The concept of snorkeling – breathing through a tube while submerged underwater – has been around for literally thousands of years. It is believed that the idea was discovered in ancient times when it was observed that an elephant was breathing underwater with its trunk raised above the water’s surface.
We have come a long way since then, with all snorkels originally having an open top that would easily let water in if water splashed onto it or if one accidentally submerged too far. Nowadays, most snorkels have what’s referred to as a dry top, meaning it has some kind of protection that keeps water from entering the tube.
Along with the traditional J-snorkel, now there are also semi-dry and dry snorkels. These newer dry top snorkels are touted to be safer because they supposedly prevent water from entering, hence keeping the snorkel “dry”. However, some people have wisely questioned that claim, since it appears that the dry top might actually end up keeping both water and fresh air out. Depending on the situation, there are times when a dry snorkel can malfunction and pose a safety risk to the wearer.
With all of that preamble out of the way, the question we want to discuss in this article is whether dry snorkels are dangerous or safe. There are certainly pros and cons to using a J-snorkel vs. a dry snorkel when it comes to safety, and we will discuss the pertinent arguments so that you can decide for yourself which option is better for you.
Some background information
To help you better understand our arguments for and against the dry snorkel, we need to first provide some context regarding how dry snorkels work.
There are three components that make a snorkel a “dry” snorkel: 1) the float valve, 2) the splash guard, and 3) the purge valve. A dry snorkel has all three, whereas a semi-dry snorkel lacks the float valve.
The splash guard and purge valve are easily understood components, so we’ll start with those. A splash guard is a covering found on the top opening of the snorkel. It has small, angled slits which keeps most of the water that splashes on it from entering the tube, and still allows air flow to occur.
Next, the purge valve is a one-way valve located at the bottom of a water reservoir just below the snorkel mouthpiece. Some water may still enter the tube despite the splash guard’s best efforts, but it will collect in the water reservoir where it can be purged out of the tube via the purge valve when you blow (forcefully exhale) out the tube.
At this point, if this is all your snorkel can do, then it is a semi-dry snorkel, not a full-fledged dry snorkel. The last component, and the most complicated, is the float valve, which we’ll discuss in its own section below.
How the float valve in a dry snorkel works
The float valve is the key component that distinguishes a semi-dry snorkel from a dry snorkel. It is another layer of protection found near the top opening of the snorkel which works in conjunction with the splash guard.
To briefly explain, the float valve consists of a buoyant ball located beneath a flap that can seal or open the opening. If the water level rises too high (i.e. the snorkel is submerged), the ball will rise to the top of the snorkel, pushing the flap along with it, and seal the opening shut so that water does not flood in.
Conversely, when the snorkel is above the surface of the water, the ball will sink back down, bringing the flap down with it and unseal the opening so that air can once again flow through the tube.
This mechanism was designed with beginners in mind who may accidentally submerge a little too far and choke on or swallow the water that floods in.
The float valve mechanism is intended to be an automatic way to regulate when the tube should be open or closed without need of user input; it will remain open when the snorkel is being used as intended, and be sealed shut when the user has submerged too far, preventing water from flooding the tube.
Can you start to see how a dry snorkel might be both beneficial (when it works) and potentially dangerous (when it malfunctions)?
What makes dry snorkels dangerous?
Knowing how dry snorkels work, one can make an argument that choking on water is less of a danger than suddenly having your snorkel sealed shut.
First off, when a dry snorkel works, it’s fantastic. It can give beginners peace of mind knowing that they are unlikely to choke on water so that they can focus all of their attention on actually snorkeling.
The danger is when there is an equipment malfunction, and believe us, everything has a failure rate. What happens when your dry snorkel fails on you?
Some snorkelers have been in the unlucky situation where the float valve had gotten stuck. The most dangerous situation is when the flap gets stuck in the sealed position.
Imagine snorkeling with a dry snorkel and submerging underwater (whether accidentally or not is irrelevant), only to find that suddenly you can’t breath even after your snorkel has been raised above the surface of the water. You expect fresh air to come in when you inhale but you get nothing.
Lo and behold, the float valve is stuck in the sealed position, and unless you stay calm and quickly remove the snorkel from your mouth, you will not be able to breathe in the meantime.
This sounds like a minor issue for experienced snorkelers, but for beginners (which dry snorkels are marketed to), this can be a cause for panic and might even lead to drowning.
Conversely, the flap might get stuck in an open position, where it would then work like a semi-dry snorkel. The issue is that you would expect your dry snorkel to seal the opening shut when you dive, but you will get treated to a mouthful of water instead. Who enjoys swallowing some dirty saltwater from time to time?
Full face snorkel masks suffer from the same problems and more
Did you know that most, if not all full face snorkel masks, have a dry snorkel built in? That means that they suffer from the same problems, but also provide the same advantages.
With that said, full face masks may have their own design problems that have nothing to do with having a dry snorkel built in.
There is currently much debate regarding how safe full face snorkel masks are, and whether they should be recommended to beginners or not.
The leading argument is that carbon dioxide (CO2) can accumulate in the mask and slowly asphyxiate the wearer if they do not remove the mask from time to time.
In other words, short, rapid breathing can lead to CO2 buildup in regular snorkels as well, not just full face masks or dry snorkels, and we feel that that is the real issue, not necessarily the snorkel itself.
However, this is beyond the scope of the article, so we won’t get into it anymore. Do a Google search on this issue to learn more.
As for both full face masks and dry snorkels, it’s up to you to decide whether the advantages outweigh the downsides.
The failure rate for dry snorkels is low, and in the off-chance that your dry snorkel does malfunction, do you think you can react calmly and quickly enough to remove the snorkel from your mouth, or will you panic if your airflow is suddenly cut off?
Dry snorkels have provided many beginners with an enjoyable, smooth snorkeling experience, completely devoid of choking on water. Yet, for a vocal minority of people that have had their dry snorkel malfunction, they say dry snorkels are dangerous which is a fair criticism based on their experiences.
If you’re worried about dry snorkels being dangerous, then stick to the traditional J-snorkel or semi-dry snorkel instead. Depending on the activity (e.g. scuba diving, freediving, spearfishing), you may actually want to be using a J-snorkel over a dry snorkel.