkel within the city of Richmond. Footwear and a life jacket are recommended here, especially for children.
Chesapeake Bay Beaches
Many seaside businesses in Virginia Beach rent snorkeling gear. If you want extra help, take a snorkeling lesson from Lynnhaven Dive Center. Scuba divers can ride Lynnhaven’s boat out to the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” where rays and turtles have taken up residence in shipwrecks.
If you like to combine snorkeling with camping, try Kiptopeke State Park, north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. This park offers beach access and a wide variety of sleeping options, from tent sites to an RV campground to yurts.
Sunset Beach is known for calm waters and abundant sand dollars in mid-summer. This is a good place for newbie snorkelers to practice. Some local snorkelers favor the secluded Guard Shore Beach, which is also pet-friendly.
LEARN TO SNORKEL
While snorkeling is fairly simple, learning best practices for kicking, breathing, clearing your mask and purging your snorkel will make your adventure more fun. Most dive centers can arrange a private snorkeling lesson for you, especially those that have their own pools. Here are a few that regularly teach beginners.
Lynnhaven Dive Center, Virginia Beach
Individuals, groups or families can take a two-hour private class here for $80 per person. More experienced snorkelers and would-be spear fishers can learn free diving and tricks to hold their breath while diving. Lynnhaven also offers a summer snorkel camp for children aged 5-10, and an after school kids snorkel program.
Chesapeake Bay Diving Center, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach locations
Learn your equipment inside and out with a three-hour snorkeling lesson from CBDC’s pros. Lessons are usually done in the center’s pool, with trips to Lake Phoenix also possible. The cost of $125 also covers free diving basics.