Having worked as a volunteer at a resort on Tioman for over a month now, I thought it might be helpful to work through some of my frustration with a post on snorkelling etiquette. While I was here we had people from Sweden, France, Germany, Japan and Singapore, but mostly they came from Malaysia and China. This is not a post that says one nationality is better than another. People are people, and this is for everyone.

Quick note: I am using the British English spelling of snorkelling, which has 2 Ls, the same as travelling.

Please note that I don’t recommend tipping here. This is because Asia, Europe, Australia and New Zealand in most cases pay their employees a living wage. Basically your tip is already included in the price and you’re not obliged to pay more than the stated price. That being said, we had a few guests cover our drinks and/or food when we went out of the resort, but that was a bonus, and not expected by any of the staff.

So, onto the etiquette tips:

1. There’s no shame in not being able to swim or never having snorkelled before. There is shame in not telling anyone until you’re actually in the water freaking out, holding the whole group back.

Instead, let your snorkelling guide or activities coordinator know, and they might be able to arrange a quick practice swim the day before, or have extra staff on hand to help you out on the day. Usually this has no extra cost, and the staff will welcome this as it makes the trip run more smoothly.

2. Sort out your gear needs before you want to rent it, especially if you have a large group, have some of your own gear already or have small children with you. Spending 20 minutes before your trip trying to figure who needs what while the staff waits is not a productive use of anyone’s time. Neither is realising halfway to the beach that you have too much/little gear and a staff member has to run back to drop it off/pick it up.

Sort out how many masks, snorkels, life jackets and fins you need beforehand, and the fun can get started a lot sooner.

3. Respect the environment. It drives me absolutely crazy when people pick up sea cucumbers and throw them at other people, or trap fish in plastic bags so they can take them for a ride in the boat. Even little things like removing clown fish (nemos) from their anemones pisses me off. Every time it happens I understand vegans a little more.

Please, just look, don’t touch. Enjoy the wonderful ocean world and don’t destroy it for a moment’s gratification. Also, be aware of your feet and fins. If you don’t wear fins, putting your feet down can result in nasty, infected cuts and destroyed coral. If you wear fins, be careful you don’t kick the coral or disturb sleeping stingrays hiding in the sand.

4. When you return the gear, ask where you should put it and if you should clean it. Usually the staff will do it for you, but especially if they have a large group, your help really makes a difference.

Always wash off the saltwater after a swim as saltwater destroys gear much faster than usual.

5. Feel free to talk to your guides and ask them questions! Sometimes your guides forget to tell you things because they’ve done the same trip 100 times, but it’s new to you, so get excited and your guide will get excited with you.

Things to ask are what you should bring, where you are going, what fish you’ll likely see and what their favourite thing is to see. Also, sometimes guides feel awkward because their English isn’t perfect. Help them out by speaking clearly, don’t use complicated English or slang (Australians, I’m looking at you) and keep in mind that especially in Malaysia, English is probably their third or fourth language, so don’t even think about looking down your nose at them.

6. Trust your guides. Your local, human guides I mean. We’ve had guests show up and tell us they want to do a certain tour or visit some special place because it was specifically mentioned in their guidebook. We’ll try to persuade them to do another tour, but they know best.

Last time we ended up snorkelling a very average reef and visiting a storm damaged beach, and the tour was much more expensive than the one we recommended. Ask the guides where they would go – they want to have a fun time too!

I hope this post made you think about your next snorkelling trip a little more. To you it’s just a short trip, but the reefs and the guides see thousands of guests a year, and it all adds up!