Have you ever seen a snorkeler (or went snorkeling yourself) with a little snorkel and thought to yourself, “What if the snorkel was even longer?” Surely if the snorkel was longer, one could dive even deeper underwater to get an up close look at the aquatic life. How come snorkelers can only breathe by the surface of the water? Why are scuba divers the only people that can breathe underwater?
There are many reasons why long snorkels aren’t used. The most obvious one is that they are impractical. A long snorkel could easily break the seal on your mask since that’s where snorkels attach to. An extra long snorkel could also break or get entangled on something, increase drag, and it would stick far above the water when you’re close to the surface. How would you even turn your head with such a long snorkel?
Another reason is that with a long snorkel, there will be plenty of dead air space for exhaled air to linger. Dead air space can obstruct the flow of fresh air and keep exhaled air from fully leaving the tube. Over time, you will find that it gets harder to breathe because you are not getting enough fresh air.
Lastly, it becomes increasingly difficult to breathe through a snorkel the longer it is. This is due to the difference in pressure between the air in your lungs and the air on the surface. If a snorkel is around 1.5 feet (18 inches) or longer, breathing through it will already feel like breathing through a clogged tube. At only a couple of feet long, a snorkel would be very difficult to breathe through for most people.
As you can see, there are plenty of good reasons why you would NOT want to have an extra long snorkel. It’s not that manufacturers don’t want you to have fun; it’s that they are impractical and literally unusable even at a relatively shallow depth. If you would like to learn more about each of the points described above, read the rest of this article to get the full explanation.
Why are snorkels so short?
Most snorkels are around 12-15 inches (30-38 cm) in length. If water sometimes enters your J-snorkel because you accidentally submerged or turned your head too far, you might be wondering why snorkels aren’t longer. To put it simply, that’s because snorkels can only work if they are short.
You might think that a longer snorkel could prevent incidences of accidentally swallowing water (then again, so do splash guards such as those found on dry snorkels), and the extra length may even allow you to dive a little bit deeper while snorkeling so you aren’t literally at the surface. In this section, we’ll discuss the main reasons why this is nothing but a pipe dream.
Long snorkels are impractical
Even if we ignore the laws of physics for a second and assume that we could safely breathe through an extremely long snorkel tube (spoiler alert: we can’t), there are still issues regarding its practicality.
Since snorkels are designed to attach to the dive mask, a long snorkel would also be significantly heavier and will create more drag. This means that it could more easily break the seal on your mask, causing water to rush in. The snorkel would have to be redesigned so that it connects somewhere else that is sturdier. However, that just leads to more problems.
Next, a long snorkel can easily get snagged on something. It could be a net, a kelp forest, a fishing line, or literally anything floating around in the ocean. If you’re still connected to this hypothetical long snorkel when it’s caught on something, you’ve created a potential situation where you could get stuck underwater and drown.
Furthermore, another area where a long snorkel would have problems is in difficulty of travel. A long snorkel would need to be redesigned so that it collapses or folds up. Yes, it would need to be collapsible, otherwise how could one travel with it? The material it’s made from would also have to be extremely lightweight, durable, yet able to be folded.
Another issue is how you’re going to turn your head. The snorkel cannot be too stiff, otherwise if you try turning your head, depending on how long the snorkel is, you might not be able to turn your head back. It might also snap in half under its own weight if you try to turn it back into an upright position.
We’re thinking too hard about something so impractical and we probably haven’t even covered all the situations that could go wrong. It was a fun thought experiment, but as you can obviously tell, even from a practical standpoint a long snorkel is simply not feasible.
Long snorkels have more dead air spaces
The air we normally breathe is actually a gas mixture composed of 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, and 1% other gasses. The concentration of other gasses is so small as to be negligible; most people simplify air to be a mixture composed of 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen. Nitrogen does nothing for our body, and it is the oxygen in air which we need to survive.
When we inhale, our lungs will use up some of the oxygen in air, and carbon dioxide is the waste product that results from the process. For this reason, when we exhale, the exhaled air will have around 16% oxygen, 4% carbon dioxide, and 79% nitrogen. You’ll notice that the concentration of oxygen has decreased, and now there is the presence of carbon dioxide.
What does this have to do with short and long snorkels? A short snorkel ensures that when you exhale, most of the exhaled air (which contains carbon dioxide) leaves the tube, and that each time you inhale, you are mostly breathing in fresh air.
With a longer snorkel, there is a possibility that when you exhale, some of the exhaled air actually lingers in dead air spaces in the tube. Dead air spaces are areas where air can get stuck and is no longer moving. These areas can decrease air flow and exhaled air can linger in them as well.
