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What to Expect: Drift Snorkeling in French Polynesia

If you’ve ever dreamed of soaring through the sky like a bird, experiencing a drift snorkel is the closest you will likely come to that feeling on earth.

 

Before I worked for Lindblad Expeditions and had the opportunity to travel to French Polynesia in 2019, I had only snorkeled once in my life, and I had never even heard of a drift snorkel. I have also never been a huge fan of being out in open water. In fact, it kind of terrified me! But when Alyssa Adler, Undersea Specialist aboard National Geographic Orion, described our afternoon activity—and the immersive seascape that unfurls beneath you like an IMAX movie as you drift along—I knew I had to squelch my fears. I was not going to leave behind any regrets on this once-in-a-lifetime voyage.

 

So, off the coast of a remote Polynesian atoll called Apataki, I donned a snorkel and fins, jumped over the side of a Zodiac into water as inviting as a bathtub, and I let the current take me. With my body prone and arms outstretched, I ‘flew’ like Supergirl over a watery technicolor world. Below me, clouds of bright fish zigged and zagged among vivid coral formations, several flat silvery pancakes raced by (stingrays!), and an array of little creatures clinging to the rocky walls caught my eye. I was mesmerized by the color and motion along this busy blue highway, but it’s the sound that had me in complete awe. From the moment I dipped my head into the sea, I was immersed in a surprisingly loud symphony of ‘snap, crackle, and pop’—I later found out it was parrotfish, each one with 1000 teeth, chomping on coral. While I also learned that sound is not unique to drift snorkeling (you can hear it during a normal snorkel among reefs), it was new to me and it provided a distinct soundtrack to the visual feast.

 

My drift snorkel was as thrilling and memorable as promised. It felt scary at first, but I soon surrendered myself to nature and to the breathtakingly beautiful panorama that still plays in my mind today. I am so glad I took the plunge and I hope this will inspire you to try it as well. To shed more light on this unique experience, I asked Adler, who expertly guided me through it all, to answer some top questions about drift snorkeling.  

 

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An aerial view of an open "pass" between a Polynesian atoll—the ideal spot for a drift snorkel. Photo: Adam Cropp

What is a drift snorkel?

Drift snorkeling occurs in a naturally swift-moving ocean current. This adds an element of adventure by allowing the participant to view wildlife while moving with the ocean, covering more distance while still undergoing the snorkel experience.

How is it different from normal snorkeling? 

Typically, snorkeling occurs in calm, shallow, and slowly moving waters. Participants have the opportunity to view undersea wildlife for a stretch of time before moving on to the next creature of choice whenever they're ready.

While drift snorkeling, one can expect to cover more ground at a faster pace and potentially view more wildlife. Drift snorkeling often takes place in deeper water. Because of this, rather than experiencing animals up close for a length of time one may view larger animals like sharks or rays but at a greater distance. Due to the nature of the current, the drift snorkel experience will begin in one location and end in a secondary location—as the participant is being transported along with the current. This experience is usually conducted from a small motorized craft, like a Zodiac, rather than from shore.

 

Walk us step-by-step through the process of drift snorkeling:

Before drift snorkel operations begin, a general drift snorkel briefing will be given on board the ship. Guests will then embark a Zodiac, complete with driver and a Lindblad Expeditions snorkel guide, and travel to the launch location for the drift snorkel operation. Several groups in several Zodiacs may participate. Next, the snorkel guide will give a location-specific briefing noting conditions, wildlife of interest, and guidelines for the group. Together, snorkelers will disembark the Zodiac in an organized fashion, most usually rolling backwards from their seated position into the water. Then, sticking together, the group will drift with the current from the launch location to the pickup location while their designated Zodiac follows. The driver and snorkel guide will be communicating during this time by way of hand signals. At the pickup location, the group will navigate to a safe place and the snorkel guide will call for pickup. The Zodiac will maneuver towards guests, and once it is safe the driver will motion for folks to make their way back on board by using a metal snorkel ladder affixed to the Zodiac’s forward pontoon.

Above and below Polynesia.jpg
It may not feel like you are drifting that fast, but lift your head and you'll be suprised to see how many palm trees you've passed in a short amount of time!

Where in the world can you do a drift snorkel?

Drift snorkeling can take place in any location where a current naturally occurs in relatively shallow water. Most often, Lindblad Expeditions offers drift snorkeling operations in French Polynesian atolls. Atolls are ringed islands with an open “pass” which allows seawater to flood and drain with the marine tide cycle. These passes provide excellent drift snorkel opportunities, as water moves swiftly through this channel on a reliable schedule. Lindblad Expeditions also occasionally offers drift snorkeling in locations like Baja California and Belize. 

 

Do you need any special training or special gear to do a drift snorkel?

Drift snorkeling does not take special training, but anyone considering it should be a comfortable swimmer and able to climb up a short ladder and into a Zodiac. All instructions will be provided in a pre-operation briefing, where guests will be invited to make an informed personal decision about their ability to participate in this experience. 

There is no special gear necessary either, though it is important to ensure your mask, snorkel, and fins fit well, and that your exposure gear (wetsuit) is appropriate for the location. Flotation devices like pool noodles or kickboards may be provided for those who feel more comfortable using an aid.

Snorkel Mask in Turquoise water.jpg
No need to pack your mask or fins. Our ships in French Polynesia (and other warm weather destinations) are outfitted with complete snorkeling gear.

Can you also do a drift dive? How is it different from a drift snorkel?

Drift diving has a similar arrangement to drift snorkeling, though it requires significantly more training. While drift diving, a diver needs to be aware of their vertical position in the water column, as depth effects water pressure which impacts the diver’s buoyancy and air pockets inside the body. These safety guidelines do not apply to a drift snorkeler, as they will remain only on the water’s surface for the duration of the experience and are breathing uncompressed atmospheric air.

 

What kind of things will you see on a drift snorkel?

Drift snorkeling occurs in swiftly moving seawater. There are a variety of animals associated with this type of water, and they assume different positions in the food web. Many critters use this current as an opportunity to catch a meal, as not all smaller animals are able to fight the water’s movement and will be carried into or out of the atoll. Because of this, drift snorkeling offers the possibility of viewing larger, more charismatic wildlife like predatory fish or sharks. In French Polynesia specifically, you may have the opportunity to see reef sharks and a variety of grouper species, animals that are quite rare to see during normal snorkel operations.

Reef sharks in French Polynesia.jpg
Grey reef sharks are one of several types of reef sharks found in French Polynesia. 

How long does a drift snorkel take?

Like with any operation, the expedition team will factor in time to prepare, embark guests at the beginning of the operation, and disembark guests after the drift snorkel operation finishes. Once in the water, a drift snorkel can last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes, depending on the length of the pass and the speed of the current. Sometimes, if participants are keen and time allows, a group can repeat their run of the pass.

 

Do you have any tips for maximizing the experience?

I would say preparation, hydration, and excitement. Make sure you have a small bag prepared for the Zodiac to hold your fins, mask, snorkel, hat, sunscreen, and other small items you’d like to have on board. Prepare throughout the day by drinking enough water, and be sure to remain excited about your upcoming adventure!

 

 

Experience a Drift Snorkel in French Polynesia

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