Snorkeling 101: How does snorkeling work?

Have you ever seen people snorkeling and wondered how a snorkel works? Find the answers you need here and get ready for your own snorkeling adventures!


Snorkeling is a popular watersport that can make an exciting addition to your vacation. If you’ve never tried it, you may have some questions that need answering before diving into the water with your snorkeling gear.

One of the most common questions among first-time snorkelers is, ‘how does snorkeling work?’

Snorkelers use equipment, including a mask and snorkel, that allows them to view the underwater world while floating at the surface and breathing through the snorkel tube. The top of the tube must stick out above the water’s surface for air exchange to occur.

In this article, we’ll explain in more detail how snorkels work, cover different types of snorkels and how to use them, and go over other equipment and skills required for snorkeling.

underwater snorkeler

How does a snorkel work?

A snorkel allows you to breathe through your mouth while your face is submerged in the water near the surface. The equipment is designed to provide a comfortable experience and effective gas exchange between your lungs and the air above the waterline.

Classic snorkels consist of only a tube, mask clip, and mouthpiece, while more modern types of snorkels have added features for enhanced comfort and ease of use. These could include things like:

  • A flexible tube, or flex tube, toward the bottom of the snorkel, which provides a more comfortable fit and reduces jaw fatigue.
  • A splash guard at the top of the snorkel to keep water from waves and splashing swimmers out of the tube.
  • A purge valve at the bottom of the snorkel, which allows water to drain more easily if it does happen to enter the tube.
  • A float valve to prevent water from filling the tube when the snorkel is submerged.

Can you breathe underwater with a snorkel?

Unlike scuba diving equipment, snorkels do not allow you to breathe deep underwater. Instead, snorkelers must exchange air at the surface of the water through the breathing tube. If the snorkel is submerged beneath the waterline, the snorkeler will not be able to breathe through the tube.

How to use a mask and snorkel

Breathing through a snorkel can take some getting used to, but with a little practice, you’ll be able to snorkel with ease. Follow the steps below and practice in shallow water near shore or in a swimming pool before heading into deeper areas.

  1. Make sure your mask fits snugly and seals properly to help prevent fogging.
  2. Securely attach the snorkel to the mask using the snorkel keeper, mask clip, or other attachment and adjust it as needed for a comfortable fit.
  3. Place the mouthpiece in your mouth and bite it gently. Your lips should hold it in place and seal around it.
  4. Put your face in the water, make sure to keep the top of the tube above the waterline, and breathe in through your mouth.
  5. Take slow, deep breaths to conserve energy and ensure proper air exchange.
  6. Once you feel comfortable, you can try swimming around and continuing to breathe deeply.
  7. It’s not unusual for snorkelers to end up with a mouth full of water, especially at first. If any water enters the tube, don’t panic. You can clear the tube by exhaling sharply to force the water out, or by removing the mouthpiece from your mouth, spitting out the water, and allowing any remaining water in the tube to drain out.

Check out our article about how to snorkel without swallowing water for more tips.

snorkeling on the surface semi-dry snorkel
Semi-Dry snorkel with valve to clear water

Types of snorkels

If you’re not familiar with snorkeling gear, snorkels may all look relatively similar. However, several key differences between the various types of snorkels make some better suited to particular skill levels, conditions, and activities than others.

There are three main types of snorkels:

  1. Semi-dry
  2. Dry
  3. Wet

Semi-dry snorkels

Semi-dry snorkels are the most versatile of all snorkel types and strike a good balance between function and comfort. The top of the tube includes a splash guard to keep water out when snorkeling at the surface, which could occur due to splashing waves or nearby swimmers.

The snorkels also include a purge valve at the bottom, allowing snorkelers to more easily clear any water that does get into the tube.

Since semi-dry snorkels do not prevent water from entering the tube when submerged, they’re not the best choice for beginners. Semi-dry snorkels are better for snorkelers who have some prior experience and plan on diving underwater. This type of snorkel is also a common choice among scuba divers, spearfishers, and freedivers.

Dry snorkels

Dry or dry-top snorkels typically have the same features as semi-dry snorkels, with the addition of a float valve. This mechanism seals the tube and prevents water from getting inside when the snorkel is completely submerged, which could occur if the snorkeler dives underwater or is snorkeling in wavy conditions.

As the only type of snorkel that keeps water out of the breathing tube when submerged, dry snorkels are the best option for beginners. However, this feature also traps air inside the tube and creates unwanted drag and buoyancy underwater. As a result, dry snorkels are not well-suited for activities like freediving, spearfishing, and scuba diving in which the wearer spends a lot of time under the surface.