What will happen with a longer snorkel is that there will be plenty of dead air spaces obstructing air flow, making it harder to breathe fresh air. Also, when you exhale, the dead air space can trap the exhaled air. Essentially, on your next breath, there is a high chance you will be breathing air that you already exhaled and getting very little fresh air.
By breathing in the air you’ve already exhaled, you will find that each breath you take is less effective. That’s because you are getting progressively less oxygen, and you will be forced to breathe harder and more often to get sufficient oxygen which can be very taxing. There is a possibility that you will asphyxiate over a long enough period of time. Even short snorkels can potentially have this problem if you aren’t breathing through them properly.
Even snorkels as they are now (12-15 inches long) can have dead air spaces. There is a specific way to breathe to minimize them, which is to take slow, deep, full breaths. Rapid breathing may not be enough to cause exhaled air to fully exit the tube, and you have a higher chance of breathing exhaled air.
Long snorkels are literally unusable due to pressure differences
Many of the downsides we have listed so far assume that it’s even possible to breathe using a long snorkel in the first place. If you were still holding on hope that you could still make your long snorkel dreams come true, unfortunately this final point will kill it: it’s literally too difficult to breathe through a long snorkel due to pressure differences.
Heading back to reality for a moment, there is a reason why no modern snorkel exceeds 15 inches in length. Manufacturers have already tested and figured out what’s safe and what’s not. The entire industry has adapted to this. The current maximum snorkel length was reached after considering the user’s safety while trying to make the snorkel as long as possible.
How experts came to the conclusion that snorkels should be a maximum of 15 inches in length is not just by considering dead air space but also the air pressure at depth versus at the surface. At a depth of 10 m, the pressure on the body is twice as much compared to the surface. This means that your lungs will only be able to inflate to half its usual size at that depth.
Not only that, but it’s estimated at a depth of only a couple of feet, the average person already lacks the strength to breathe through a long snorkel. You would have to have enormously strong lungs to be able to make gas exchange work through such a long tube. As such, even without the issue of dead air space, it is simply impossible for snorkelers to use an extra long snorkel to breathe underwater.
Why even use a snorkel at all?
It seems like if the snorkel is so short, and you cannot use an extra long one, then why even bother with one at all? For instance, you don’t see freestyle swimmers wearing a snorkel; they just quickly turn to their side to take a quick breath. Couldn’t you do this for snorkeling as well?
In practice, you will find that holding your breath and occasionally turning your head can feel quite disruptive. First of all, you don’t want to feel like you have such a short time limit. Second, when you turn your head, you will temporarily lose sight of what you were looking at. If that thing happened to be a small fish, then it could take a while for you to relocate it, if you find it again at all.
Having a snorkel allows you to keep your face submerged underwater for several minutes at a time. Having the freedom to keep your face underwater without any time limits feels a lot better physically and mentally.
Plus, having to constantly turn your head to get quick breath can get tiring really quickly. Holding your breath will also become less effective as you fatigue, whereas using a snorkel can allow one to basically stop moving and conserve more energy. Over a long snorkeling session, this makes a huge difference.
As mentioned, most snorkels are between 12-15 inches long. This is generally long enough so that you can keep your head submerged underwater and even turn side to side without the tube getting submerged.
Any shorter than this, and the snorkel can easily get submerged. Any longer than that and, well, you just spent the last few minutes reading about the dangers of an extra long snorkel, so we won’t repeat those points again.
How to get a closer look at aquatic life
This article, we’ve been focused on answering the question of why snorkels are so short, or why aren’t they longer, and are extra long snorkels feasible? However, maybe those are not the right questions. Maybe what you really want to know is if there are ways to get a closer look at aquatic life, not necessarily anything to do with snorkeling.
Chances are some of you out there don’t necessarily care about snorkeling; you just want an activity that lets you see aquatic life up close without as much investment as scuba diving requires. Thankfully, there are certainly activities that meet that requirement.
Practice duck diving
Before you ask, no, duck diving is not about ducks diving.
Duck diving is a type of breath hold dive similar to freediving and is used in surfing as well, however the goal is not to dive the deepest but rather so that you can leisurely explore and get closer to aquatic life while snorkeling.
If you’re an experienced snorkeler, you might want to look into duck diving – occasionally diving downwards when you see something interesting from the surface. In order to do this, you need to be wearing a snorkel vest.
Unlike other snorkel flotation devices, snorkel vests are inflatable and deflatable. That means that, should you want to duck dive, you can deflate the vest to make yourself less buoyant and dive to your heart’s content. Once you want to float along the surface again, you can inflate the vest by blowing air into it using the inflator hose on the vest.
