The Difference Between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

The Difference Between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

August 3, 2018Scuba DivingSnorkeling and Scuba4424Views52Comments

Snorkeling and scuba diving are both fun and adventurous underwater activities that allow you to explore and admire the beauty of marine life—but they greatly differ in how they allow you to do it. General knowledge tells us that snorkeling involves a mask and tube (snorkel) while scuba diving requires a more complicated set of equipment, which includes an autonomous breathing gas supply.

Aside from that, how else are they different from each other? Which is better? Why would someone choose one over the other? Read on to learn more.

Key Differences Between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

Here are a couple of differences that make snorkeling and scuba diving uniquely fun and challenging for every swimmer and diver.


Scuba diving in caves

Snorkeling allows you to observe fish, coral reefs, and marine plants from just beneath the surface of the water. While it’s mainly for recreation, it can sometimes be done in conjunction with shallow water spearfishing and a few competitive underwater sports like underwater hockey.

Meanwhile, scuba diving allows you to explore at much greater depths than snorkeling can allow. It’s typically done for recreational activities, such as for exploring caves and shipwrecks, or when practicing deep water spearfishing. But for professional divers, scuba isn’t just a hobby—it’s also utilized for commercial purposes like underwater welding, civil engineering, offshore construction, and military diving operations.

Essential Equipment

Lady in snorkeling gear lounging by the shore

With snorkeling, you only need a diving mask that covers your eyes and nose, an L or J-shaped tube, and a pair of fins (optional). The mask helps keep water out of your eyes and nose while the snorkel allows you to keep your face submerged underwater while still being able to breathe.

On the other hand, scuba requires a lot more equipment. These include a good-fitting diving mask, a wetsuit or drysuit, a buoyancy compensator, a pressurized steel or aluminum gas tank with an attached scuba regulator, and swim fins, among others.

Breathing Technique

Close up shot of diver in scuba mask

Normally, snorkeling only allows you to keep your face underwater so as to keep the breathing tube from flooding. If you want to dive a little deeper, you’ll need to hold your breath and remove the snorkel from your mouth. When it’s time to take another breath, you simply go back near the surface, let the other end of the tube stick out of the water, and blow air out of the snorkel hard to clear it out before inhaling more air.

Or you can simply use a dry snorkel, which is designed to let you dive a bit deeper. Dry snorkels feature a mechanism that automatically seals the top end of the tube to keep water from entering when submerged, as well as a purge valve to help make expelling water much easier should it enter the tube.

As for scuba diving, there’s no real technique needed. Since it requires the use of an scuba tank, you can keep your entire body underwater and breathe through the regulator mouthpiece, which is designed to release gas whenever you inhale, or continuously during emergencies.

Another key difference between scuba diving and snorkeling: while snorkelers can safely hold their breath at any time, keep in mind that breath-holding is extremely dangerous on scuba and can lead to fatal consequences.

Duration Underwater

Snorkeler diving in deeper waters

If your main purpose for snorkeling is to observe underwater life while floating just below the surface, you can do it for as long as you want as the breathing tube allows you to have access to a continuous supply of air. If you want to dive deeper, you’re limited to how long you can hold your breath underwater.

Scuba diving with a tank allows you to stay underwater for longer periods of time, without the need to hold your breath (which is extremely dangerous, as previously mentioned). There are many other factors that can affect how long you can stay underwater on scuba, such as decompression limits and other environmental factors, but it definitely allows you to stay much longer compared to snorkeling. The only real limit is your tank, which will run out of gas faster the deeper you go.

Dangers and Risks

Snorkeling in shallow waters

Snorkeling is relatively safe and risk-free—the only real danger is if you end up getting in the way of motorized boats and jet skis as they may not be able to spot your snorkel from afar. But there’s also the risk of cuts and scrapes from rocks and corals, jellyfish stings, and other possible injuries from underwater life forms.

You can also get sunburned from snorkeling for long hours near the surface of the water, although this can be prevented by applying the appropriate amount of sun protectant and by wearing a rash guard or wetsuit with UV protection.

Conversely, scuba diving can come with some very real risks and dangers if not done properly. In fact, many would be surprised to find out that scuba can still be dangerous even when diving in the safest waters. There’s a possibility of equipment malfunction, which can result in decompression sickness or even drowning; nitrogen narcosis or oxygen toxicity, which can happen when you dive at depths greater than 100 feet; or pulmonary embolism from improper ascent. Also, there are all the usual dangers like run-ins with sea creatures and boats.

Skill Level

Scuba diver near coral reefs

Swimmers with no diving experience can go snorkeling without the need for any training or certifications. However, snorkeling in reefs deeper than 12 feet will require more practice and experience in repeated breath holding.

On the other hand, it should be pretty obvious that scuba diving requires some serious training in deep water diving as well as in using breathing equipment, not to mention a diver certification to further ensure that they have the required knowledge and skill to keep themselves safe throughout each dive.

Snorkeling Scuba Diving
Snorkeler avatar Scuba diver avatar
Purpose Recreational, spearfishing, freediving Recreational, spearfishing, freediving, professional & military operations
Essential Equipment Mask, snorkel, fins Scuba mask, dive suit, regulator, compressed gas tank, buoyancy compensator, fins
Technique Face submerged; Breathe through snorkel, hold breath when diving Entire body submerged; Breathe directly through regulator mouthpiece or full-face mask attached to regulator
Duration Underwater As long as you can hold your breath or the top end of snorkel is above water Until tank runs out of gas supply
Dangers and Risks Passing boats and watercraft, poisonous underwater life forms, dehydration, hyperventilation, sunburn Decompression sickness, oxygen toxicity, nitrogen narcosis, marine life, boats
Skill Level Experienced swimmer Trained and certified scuba diver

Snorkeling vs Scuba Diving

The question is not which one is better but which one is best for your purpose. Given our table above, you should already have a pretty solid idea about what you can do now at your current swimming skill level and what you’ll need to do depending on your reason for going underwater.

Whichever activity you choose to do, make sure you prioritize your safety so you can make the most out of the experience. Have fun!

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