Can You Breathe Underwater with a Snorkel?

can you breathe underwater with a snorkel

How long do you think you can hold your breath underwater? If you were like me when you were younger, I’m sure you’ve tried to hold your breath for as long as you could at the pool while trying to dive as deep as possible. I had always wanted to stay submerged for as long as I could without surfacing, pretending to be a fish basically, but my poor lungs needed fresh oxygen. Oh how I wished I had gills!

Now when you head out to the ocean where there are so many interesting things to look at underwater, don’t you wish you could just keep looking without needing to surface for air? With the help of a snorkel, you can keep your face submerged along the surface of the water for as long as you want, as long as the snorkel tube supplies you with a constant supply of fresh air.

As for how long you can stay underwater with a snorkel, if you’re talking about diving down to depths where the snorkel is fully submerged as well, then you can only stay underwater for as long as your lungs allow you to. Experienced divers have a much greater lung capacity and can stay underwater for several minutes at a time. You can use a mini oxygen tank with your snorkel to get access to a limited supply of oxygen, however you will not stay underwater as long as divers with a SCUBA tank and respirator.

Can You Breathe Underwater with a Snorkel?

Breathing underwater along the surface of the water is possible with a snorkel. The snorkel is a tube that attaches to your mouth and loops around past your face, pointing upwards to the surface. The snorkel sticks out of the water and provides you access to fresh air.

When snorkeling, the face should only be partially submerged so that the snorkel can easily reach the surface. A common mistake beginners make is they tilt their heads down too much or they get the urge to dive underwater and forget that they submerged the snorkel as well.

Breathing Underwater with a Dry Snorkel

Nowadays, many snorkels are designed to be dry snorkels, meaning they have a mechanism that keeps water from entering the tube and reduces the chance of inhaling a mouthful of water.

To explain a little bit about how this works, the snorkel tube has a buoyant ball that rises and drops depending on the water level. The ball is connected to a valve, and as the ball rises and drops it will open or close the valve. When the dry snorkel is fully submerged, the ball will cause the valve to completely seal shut, preventing water from flooding down the tube but also preventing you from breathing (you’d only be inhaling water anyways).

Dry snorkels also have a splash guard, which is basically an angled opening at the tip of the snorkel tube that makes it hard for water to enter it in the first place.

To have the smoothest snorkeling experience with minimal interruptions, we recommend you use a dry snorkel. This way, even if you accidentally submerge the snorkel, or if a large wave were to splash on your snorkel, you will never experience what it’s like to choke on a mouthful of saltwater since the dry snorkel will keep the water out.

Even if some water manages to make its way in, it will only be a trickle at most, and the water will end up in a reservoir in the snorkel  instead of your mouth. There is a purge valve that clears out the reservoir if you simply exhale with your mouth.

A word of warning: sometimes the dry snorkel can malfunction and stay sealed after surfacing. People will try to take a breath only to find that they can’t. This rarely happens, but if it does, give the snorkel a shake to dislodge the buoyant ball that is holding up the seal. If you ever feel like you aren’t able to breath with a dry snorkel, it means the seal has shut and you need to surface.

Breathing Underwater with a Traditional Snorkel (J-Snorkel)

The J-snorkel is starting to seem more and more primitive with the advancements made in snorkel design when compared to a modern dry snorkel. J-snorkels afford you none of the protections that a dry snorkel does, meaning the tube has a wide opening where water can come pouring in.

Even if you’re a careful snorkeler, a rogue wave can fill that tube up and cause you to choke. J-type snorkels also don’t have purge valves, so you will have to blow very hard on the snorkel to send the water back out the way it came, assuming you aren’t choking uncontrollably. If you want a smooth snorkeling experience where you can breathe normally, stick to dry snorkels.

Breathing Underwater with a Full Face Snorkel Mask

Within the last few years, there has been a new type of snorkel design that combines both the snorkel and mask into one product, known as a full face snorkel mask. Full face snorkel masks cover your entire face. They don’t have a mouthpiece for you to bite on, which means no more jaw fatigue.

Furthermore, the biggest advantage is that you have the option of breathing with either your nose or mouth since the oxygen is in the same location, whereas you can only breathe with your mouth using a snorkel.

Additionally, full face snorkel masks also have a dry snorkel design of sealing shut if it is submerged, preventing water from flooding the tube. If any water does manage to leak in, full face masks also have a drainage system that expels water so your face can stay nice and dry.

Full face snorkel masks are a great choice for beginners who don’t want to buy a mask and snorkel separately. Look for either a full face snorkel mask or standalone dry snorkel to breathe underwater in peace while snorkeling.

Why Do Scuba Divers Use Snorkels?

Snorkels don’t provide you any benefit if you are fully submerged. In order to breathe underwater, you’d need a SCUBA tank and respirator. Why then, do you see scuba divers use a snorkel? Does that mean that snorkels provide some way to allow divers to breathe underwater?