In order to be safe when duck diving, you should consider taking a freediving course to learn more about breath hold diving. You may also want to practice increasing your breath hold capability so that you can stay underwater for longer.
Those of you who really wanted to snorkel with an extra long snorkel, your prayers have been answered. SNUBA diving is perhaps the closest thing you can get and it solves most of the issues that we brought up.
For those unaware, SNUBA diving is kind of like SCUBA diving with the training wheels on. The big difference is that, instead of diving with a tank attached to your back, the cylinder is located at the surface on a boat, and you have an extremely long regulator stretching all the way from the surface to a maximum depth of 20 ft (6 m).
SNUBA diving has many advantages. First, unlike regular SCUBA diving, you don’t need a license to do it. In fact, this is an extremely good way to get a feel for scuba diving. After this experience, you’ll know if you want to take the Open Water Diver course or not.
Another advantage is the safe and controlled environment that a SNUBA diver will be in. The location will be carefully selected such that there are plenty of things to see within a short radius and depth. Typically the maximum depth will only be 20 ft (6 m). There will also be instructors nearby to help you the entire time. For this reason, a scuba diving license is not required.
For snorkelers, this is basically the long snorkel dream that you’ve been dying to experience. You can finally dive underwater and get an up close view of all of the aquatic life that you were longingly looking at by the surface, out of your reach, when you were just snorkeling. Now you have an hour or so to explore to your heart’s content and you can get as close as you want.
How come SNUBA diving works but an extra long snorkel doesn’t? Thanks to the immense pressure contained in the SCUBA tank, air can be sent all the way from the surface to the regulator at depth. The regulator will then regulate the pressure so that it matches the ambient pressure (pressure at depth), meaning you can then easily and safely breathe the air.
What we just described is the reason why SCUBA/SNUBA diving works, but an extra long snorkel doesn’t. Unfortunately, our lungs simply aren’t strong enough to overcome the pressure differences. This process also eliminates any dead air spaces. Plus, the long hose is flexible, meaning it won’t break under its own weight, can be easily rolled up, and assuming you have enough slack, you can turn your head any way you like without resistance.
Even the risk of the long regulator hose getting entangled is largely solved because any locations where SNUBA diving is being done is likely selected because of how calm and idyllic the waters are, and any entangling hazards removed. Plus, they will make sure that each group of SNUBA divers have their own space, and there are scuba diving instructors nearby to provide assistance if necessary.
If you are a snorkeler who has always wanted to know what it feels like to be able to dive down and get really close to the marine life without being a scuba diver or freediver, then SNUBA diving is a fantastic option that actually works, unlike an extra long snorkel.
This recommendation might be a little bit controversial because it would mean that you would not even be in the water yourself, but if you are a snorkeler who just wanted to get an up close look at aquatic life without being a scuba diver then why don’t you just ditch the snorkel and take a submarine tour instead?
For a very reasonable price of $100-150 USD, you can spend 45 minutes underwater (approximately the same length as a scuba dive) in an air-conditioned, fully-narrated, comfortable submarine. Submarine tours can take you down to a depth of 45 m (150 ft) which exceeds what most scuba divers can dive to unless they have the appropriate certifications.
At those depths, you can see some really interesting things: wrecks, colorful coral formations, and numerous tropical marine life. Even if you are a diver yourself, this is an opportunity to experience the aquatic world with your non-diver friends and family.
You aren’t limited to day dives either. Many submarine tours also offer night dives which are an entirely different experience. However, if you’d prefer to actually get wet and have a more close-up experience, then you should probably stick to duck diving or SNUBA diving. That said, even going on a submarine tour is more practical than using an extra long snorkel.
In this article, we have discussed the main reasons why it is not a good idea to use an extra long snorkel, and why manufacturers stick to a 12-15 inch length for modern snorkels. Not only are long snorkels impractical, but they aren’t even possible to use past only a couple of feet deep due to the pressure differences.
While short snorkels have their own problems as well, at least they are usable and there are ways to get around their issues. That said, the issues that affect a long snorkel have already been solved by an activity called SNUBA diving.
SNUBA diving is basically a snorkeler’s dream. It’s perfect for people who aren’t yet SCUBA certified but want to experience what it’s like. The extremely long regulator hose is basically what a long snorkel would be like. However, this works because the regulator at the end of the hose helps to overcome the pressure differences that make long snorkels impossible to use.
If you are someone who has always wanted to use an extra long snorkel, then SNUBA diving is the closest thing you can get that is actually safe and practical to do. Otherwise, your other option is to learn how to do breath-hold dives and just hold your breath for as long as you can instead of wondering if a long snorkel exists.