Can You Breathe Underwater With A Snorkel?

Last Updated: January 5, 2021

Offering us humans the chance to hang out with fish, turtles, even whales and sharks in their natural habitat, the snorkel is a small but mighty piece of equipment with several different iterations for various purposes.

Unlike scuba diving, snorkeling has no need for tanks, breathing regulators or other heavy and expensive equipment; yes, a traditional snorkel mask technically enables you to breathe ‘underwater’, but not whilst you’re entirely submerged.

It’s an especially popular activity because it doesn’t require you to be able to swim properly, so can be enjoyed by fishy fans of any age and ability, though comfort and prior experience in the water are highly recommended.

To save your time and effort, we’re here to distinguish snorkeling from other aquatic activities, explaining how it works and the various designs available, as well as clearing up some common misconceptions and frequently asked questions.

How Does a Snorkel Work?

Whilst your mind might be conjuring images of an eye mask/breathing apparatus hybrid, the snorkel itself is a hollow, curved tube held at one end in the user’s mouth, with the other above the surface, allowing them to breathe.

Of course, the clear mask with a built-in snorkel is an especially popular design, allowing wearers to clearly see sea life swimming by without having to hold their breath, though confined to hovering at the surface to do so.

Any divers you see with snorkel masks on who are swimming completely underwater can’t actually breathe: they are holding their breath whilst submerged, as the snorkel is full of water and cannot be used to inhale or expel air.

Wet And “Dry” Snorkels

If you’re new to the snorkeling experience, you might not understand the difference between a wet and a dry snorkel, though that vocabulary gets tossed around quite a lot. But how on earth can you possibly keep a snorkel completely dry?

Well, you can’t. What ‘dry’ refers to here is the fact that it’s much more difficult to accidentally inhale water through your breathing tube, because of a handy little mechanism known as a float valve.

If you become completely submerged wearing a dry snorkel, the float valve seals your tube off, so if you decide to take a dive or a sudden wave crashes down out of nowhere, you’re not going to choke on a bunch of salty water.

Because of the float valve’s buoyancy, opening and closing the breathing tube’s opening at will, the dry snorkel is popular among beginners, and is also recommended for those with a fear of water or difficulty manually clearing the tube.

Dry snorkels are also manufactured to be longer and wider than traditional wet designs, to guarantee the snorkel’s opening is held above the surface as much as possible and accommodate the additional valve.

This does however mean that they are larger and more cumbersome to use than a typical wet snorkel, though their benefits more than outweigh this one small negative, especially for less-confident swimmers or really little kids.

Traditional Vs Full-Face Masks

Where a traditional mask only protects your eyes from the water, a full-face mask covers, as you may have guessed, the entire face; this allows you to breathe through your nose OR your mouth, as though you were walking on dry land!

Of course, you still need to stay relatively close to the surface, as the breathing tube has simply been relocated to the top of your mask as opposed to being in your mouth, but it does allow you to breathe freely, communicate, even blow a raspberry!

Whilst it might not allow you to go that much further underwater, you won’t experience jaw ache or the worry of accidentally swallowing water, which could cause you to choke and is especially frightening for non-swimmers.

Likewise, if you prefer to breathe through your nose when above the surface, your mask will quickly fog up as it doesn’t have adequate ventilation (quite the opposite, as it’s trying to keep water out!) then a full face mask is best.

Simply breathing through your mouth can sometimes activate what’s known as our fight or flight response, sending adrenaline rushing around your body and spinning into panic mode, which could freak out an already nervous diver.

Other Equipment You Will Need

Alongside your snorkel, which is the most imperative piece of kit as it keeps you breathing, you’ll also need an eye mask if yours doesn’t already have one attached to it, allowing you to keep your vision whilst swimming.

Said mask needs to fit well, so you want one with some silicon padding or a ‘skirt’ that is moulded to the contours of your face and creates a seal to ensure no water can sneak through and sting your eyes.

Should you want to be able to breathe naturally, a full-face mask is recommended so that your nose and mouth can both be utilised, but as long as you’re able to sea properly and breathe with no difficulty, you’re good to go!

You should also consider how strong the clear plastic of the mask is, in case something should go wrong: a tempered, shatterproof material is advised, so don’t go for the cheapest model just because it works!

If you want to swim like a professional diver (though still not quite at fish level, unfortunately), a pair of closed heeled fins will propel you through the water like a knife sliding through butter, making for much easier movement underwater.

They aren’t strictly necessary for snorkelling itself, but it will vastly increase the speed and smoothness of your swimming technique, and hey, wearing the whole kit just makes the experience that bit more fun and exciting.

Can I Wear My Contacts When I’m Snorkelling?

Simply put: yes!

You’ll be absolutely fine to use contacts for snorkeling, though bear in mind that if the seal of your eye mask is compromised, there’s a possibility you could lose them in the event it fills up with water.


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