Snorkeling is the act of using a snorkel to breathe underwater. That’s literally the only requirement. You don’t need a mask, you don’t need fins. If you are breathing through a snorkel, you’re snorkeling.
However, many people think of snorkeling as the full-on gearing up that allows you to comfortably (and safely) float through the water with your head down. So, using that as the basis for definition –
Snorkeling is wearing a snorkel, mask, and fins to float/move through the water in order to observe life below the surface.
You may also wear a snorkeling vest to help with flotation, especially if you’re a weak swimmer.
What is a snorkel?
A snorkel is a breathing tube with a mouthpiece attached to one end. The mouthpiece fits into a snorkeler’s mouth, and the tube juts out behind the head, letting air flow in and out even when the person is face-down in the water.
Want to know how it works? Check out our article How Does a Snorkel Work?
What is the point of snorkeling?
The main point of snorkeling is to observe the plant and animal life below the surface of the water. Snorkeling is a very popular activity in oceans around the world, but it can be done in any clean and safe water source with plant and animal life worth seeing.
Snorkeling is a surface-level activity, meaning a person who is snorkeling remains largely on the surface of the water. (They do occasionally dive, but the snorkel doesn’t help with that.)
Since snorkelers only skim the surface, as opposed to diving deep like scuba divers, some people wonder if there is a point to wearing a snorkel at all. Why not just keep your head above water and look down instead?
It’s a fair enough question, but there are several reasons snorkeling allows much better visibility and far more marine life sightings than just staring into the water alone.
1. Snorkeling allows you to keep your head down.
Not only is this convenient, it prevents excess movement, which can scare away fish and other marine life.
A general rule of the ocean is the less you move, the more you’ll see, and snorkeling allows you to stay very still as you move through the water.
2. Snorkeling allows you to look for longer.
By keeping your head down in the water, you also get to watch the marine life below you for longer periods of time without coming up for air. This ensures that, if you see something of interest, you won’t be disrupted by your own body and its pesky need to breathe.
3. Snorkeling cuts out the glare.
Perhaps the main reason snorkeling is better than just looking down through the surface of the water is that snorkeling cuts out the sun’s glare.
If you’ve been in the ocean on a bright day, you know how hard it can be to see beneath the surface. If you’re lucky, you might get an inch or two of visibility, but more often all you’ll see is the cruel glow of the sun beaming back up at you.
By wearing a mask and keeping your head down in the water, you eliminate the reflection of the sun, giving yourself considerably better visibility into the water’s depths. Sure, you could always wear a mask and put your head underwater without a snorkel, but why keep resurfacing when snorkeling is so simple and advantageous?
How deep is the water when snorkeling?
Snorkeling can be done in water of most any depth, granted you can move through it.
If water is too shallow, your body may drag the bottom. This can be especially problematic in areas with abundant plant life, like coral, which can be damaged by human touch and can cut you.
For the most part, snorkeling is done in coves and other protected areas. These areas have calmer waters, which makes snorkeling safer and provides better visibility since the sediment gets less stirred up by the currents.
Coves and other protected spaces are typically shallower than more open areas of the ocean.
Shallower areas also make for better snorkeling, as snorkeling loses its utility the deeper the water gets. That’s why so many popular snorkeling spots are near reefs and rocks close to the surface.
Generally speaking, 10 to 15 feet is about the max depth for great snorkeling.
Is it hard to snorkel?
Snorkeling isn’t hard, but it can take some getting used to. Breathing through the mouthpiece while the nose is covered doesn’t feel entirely natural.
You should practice with a snorkel in calm, shallow waters before moving to deeper, less protected areas.
Is snorkeling scary?
It can be. The less prepared you are, the scarier it will be.
You might encounter marine life (even sharks!) that frightens you. You might inhale water or get a cramp. Knowing what you might see or experience while snorkeling can help you prepare for it.
If you want to go snorkeling, but are worried about what you might experience, check out our 7 Snorkeling Tips for a Safe and Satisfying Snorkel Adventure to get a better idea of what you can expect and learn how to keep yourself safe.