What are the Risks of Drowning when Snorkeling?

risks of drowning when snorkeling

Snorkeling is generally an easy and safe activity to do, which is part of the reason why it’s so popular. You do not need to get certified to go snorkeling, even though classes and certifications are offered. Due to there being no minimum requirement to go snorkeling, it’s very possible that some people who are non-swimmers or who have a pre-existing medical condition will go snorkeling and be at extreme risk of drowning.

How likely are you to drown when snorkeling? Out of all the water activities you can do, snorkeling is one of the safest. Snorkelers are encouraged to wear a flotation device so that they can stay afloat and view the underwater world for as long as possible. However, the chance of drowning is still there. Snorkelers who are swept away by a riptide or who choke on water and panic, even with a buoyancy aid, are at risk of drowning. Those who are non-swimmers or have medical conditions are also at greater risk of drowning.

The ocean can be unforgiving, but there are many precautions you can take to drastically reduce your chances of drowning while snorkeling. For instance, by wearing a life jacket, snorkeling with a buddy/group, and knowing your physical limitations, you are already extremely well protected. In this article, we’ll discuss more ways you can stay safe while snorkeling.

What are the common causes of drowning?

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Over the years, there have been various cases of people who have drowned while snorkeling. Unfortunately, the records are vague on details; they will state how many people have drowned while snorkeling each year, but they are unclear as to what led to the drowning.

For instance, was the snorkeler wearing a full face mask or using a traditional snorkel and mask setup? Did they drown because they lost consciousness due to asphyxiation or some medical condition? It is simply unclear. Thus, we must discuss the most common ways one can drown while snorkeling to cover our bases.

Snorkeling alone

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Snorkeling is not that hard of an activity to do. There are many precautions someone can take so that they can stay safe while snorkeling, even if they are alone. Yet, there is always an inherent risk present when you’re in any body of water.

That risk is snorkeling without supervision, or snorkeling without a buddy. Even an experienced snorkeler cannot predict what might happen on any given day. It’s much safer to have at least one set of extra eyes watching your back.

Unfortunately, many preventable drowning incidents occur while snorkeling simply because something unexpected caught a snorkeler off-guard. If they had just one more person around to help them out, they perhaps might have survived.

You can go snorkeling with family or friends. You can even go with a group as part of a snorkeling tour, or go snorkeling in a location where there are other snorkelers and lifeguards on duty.

Having someone supervise your snorkeling will give you peace of mind and can drastically reduce the likelihood of drowning while snorkeling.

In the next few paragraphs, we will go over many potentially life-threatening scenarios, and you’ll notice that most of them can be prevented if there were one other person there to provide assistance, whether by physically assisting, giving warnings, or simply by calling for help.


Rip tides are essentially strong water currents that can pull one from shallow waters far away from the shore. People have been dragged away standing in water that was only up to their knees. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself in one, you’ll be dragged away with very little you can do about it.

If you are a recreational snorkeler, you may not be familiar with the tides and how quickly they can change. All it takes is a slight change in weather; perhaps a little bit of wind, or a drizzle of rain, and suddenly the waters aren’t as calm anymore. You never know when the water conditions will worsen, which is why we recommend wearing a flotation device at all times.

Riptides have very power currents. It doesn’t matter how strong of a swimmer you are; once you’re caught in its grasp, you will be immediately overpowered and dragged away. You can struggle against it all you want, but you will only exhaust yourself and find yourself without any energy far away from shore.

Instead, the recommended action is to swim parallel to the shoreline instead of directly towards it. If you keep swimming sideways like this, you can eventually swim out of the riptide and then you can start to make your way directly to the shore.

The best case scenario is to not be caught in a riptide in the first place. If you’re a new snorkeler and are working with a snorkel guide or instructor, ask them to keep an eye on you. It is their job to be able to read the weather conditions and warn you if a riptide might be coming.

Also, check the local weather forecast before heading out into the water. You want to make sure that there isn’t rain, that it won’t be too windy, and that there is low tide. Avoid snorkeling when the wind speed is high because it can reduce your visibility, increase the size of the waves, and generally worsen your snorkeling experience.

Loss of consciousness/asphyxiation

snorkel position

Unfortunately, since anybody can purchase a snorkel and use it without receiving proper instruction, many beginners make the mistake of trying to breathe through it the same way they do on land. Instead, they should learn how to breathe deeply and slowly through their snorkel which will have much better results.

