Snorkeling and scuba diving might seem like similar activities. And, in some ways, they are.
Both sports are about exploring worlds beneath water, and both use breathing apparatuses to make that possible.
However, there are major differences between snorkeling and scuba as well, from how you breathe to how much training you need to do it safely.
The easiest way to understand the differences between the two types of underwater diving is to lay them out question by question.
Scuba Diving Vs Snorkeling: Question by Question Comparison
What is snorkeling?
Snorkeling (snorkelling) is moving through water (by floating or swimming) while using a snorkel (a long pipe) to breathe. This snorkel allows a snorkeler to keep his face submerged for extended periods of time, without having to coming up for air.
A mask to see and fins to move through the water are often worn with a snorkel. But the use of a snorkel as a breathing apparatus is all that’s required for snorkeling.
What is scuba diving?
“Scuba” is an acronym for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”.
Scuba diving is the act of using such an apparatus to breathe underwater.
Like in snorkeling, other equipment, including a mask and fins, is often worn with a scuba breathing apparatus, but the breathing apparatus alone is what designates the sport as scuba.
How does a snorkel work?
A snorkel gets its oxygen supply from the air above the water.
When swimming just below the water’s surface, a snorkel keeps air flowing in and out of the snorkeler’s mouth, which eliminates the need to surface for air.
Snorkelers can also dive underwater while wearing a snorkel, and how the snorkel responds depends upon the design of the snorkel.
How does a classic (wet) snorkel work?
Wet (or classic) snorkels were the first snorkels invented. They are basically just a mouthpiece attached to a tube. This allows water to enter the tube at any time.
Water can splash into the tube even when swimming close to the surface. And water enters the tube completely when diving below the surface.
To dive with a wet snorkel, snorkelers must hold their breath each time they dive. This means snorkelers are entirely dependent upon their own breath-holding ability to determine how long they can stay underwater.
Then, when they surface, snorkelers must blow the water that entered the snorkel out of the tube to allow air to flow through it again.
How does a dry snorkel work?
Dry snorkels were designed to eliminate the problem of water entering a snorkel tube.
A dry snorkel has a float valve inside its pipe, which blocks the pipe when the snorkel is submerged in water. This prevents water from entering the tube and provides a small reservoir of air.
Dry snorkels also typically have splash guards around the end of the pipe to prevent waves and other splashes of water from entering the tube when it isn’t submerged.
When using a dry snorkel, snorkelers don’t have to clear the pipe each time they resurface.
How does a semi-dry snorkel work?
A semi-dry snorkel is a cross between a wet snorkel and a dry snorkel.
These snorkels have splash guards around the opening of the pipe to prevent water from getting in when on the surface, but don’t block water when the snorkel is submerged.
Diving below the surface with a semi-dry snorkel is the same as diving with a wet snorkel.
How does a scuba mouthpiece work?
A scuba mouthpiece is part of the piece of scuba equipment known as a regulator. The regulator attaches to a dive tank, which holds compressed air.
The mouthpiece on the regulator fits into a diver’s mouth, and the regulator delivers the air in the dive tank to the diver at a flow rate comfortable for normal breathing.
This allows a diver to remain underwater for as long as they still have air in their dive tanks.
How long can you stay underwater with a snorkel?
Approx. 2 minutes
You can stay underwater with a snorkel for as long as you can hold your breath.
For the average, healthy adult, that means approximately two minutes.
Though, when swimming, the average length of time people go between breaths is only 30 seconds.
That’s why many regular snorkelers work on expanding their lung capacities and practice holding their breath when not in the water.
When first starting out, you can expect to be able to stay underwater for between 30 seconds and two minutes.
How long does a scuba tank last?
Approx. 1 hour at 10 meters (32 feet)
The air in a scuba tank lasts considerably longer than you can stay underwater with a snorkel. Which is one of scuba’s main advantages over snorkeling.
As for how long the supply in a dive tank lasts, that’s a trickier question.
Multiple factors come into play when using a dive tank, including the size of the diver, the diver’s breathing technique, the depth of the dive, and water conditions.
Generally speaking, though, the average dive tank will provide approximately 1 hour of air at 10 meters (32 feet) and less time as the diver descends deeper into the water.
How deep can you snorkel?
Approx. 10 meters or 25-30 feet
At around 10 meters, or 32 feet, in depth, the pressure on your body doubles, which decreases the air in your lungs by half. This changes the breathing game when you’re diving in water.
So, around 25-30 feet has become a generalized maximum for snorkel dives.
How deep can you scuba dive?
Up to 40 meters or 130 feet (20 meters or 65 feet for beginners)
40 meters is the maximum depth set by scuba diving organizations for certified recreational divers.
Note, this maximum depth is intended for experienced, well-conditioned divers.
Beginner open water scuba diving certification only certifies divers to dive up to 20 meters or 65 feet deep.
How old do you have to be to snorkel?
5+ years old
There is no minimum age for learning how to snorkel. As long as a child is comfortable in the water and can understand the instructions, he, she or they can be taught how to snorkel.
Since it helps to have some experience with learning (such as a year or two in elementary or pre-school), 5 years of age is the age when most kids can grasp the basics of snorkeling.
How old do you have to be to scuba dive?
10 years old
Scuba diving safely requires training and certification. The minimum age to be certified is 10 years old in most places around the world.
Some scuba instructors will provide diving instruction to children ages 8+.
Do you need to know how to swim to snorkel?
Though it’s always a good idea to know how to take care of yourself in the water if you’re going to be in the water.
But there are many snorkeling spots in the world that lie only a few feet below the water’s surface. There are snorkeling companies who provide assistance (and floaties) to non-swimmers. And you can always snorkel close to the shore.
Do you need to know how to swim to scuba dive?
You must be certified to scuba dive on your own, and you must demonstrate swimming competence to qualify for a scuba diving course and certification.
The swimming requirements for scuba diving are:
- The ability to swim for 200 meters/yards without stopping – OR – the ability to swim 300 meters/yards in a mask, fins and snorkel without stopping.
- The ability to float/tread water for 10 minutes.
Snorkeling and scuba diving offer the same main benefits. You can see below the surface of the water and can keep your face underwater for longer.
The main differences between snorkeling and scuba diving is in how you breathe, how deep you can go, and whether or not you must be certified to do it.
This makes snorkeling the more popular sport of the two, with many people on beach vacations giving it a try each year.