No. The purpose of a snorkel for a scuba diver is to conserve air in the scuba tank when they are at the surface. They can switch from using the respirator to the snorkel and continue to breathe underwater along the surface. Divers are limited by their oxygen tank, so any method to help them conserve their oxygen lets them stay in the water longer, and that is why they rely on snorkels.

Snorkel Diving Tips to Stay Underwater Longer

Learning how to hold your breath for longer can drastically improve your snorkeling experience. It will teach you to overcome your limits and allow you to swim more confidently. Diving down to the ocean floor and seeing the reef up close provides you an entirely new perspective that you won’t get staying at the surface.

You will see more details, take better pictures, and see colors more vividly. Additionally, you can literally swim with the fishes and be surprised at how close they will allow you to get near them. Though they aren’t scared, that doesn’t mean you should reach out and grab them; that is a good way to get attacked.

Sometimes the fish will even approach you. Sea creatures that you normally won’t see at the surface, such as nudibranchs and shrimps may surround you. Depths that you thought were previously unreachable can become your new stomping grounds. Furthermore, just by diving down a few meters, you can already see what the majority of what scuba divers can see, without needing the same gear or diving as deep as them.

A Primer on Diving

The act of swimming underwater with a snorkel and mask is known by many names, such as skin diving, hold diving, snorkel diving, active snorkeling, APNEA, or free diving.

The goal is to hold your breath underwater for a long duration, but remember to stay well within your limits. Competitive free divers have been known to hold their breath to extreme lengths. The current world record in the AIDA Static Apnea category is a depth of 214 metres, with a breath hold lasting over 11 minutes. Maybe the record holder can actually breathe underwater and surfaced to give us mere mortals a chance.

Anyways, the enthusiast snorkeler only needs to hold their breath for a couple of minutes and stay a few meters below the surface. That sounds more reasonable, and thankfully that is all that’s needed to see most marine life from a new perspective.

Duck/Skin Dive Technique

There is a skill to diving down smoothly and efficiently, and duck diving is a way to get yourself underwater with minimal splashing about on the surface. With a little practice, you can quickly master it. Here’s how to do it:

  1. While swimming face down, take a deep breath to inhale as much fresh oxygen as your lungs can hold then begin holding your breath.
  2. Stick your arms out in front of you (pointing to the bottom of the ocean), then bend yourself in half from the waist so that your head submerges.
  3. Lift your feet past your head and straighten them as you begin to descend straight down with your head first.
  4. Don’t kick your legs until they are completely submerged, otherwise you will just end up flailing about kicking at air.
  5. Speed up the descent by using your arms to perform a breast stroke motion.

And there you have it, that is how to perform a duck dive. Now, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, keep your snorkel in your mouth even though you can no longer breathe through it at the moment. The snorkel will fill with water, so don’t make the mistake of trying to breathe through it as soon as you surface.

Once you’ve surfaced, blow with your mouth hard to clear the water out from the snorkel. Then you can resume breathing with it along the surface. As you practice duck diving and surfacing, you can learn to start purging the water just below the surface which can let you breathe a second or two earlier which is actually a big deal.

Weighting

The more snorkel gear you are wearing, such as fins and a wetsuit, the more buoyant you are. This is great if you want to breathe with a snorkel along the surface and conserve energy, however the extra buoyancy makes it hard to dive down if you feel like it. To counteract this, you can attach one or two weights on a weight belt to make you weightless. Do not add so much weight that you’re constantly sinking.

The goal is to make it so that you neither float or sink unless you exert force to head in the direction you want. You will need to do some trial and error to find this perfect balance. To test this, with your mask and snorkel on, take a deep breath and float vertically in the water. The optimal weight is achieved when you float at eye level along the surface.

Since air in your lungs makes you buoyant, when you exhale slightly you should begin to sink. Weights are required to help you dive since there are natural air pockets in your wetsuit and fins. If you are wearing a flotation device such as a snorkel vest or flotation belt, then you cannot duck dive or use weights.

Equalizing Pressure

The first time you duck dive, you may be shocked at how tightly the mask squeezes against your face, and how much pressure you feel in your ear drums similar to the sensation in your ears when a plane lands. This mounting pressure is underwater pressure, and at only 10 meters the pressure is double that of the surface.

To equalize the pressure on your mask, simply exhale slightly through your nose. This is the reason why snorkel and scuba masks have a nose pocket to cover your nose, as opposed to goggles which only cover your eyes. This is also why you shouldn’t dive with goggles since you can’t equalize the pressure.

The nose pockets are made of a soft material that lets you pinch them with your fingers. To equalize the pressure in your ears, squeeze your nose through the nose pocket and exhale with your nose. Don’t blow too hard. If you can’t re-pressurize your ears, simply resurface and try again.

how long can you stay underwater with a snorkel

Hyperventilation

Hyperventilation is an advanced technique that seasoned free divers use to stay underwater for an extended time. As the name suggests, this technique involves taking several big breaths in quick succession just prior to diving.