Breathing rapid, shallow breaths is a mistake because the presence of the snorkel tube makes this type of breathing ineffective. Try breathing through your mouth normally, then put a straw in your mouth and try breathing the same way. Don’t you find it harder to inhale as much air if you don’t change how you breathe? You’ll notice that it takes more effort to inhale, and if you exhale too quickly, your lungs don’t have enough time to extract sufficient oxygen from the air.

Now, you can try breathing the correct way. Again with the straw, try breathing in deeply and slowly. If you aren’t sure what that means, then try breathing in for three seconds and exhaling for three seconds. You will feel like you got way more air in your lungs now and hopefully you won’t feel like you’re gasping for breath.

The concept is exactly the same when you’re breathing through a snorkel. In the case of a snorkel, it’s even longer than a straw and much wider, so you need to have some strong lungs to fully inhale and exhale. At least a snorkel is capable of allowing more air to pass through it.

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Next, the length of the snorkel also means that if you do a shallow exhale, much of the exhaled air remains in the tube. This exhaled air is called dead air, and it contains less oxygen than regular air and also contains carbon dioxide. On your next inhale, you will once again breathe in this dead air instead of a breath of fresh air, and you will feel like you’re not getting enough oxygen.

In order to get sufficient air when you breathe through a snorkel, you must do a long exhale as well. If done correctly, most of the dead air will have been cleared out, and your next breath can be purely fresh air instead of dead air.

If you ever start to feel lightheaded or dizzy, it’s possible that a high amount of carbon dioxide has accumulated in your snorkel and is asphyxiating you. You should raise your head above water, remove the snorkel, and breathe some fresh air immediately. You need to ask yourself if you were breathing deeply and slowly, or if the issue has to do with your snorkel design trapping lots of carbon dioxide.

Breathing in too much carbon dioxide and not enough air will cause you to lose consciousness.. Should that happen, the snorkel will slip out of your mouth and your unconscious body will try to breathe to no avail. Your nose is sealed tightly by the mask and has no access to fresh oxygen so you’ll suffocate. Your exposed mouth will only get a mouthful of water, so you will drown. Either way, losing consciousness while in the water is death.

We need to specifically mention full face masks, as there was a controversy where it was suspected that a spate of snorkeling deaths that took place in Hawaii happened because of a defective design. We have written an article about this controversy, and to sum it up, we believe that full face masks are no more dangerous than a traditional mask and snorkel setup. There’s no reason why you or your kids should stay away from it.

Dry drowning

hands-free equalization

Dry drowning, which sounds like an oxymoron, is when you inhale or swallow water in a way that causes your vocal cords to spasm and close up, closing your ability to have proper airflow.

For snorkelers, it might be possible to experience this if water gets inside the snorkel tube or you don’t have a good grip on the snorkel mouthpiece.

Sudden muscular paralysis may also lead to dry drowning. Asthmatics should get a medical checkup to determine if they are still fit to dive, and how they should deal with their asthma when they’re in the water.

This is also a good reason why you should not go snorkeling or scuba diving with a cold. A common symptom of a cold is that you have congested nasal passages, sore throat, and other congested airways.

If you have any symptoms or medical conditions that can make it difficult to breathe, then you are at risk of dry drowning while snorkeling. End your snorkeling session if you experience any of these symptoms. Seek medical attention immediately.

Being out of shape

If you’re out of shape, then you might be at risk of drowning. Just because you are wearing a flotation device such as a life jacket or snorkel vest doesn’t mean you can throw caution into the wind (or water, as it were).

As we mentioned, riptides can take you far away from the shore. Even if you are managing to stay afloat due to a flotation device, if you are out of shape, then you do not have the energy to swim back to shore. If you didn’t have a flotation device in the first place, you’d drown.

If no boat finds you and you spend too long in the water and can’t get out, you can be at risk of hypothermia, exhaustion, or dehydration.

In a similar vein, if you find yourself in rough waters and waves are constantly splashing on you, you could find yourself choking on water and gasping for air, but not having the strength to swim back to safety.

We get that staying in shape and living a healthy lifestyle is difficult, especially if you’re overworked and have a family to take care of. However, it can provide many dividends such as more enjoyment and safety while snorkeling among other things.


is swimming required for snorkeling

If you are an inexperienced snorkeler, you will be more prone to panicking. Unfortunately, many snorkeling deaths occur in shallow waters.

The most common way of drowning as a snorkeler is when water enters the snorkel tube and the unexpected snorkeler inhales a mouthful of water. They start choking and, in a panic, start thrashing around, wasting precious energy and oxygen.