Dry snorkels are available in a classic tube shape with a separate mask, or as a full-face snorkel mask. You can learn more about dry snorkels and how they work here.

Wet snorkels

Wet snorkels, also known as J-tube snorkels or J-style snorkels, are the most basic of the three types. These traditional snorkels do not usually include any specialized features to keep water out of the tube or make it easier for water to drain. As a result, wet snorkels are not a good choice for beginners.

Many freedivers and spearfishers, as well as some experienced snorkelers, prefer this type of snorkel because of its simple design and minimal drag underwater.

woman snorkeling around rocks
Fins make it easy to move through the water

Additional snorkeling equipment

The mask and snorkel are the two most crucial pieces of snorkeling gear, but there are a few other items that you may require, including fins, a snorkel vest, and a wetsuit.

Fins

Fins are not essential for snorkeling, but they allow snorkelers to move through the water with less effort. As a result, fins are very useful for beginners and can help you snorkel for longer without feeling fatigued.

Snorkel vest

Unlike life jackets and many other personal flotation devices, snorkel vests keep the wearer afloat while still allowing them to swim easily with their face submerged.

Anyone who is not a confident swimmer should always wear a snorkel vest while snorkeling. While this piece of equipment is not required for strong swimmers, it can make the snorkeling experience safer, more comfortable, and more relaxing.

Wearing a snorkeling vest makes it much easier for first-time or inexperienced snorkelers to maintain correct body positioning on the water’s surface so that they can relax and enjoy themselves.

Snorkel vests also improve safety in emergencies or unforeseen conditions, such as a jellyfish sting, medical issue, sudden waves, or strong current, and increase visibility.

To learn more about why snorkel vests are the best flotation device for snorkelers, read our article here.

Wetsuit

Wetsuits come in all different shapes and sizes that provide varying levels of thermal insulation. In addition to keeping you warm, a wetsuit can also help protect you from the sun, jellyfish stings, abrasions, and other irritants in the water.

Whether or not a wetsuit is required for snorkeling will depend on the water temperature at your destination. If you plan on snorkeling in a tropical area, it’s unlikely you’ll need to wear a wetsuit. In cooler waters, a wetsuit is essential to remain safe and comfortable while snorkeling.

diving underwater holding breath
Breath-hold diving allows you to get a closer look beneath the surface

Skills required for snorkeling

Snorkeling is a very accessible water sport that doesn’t require any advanced skills. However, mastering the techniques below can improve your experience.

Swimming

While non-swimmers can go snorkeling, knowing how to swim will increase your safety and enjoyment. If you’re planning a snorkeling trip and are not a confident swimmer, you may find it beneficial to take swimming lessons ahead of time.

You’ll want to pay extra attention to your kick. Pushing yourself through the water with only your legs and fins while keeping your arms relaxed at your sides will help you conserve energy. Make sure to minimize splashing to avoid scaring away the fish.

Deep breathing

Proper breathing techniques while snorkeling will help you stay relaxed, keep you safe, and prevent dizziness. When you breathe through a snorkel, your lungs have to work harder to overcome the additional respiratory dead space (1). Each time you exhale, some of the air remains in the tube and is inhaled again, which can cause carbon dioxide to build up in the blood.

When employed properly, deep breathing techniques can help prevent this from occurring by exchanging the air in the snorkel tube more efficiently. Before you get in the water, familiarize yourself with deep breathing exercises and practice inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply.

Breath-hold diving

Advanced snorkelers and freedivers hold their breath as they swim and explore under the surface, a skill known as breath-hold diving. Learning this technique and increasing the amount of time you can hold your breath will allow you to immerse yourself deeper in the underwater world and get closer to coral reefs and other marine life.

Make sure to avoid hyperventilating before diving since this can have harmful effects (2).

Conclusion

Understanding how snorkeling works and what kinds of skills and equipment are required are important first steps for those interested in trying snorkeling. Now that you know the answers to these questions, you should be more prepared for a safe and enjoyable snorkeling adventure.

Keep in mind that it takes time to master snorkeling techniques. Take it slow, be patient, and have fun!

Resources

  1. Toklu, A S et al. “Ventilatory and metabolic response to rebreathing the expired air in the snorkel.” International Journal of Sports Medicine vol. 24,3 (2003): 162-5. doi:10.1055/s-2003-39084.
  2. Elliott, David H et al. “Human respiratory system.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 13 Feb. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/science/human-respiratory-system/Swimming-and-diving.
Rebecca Jambrovic

About the author

Rebecca Jambrovic

Rebecca lives next to the Adriatic Sea in Croatia, where she guides kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, and snorkeling tours. She is passionate about outdoor activities and enjoys writing pieces that inspire others to get outside.

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