What is the reason for this? Well, when one holds their breath, the body will use the oxygen in the lungs before resorting to taking oxygen from the blood. Additionally, the brain sends the signal to breathe not when oxygen levels are too low, but when carbon dioxide levels are too high.

By taking numerous deep breaths in a row, lots of carbon dioxide is flushed out, tricking the brain into delaying that signal to breathe until later than normal. This is dangerous, because if the oxygen runs out before the brain sends that signal to breathe again, then the brain shuts down, causing a blackout.

Hyperventilation is extremely dangerous. Blackouts can and do occur and leads to drowning. The average person doesn’t need to practice this technique. If you want to improve your breath hold times, always go with a friend in case you black out.

How Long Can You Stay Underwater with a Snorkel?

As an experienced snorkeler, how long can you stay underwater with a snorkel? Well, first time divers will probably average around 30 seconds or less. Most people have never trained themselves to hold their breath, and it can be quite scary.

But you can be amazed at how much progress you can make if you just practice holding your breath over and over again. The key to successful diving is to stay calm and not rush it. After each duck dive, fully catch your breath with long and slow deep breaths. This will slow the heart rate down until you are at your normal rate. Then you are ready to dive again.

While submerged, try not to do any unnecessary movements. Every action you take takes oxygen, and if you’re swimming like mad underwater you’ll find yourself out of breath in just a few seconds. To move around, use slow and steady kicks. Keep your arms to the side and rely on your legs and fins to propel you. Fish are more willing to swim around you if your arms aren’t flailing about.

Progress can be addictive, but don’t take it too far. New depth or breath hold records should be achieved comfortably. If you feel like you’re running out of breath but are close to breaking a personal record, just surface; it’s not worth risking your life.

How Deep Can Snorkelers Skin Dive?

There are two factors that limit how far you can skin dive: your breath hold and water pressure. The lower you go, the more water pressure there is that you have to equalize. Furthermore, if you’re out of breath, then you will be forced to surface. We recommend diving at most 10 meters or whatever you can handle with no physical discomfort, stay until you feel the urge to surface, then head up with some time left to spare.

Skin Diving Risks

Snorkeling is mostly done along the surface, however seasoned snorkelers are known to occasionally skin dive if something catches their eye and they want to take a closer look. Since snorkels don’t work if they are also submerged, experienced snorkelers are essentially holding their breath for as long as they can before surfacing.

In my opinion, you haven’t had the full snorkeling experience if you don’t occasionally dive down. However, there are some risks involved with holding your breath for too long. Obviously there is a risk of drowning, but how exactly does that happen?

When you dive down, the water pressure increases and squeezes your lungs which are already deprived of oxygen. Your body will naturally reduce its heart rate and metabolism to conserve the oxygen in your lungs. However, the more you move around, the faster that oxygen gets used up. And as you surface, the pressure decreases and your lungs start to expand again, demanding more oxygen at a point where oxygen levels are already so low.

As a result, divers who try to surface at the last second often faint during their ascent, which is fatal. Therefore, you must know your limits and be confident in your swimming ability before you decide to skin dive. Do not try to push past your limits and never snorkel alone. In order to successfully snorkel and dive, you must be as relaxed as possible to conserve energy.

Breathing Underwater with a Snorkel Risks

Even breathing underwater with a snorkel along the surface, which is considered very safe, there are some risks involved if the snorkel tube is too long.

Some beginner snorkelers who have a bad habit of turning their head or looking down too much get annoyed that their snorkel constantly gets submerged. To address this, they sometimes buy snorkels that are too long. This has a few issues. First, when the tube is too long, it becomes harder to inhale as much fresh air through the long breathing tube.

In a similar vein, when exhaling, it is harder to force out all of the carbon dioxide through the tube. The end result is that there is a slow accumulation of carbon dioxide and less fresh oxygen is being inhaled. Over time, this can slowly lead to suffocation and a black out.

To avoid this, look for a snorkel that is around 12-15 inches long, with a diameter of ¾” to 1 inch. Any longer than that, then CO2 will build up in the snorkel.

What You Can and Can’t Do with a Snorkel – Conclusion

A snorkel helps you breathe underwater along the surface of the water. However, if you plan on skin diving, then you must practice your breath holds since a submerged snorkel cannot access fresh oxygen. You can consider getting an oxygen tank attachment to your snorkel if you want to stay underwater for longer.

If you truly want to be able to breathe underwater, well aside from evolving some gills, you would need to use SCUBA gear, namely a scuba tank and respirator. Even scuba divers rely on a snorkel along the surface to breathe underwater while conserving the oxygen in their tanks.

Skin diving while snorkeling is a great way to experience snorkeling from a new perspective. If you’ve only ever snorkeled along the surface, practicing some diving techniques, such as the duck dive, to see the reef up close. Even though you won’t be able to breath until you surface again, through practice you can make each breath last for a long time and enjoy the underwater sights like never before.