Since they are in such a state of panic, they don’t realize that all they need to do is raise their head above water, remove the snorkel, and cough out the water and take in a fresh breath of air. Instead, they just thrash around while submerged and then drown.

Panic can be defeated in many ways. First, you should snorkel with others. By having people watch your back, you will feel safe. Second, practice basic snorkeling techniques like how to clear your mask and snorkel, and breathing in deeply and slowly. If you’re with a tour guide or instructor, you can receive some instruction in this regard.

Third, always wear a flotation device. It will give you some peace of mind. Learn how to raise your head above water and remove the snorkel from your mouth. Fourth, snorkel in shallow water that you can stand up in.

These tips are not foolproof, however they can help you overcome your anxiety and reduce the chances of panicking while snorkeling.

Not wearing a flotation device

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Even if you are a strong swimmer, you should wear a flotation device while snorkeling. You can choose from a life jacket, snorkel vest, flotation belt, a snorkel board, or even a pool noodle.

The purpose of a flotation device is twofold. Yes, it can save your life by keeping you afloat if you run out of energy to tread water. And as we mentioned, riptides can occur in shallow waters, so you better keep it on no matter what depth of water you’re snorkeling in.

The second benefit is that it helps you conserve energy. This is beneficial for pleasurable reasons, such as extending the amount of time you can spend snorkeling without getting tired. However, the more serious, practical reason is that by conserving your energy, you are prepared to deal with sudden emergencies like if the weather picks up or you spot danger and you need to swim away ASAP.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a veteran, wearing a flotation device is almost all upside with few downsides. Are you really willing to risk your life just because you find it uncomfortable to wear one? If you’ve ever needed to rely on it during a life-threatening situation, then you’ll understand just how important it is.

Shallow water blackout

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If you are just a recreational snorkeler who spends all of their time at the surface, you may not be at risk of shallow water blackouts at all. Snorkelers that like to occasionally duck dive to get a closer look at things should be cautious.

Shallow water blackouts refer to when someone doing a breath-hold dive passes out before they can reach the surface. Without someone keeping an eye on you, passing out underwater means you’re going to drown.

It’s very easy to put yourself in a situation where a shallow water blackout can occur. To start, you can overestimate how long you can hold your breath for and run out of air on the ascent. If you somehow get tangled up in something or strong currents are affecting you underwater, you might not be able to surface in time either.

Another seemingly harmless thing to do that can result in shallow water blackout is when one hyperventilates before diving. Hyperventilating refers to a technique where a diver will take many deep breaths and get plenty of oxygen in their body (more than they usually would). Then they duck dive, believing that they can stay underwater for longer.

The problem with hyperventilating is that it can trick your brain into thinking you have more oxygen remaining than you actually do. You could be on the verge of losing consciousness from lack of oxygen and not know it. Thus, many freedivers and duck divers have lost their lives by blacking out underwater. This phenomenon has been observed and is well-known.

To deal with shallow water blackouts, there are a couple of very easy steps you can take. One is to not hyperventilate, ever. Two is to snorkel with a buddy and take turns duck diving. One person must stay at the surface at all times to keep an eye on the one who is diving. Should the diver faint, the snorkeler by the surface can call for help or perform a rescue attempt.

A pre-existing medical condition

If your family has a history of medical conditions, then it’s probably a good idea for you to get a medical checkup prior to going snorkeling. It’s possible you may have an undiagnosed medical condition that can be exacerbated when snorkeling.

Even though most snorkeling deaths are attributed to drowning, it’s unclear how many of those were first preceded by a medical event that led to loss of consciousness or the inability to stay afloat. It’s possible that if you have a severe condition, that you may not be fit to snorkel or dive. Do not try to diagnose yourself; actually go see a doctor and get cleared for snorkeling or diving if you know your family has a history of health conditions.

Experiencing a medical event while in the water is extremely dangerous. Even if someone is around to rescue you or call for help, if the medical emergency is serious enough, you will need to go to the hospital. If you’re on a boat and far away from shore, it will only delay the time it takes for you to receive proper medical attention.

As you can see, having a pre-existing medical condition is extremely serious. Not even a snorkeling buddy may be able to help you if the medical condition flares up unexpectedly.

What is the risk of drowning while snorkeling compared to other sports?

stay with dive buddy

It is difficult to compare drowning deaths between snorkeling and other sports. Unfortunately, there is simply a lack of reliable information due to the way the deaths were recorded in the past (e.g. no details on what led to the drowning death, no distinction between full face snorkels, etc).

