Difference between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

There are several important issues that differentiate scuba diving and snorkeling. The simplest explanation that sets them apart relates to breathing and swimming techniques.

Another key difference between snorkeling and scuba diving activities are the specialist equipment involved and the maximum depth levels that is dictates.

This section explains the basic difference between snorkeling and scuba diving. But, you will also find extra information on which water-based activity is easier, safer, and often – more fun!

So, let’s start off with the key differences between snorkel breathing and breathing while using scuba (self contained underwater breathing apparatus).

Scuba divers get an air supply under water from the scuba tank (usually a steel or aluminium cylinder strapped to the diver’s back). Whereas, snorkelers do not!

Snorkel vs. Scuba Diving Breathing Techniques

Two separate images merged to show the key differences between snorkeling and scuba diving.
Two separate images merged to show the key differences between scuba diving (left) and snorkeling (right).

Snorkel Breathing

If you have snorkeled before, you will already know that snorkelers generally float at the surface of the water. Hence, your face will be in the water for most of the experience. As a result, you will spend more time looking in a downward direction to see the underwater world below.

Beginners also ask ‘can you breathe underwater with a snorkel?’ The closest you can get to breathing underwater while snorkeling is by breathing through a snorkel tube. It is a device that attaches to the side of your mask. The snorkel is held in the proper position by gripping a rubber (or silicone) mouthpiece with your teeth.

This is important because it means there is no need for you to lift your head out of the water to breathe air. You should be able to breathe with ease through the breathing pipe (usually made of plastic). In simple terms, you see through the mask and you breathe through the snorkel.

Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

SCUBA divers breathe from an aqualung (e.g. a metal tank containing compressed air). It allows divers to stay under water longer at given depths below the surface – without the need for surfacing.

There is another big advantage for using a scuba breathing apparatus as opposed to a snorkel tube. Divers can go deeper, meaning they can examine the sea bed, its formations, and the diverse marine life species.

With a little training in freediving techniques, snorkelers can swim down for short bursts after taking a large breath. Most inexperienced breath hold divers would be able to stay under water for between thirty (30) seconds and one (1) minute. They would do so on one breath before needing to surface to get more air.

Important information!

There is some training required to scuba dive safely. There are safety concerns relating to the use of air cylinders and the physiological effects of breathing compressed gases under water.


Snorkel Swimming and Finning Skills

You need only a limited amount of swimming knowledge to appreciate and experience the basic facts about snorkeling. Even so, given the right conditions, no specific footwear is required and non-swimmers can have a lot of fun.

But, there are some circumstances where snorkelers and divers should wear proper swimming fins for assisted propulsion. An example would be in fast-moving water. The leg motions used in both activities are very similar and there should be little or no arm movement. Underwater kick styles using snorkeling fins will differ slightly from the standard surface swimming techniques.

Differences between Snorkeling and Scuba Depth Levels

Most snorkeling tours take place around shallow coral reefs. They range from sea level down to about five (5) metres. It depends most on the underwater visibility. Skin diving to deeper reefs is generally associated with experienced snorkelers. This is because it requires an increased fitness and skill level.

By comparison, scuba divers often reach a depth of twelve (12) metres or more. The maximum depth limit is 12 metres (40 feet) during an introductory program. As divers gain more experience and training, they will see the benefits of submerging even deeper.

Trained scuba divers will often go to depths approaching 25 to 30 metres. But, according to scuba training agencies, the maximum ‘safe depth’ for recreational scuba diving is forty (40) metres (130 feet) below sea level.

Snorkeling vs. Scuba Diving Equipment

If you compare it to a basic snorkeling set, the equipment used in scuba diving is significantly more complex and much heavier. It is also more expensive to buy scuba gear.

Snorkeling Equipment

Scuba Gear

  • Pressurized cylinder strapped to the diver’s back
  • Open-circuit 2-stage diving regulator
  • First stage connected to the gas tank
  • Second stage connects to a mouthpiece
  • Buoyancy control device (BCD)
  • Weight system
  • Swim fins (often called flippers)
  • Dive mask and snorkel
  • Diving suit (including dry suits for cold water conditions)

Physiological Differences between Snorkeling and Scuba

The physiological effects for scuba divers who breathe compressed gas under water will have clear health implications, particularly for the common scuba diving injuries, including;

  • Decompression sickness (DCS)
  • Lung overexpansion injuries
  • Pressure injury (barotrauma)
  • Nitrogen narcosis
  • Oxygen toxicity
  • Marine life envenomation (bites and stings)
  • Refraction and underwater vision

Even so, some of the biggest dangers for all snorkelers and scuba divers can be jet skis and boat users that are unaware of people being in the water. In particular, the most severe hazards include power boat propellers and motorized water crafts.

As a result, these activities require its participants to follow some basic polite boating etiquette and common sense safety precautions.

Statistically, whether you are a snorkeler or diver, you can consider them both as being ‘soft-contact’ family based pastimes. Thus, they are popular water-based activities ideal for entertaining families with children for hours of ‘relatively’ inexpensive fun.

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