Furthermore, due to the fact that anybody can purchase a snorkel and go snorkeling alone in any body of water they like, it’s possible that many cases are missing persons cases or mis-reported due to the mysterious circumstances in which they happened.

However, we believe that snorkeling is one of the safest water-based leisure activities you can do. While it’s true that it’s not regulated, i.e. no certifications or checks are necessary and anybody can purchase and use snorkeling equipment as they please, there are still many safety precautions that most people take.

For instance, many people go snorkeling as part of a guided tour. They are under the careful supervision of an instructor or guide, and can stay close to the group for safety.

wetsuit in the water

Additionally, most snorkelers will wear a life jacket if they aren’t strong swimmers. A life jacket is specifically designed to keep one’s head above water, even if they lose consciousness. Life jackets are different from snorkel vests, which are designed to inflate and deflate, whereas life jackets are always buoyant. If you’re more advanced, you can use a snorkel vest and deflate it to duck dive, otherwise a life jacket will keep you by the surface at all times.

Furthermore, most people are quite aware of their swimming ability (or lack of). The people who are interested in snorkeling are almost certainly people who have experience with swimming. While it’s possible to snorkel without knowing how to swim thanks to buoyancy aids like life jackets, most people have some competence with swimming from their childhood.

Snorkeling and swimming share many of the same benefits and risks. Whatever you think of swimming, you can almost apply the same thought to snorkeling and be accurate. So if you think swimming is safe, then snorkeling is just as safe. If swimming is good for exercise, then snorkeling is just as good for exercise, etc.

As long as one uses common sense while snorkeling, it is a very safe activity. Things only go wrong when people start to get bored and do more extreme variations of snorkeling so that they can get an adrenaline rush.

How to help other snorkelers in trouble

As we mentioned, one of the most common ways of drowning while snorkeling is to snorkel alone and get caught in a life-threatening situation. Our precaution is that you always snorkel with a buddy. It might be you that needs the rescuing, or it might be your buddy. Either way, both of you will be glad the other was there.

If your snorkeling buddy needs help, the best way you can help depends on the specific situation. We see in movies and shows, it’s always very heroic to see the main character jump into the water, stay underwater for an unbelievable amount of time, and surface carrying someone in their arms.

Unfortunately, this is real life and unless you are a rescue diver, you are unlikely to be able to do this. So the number one priority is actually your own safety. Attempting to rescue them when you’re not qualified can put you at risk too. Prioritize calling for help instead.

If your buddy is panicking, you might need to offer verbal reassurance, e.g. “Help is coming, just hang on!”

Someone who is having trouble staying afloat may need physical assistance to float. Again, we do not recommend providing that assistance yourself. In many drowning deaths, often the person drowning ends up drowning the person trying to rescue them because they are trying so hard to stay afloat. So to avoid a tragedy such as this, if a boat is nearby, tell the boat crew to toss a life jacket or float to your buddy.

If your buddy is struggling with their mask or snorkel, they might need your help to remove the mask or snorkel or to help them keep their head up as they sort out their problem.

If your buddy is choking on water, help them get into a vertical position with their head above water. Hold them up and encourage them to cough as necessary. If they are distraught, help them get back to the boat or to the shore safely.

If someone is unconscious, you need to get their head above water and tow them to the boat or to the shore. If they are wearing a life jacket, this will be much easier as it is designed to keep one’s body vertical and the head above water.

Parting words

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Despite these many precautions, due to the sheer number of people in the world who go snorkeling each year, there will likely be a few tragic and preventable drowning incidents where someone was alone or was inexperienced and panicked. With that said, the number of drowning incidents that occur when snorkeling is low given how many people participate in this activity.

You are responsible for your own safety. You know your own health and swimming ability better than anyone. It’s also your choice whether you want to take some extra swimming lessons or go on a guided tour to gain some experience. Always consider your current level and take things slowly.

The weather conditions play a big role in how safe snorkeling is. You can ask the locals about the weather conditions and if they have any tips or advice. You should also do your own research by looking at the local weather reports and wind speeds. The easiest thing to do is to go with a group and ask the guide lots of questions so you can get an idea of how it’s done.

No matter if you’re a beginner or advanced snorkeler, you should always wear a buoyancy aid. We also recommend snorkeling with at least one other person, especially if you’re new and they have more experience. By following the tips provided in this article, you will drastically reduce your chances of drowning while snorkeling.