How Does Snorkeling Work? The Ultimate Guide

Last Updated: December 8, 2023

Snorkeling is, no doubt, one of the best ways to sample the beauty of the underwater world. Other than that, it’s a fantastic way to improve your aerobic fitness as well as joint mobility.

But have you ever asked yourself how snorkeling works? Is it purely a preserve for expert swimmers? And can you accidentally run out of air while busy interacting with the magic and glamour that lies beneath the waters?

Let’s delve deeper into this topic to help you get a better understanding of what snorkeling really is – and what it actually involves.

people snorkeling - how it works

How Does a Snorkel Work?

Put simply, a snorkel is a plastic tubing that enables you to breathe underwater. And believe it or not, pipes of this nature have been used to aid swimmers since time immemorial.

Although there are no records confirming when snorkeling actually began, the idea is thought to have been conceived around 350 BC when humans observed elephants swimming in the water.

You see, elephants are large and heavy yet still manage to swim completely submerged in water thanks to their trunks. They simply turn their trunks into a pipeline that towers above the surface of the water so they can inhale and exhale freely.

In much the same way, a snorkel allows you to enjoy a consistent supply of fresh air even when your entire body is below water, provided part of the snorkel itself remains above the water surface. That way, you can take your time to enjoy the sights and sounds of the underwater environment without worrying that you might run out of air.

A typical snorkel comprises of the following main parts:

  • The Main Tubing – This tubing allows for gas exchange from the air above the surface to your lungs and vice versa.
  • Mouthpiece – Just like its name suggests, this part of the snorkel is meant to fit over your mouth. Most snorkel mouthpieces are made of silicone.
  • Mask Attachment – This is the part that ensures your snorkel tube remains firmly attached to your mask.

Though some advanced snorkels come with extra parts and accessories these are the most basic ones.

Can You Breathe Underwater with a Snorkel?

It is possible to breathe underwater as long as the snorkel’s top end remains above the surface of the water. In other words, it is not possible to take a deep dive and expect to still breathe through a completely submerged snorkel.

The average snorkel tubing is 17 to 24 inches long. If you give it an allowance of 5 inches above the water surface, you get roughly 12 to 19 inches to sink your head underwater.

Don’t get me wrong though. It is possible to completely dive underwater while wearing your snorkel only that once fully submerged, you’ll be unable to inhale and will have to occasionally come to the surface to blow out your snorkel tube.

For deeper dives, you’re better off wearing a whole set of scuba gear.

How Long Can You Stay Underwater with a Snorkel?

The length of time you can spend under water while snorkeling varies depending on your ability to hold your breath. For most people that is roughly 1 to 2 minutes.

Other than that, the condition of the water can also determine how long you can comfortably stay below the surface. Choppy waters, for instance, can be quite tricky to maneuver with a snorkel as some water can still find its way into the breathing tube.

Most snorkelers prefer to spend their time floating on the water, enjoying the view of the ocean floor.

How to Use a Snorkel and Mask

snorkel and mask

So, how do you get to use your favorite snorkel mask? Well, with a bit of practice, there’s a lot you can enjoy with this swimming gear. But as with any other thing in life, it’s always wise to take baby steps before attempting any sort of advanced sea maneuvers.

  • Step 1: Always select the right snorkel for your physique to ensure it fits snuggly. If your hair is long, you’re better off using a textile strap as opposed to a silicone strap (to prevent tangling).
  • Step 2: Confirm that the mask fits perfectly and doesn’t leave wide gaps anywhere (same process as when choosing a scuba mask).
  • Step 3: Use the provided mask attachment or a snorkel keeper to link the snorkel tube to the mask. Once this is done, adjust the snorkel and mask so they fit comfortably.
  • Step 4: To keep water out of your mouth you will need to create a tight seal with your lips. To do this, place your mouth and lips over the mouthpiece and bite on the bite tabs, gently.
  • Step 5: Gently place your face against the water and go just deep enough to maintain a bit of the tube on the surface of the water. You will need to breathe through your mouth while at it. Stick to deep but measured breaths to preserve your energy.
  • Step 6: It is not uncommon for water to enter the snorkel. No matter the volume, don’t panic. Blast it out by exhaling forcefully through your mouth. In some cases, it might take two forceful exhalations for the water to be fully expelled.
  • Step 7: Once you’ve built your confidence, you can try swimming around, enjoying the scenery below you. Don’t forget to take deep breaths.

Types of Snorkels

Snorkels come in all manner of shapes, colors, and sizes. But did you know that they also work differently? Depending on the type of snorkel you opt for, you are bound to have a slightly different experience than the next guy.

Related: Snorkel Mask vs Scuba Mask vs Goggles: What’s the Difference?

Generally, snorkels fall into three different categories: dry, semi-dry, and wet variants.

Dry snorkels

Also known as a dry-top snorkel, this type of snorkel is designed to prevent water from penetrating the breathing tube in case of complete submersion. As you can imagine, dry snorkels are designed with beginners in mind knowing full well that the possibility of swimming accidents is quite high among this class of snorkelers.

The float valve is the key distinguishing feature of dry snorkels. Located on the top end of the snorkel, the valve automatically shuts the tube immediately after the whole snorkel is submerged under water. You can find out more about dry snorkels in this post.

The good news is that you can still exhale even when the tube is completely shut. You, however, cannot inhale and for this, you would need to get back above the surface of the water.

On paper, dry snorkels may sound like the perfect example of gear for all swimmers. However, the reality is that as the valve shuts, it also tends to trap lots of air inside the snorkel, which is something that can create unwanted buoyancy underwater.

Semi-dry snorkels

Unlike their dry counterparts, semi-dry snorkels are built without a floating valve. Yup, you read that right. Instead, they come with a special feature known as a wave or splash guard.

The splash guard is specially designed to reduce the amount of water that finds its way into the breathing tube. With a bit of expertise, semi-dry snorkels can allow for unrestricted breathing and still allow air to escape thereby resolving the buoyancy effect typically experienced by dry-snorkel wearers.

It is, however, worth keeping in mind that semi-dry snorkels do allow some water to enter the tube. This can scare you especially if you’re a complete newbie. As such, these types of snorkels are best left to those with a bit of experience e.g., free divers and scuba divers.

Wet snorkels

This is the kind of stuff experienced divers dream about. Since it doesn’t have any auto shut-off mechanism, the wet snorkel allows you to enjoy swimming with absolutely no drag. Its simple design also means that you’re likely to get it on the cheap.

The only catch with it is that it comes with absolutely no mechanism to protect you from water that might find its way into your mouth through the tube. With this crucial mechanism missing, you’ll want to make sure your breathing game is always on top.

The key thing here is to ensure you breathe slowly and remain aware of your surroundings at all times. The minute water reaches your mouth, you simply need to stop inhaling and instead exhale forcefully to blast the water out.

Alternatively, you can place your tongue against the roof of your mouth to block any water from getting into your lungs. The technique may seem complicated at first, but once you get the hang of it, it will become second nature.

man with snorkel underwater

Any Other Snorkeling Gear I Need?

You can get started snorkeling with just a snorkel and a mask. However, if you want to make the most of your time in the water, you might want to buy or rent additional gear including a wetsuit, snorkel vest, and even fins.


So, why do you need a wetsuit when snorkeling? Well, this special swimwear protects you from any irritants that might be in the water and also the harsh rays of the sun. The suit can also help you keep warm when swimming in cold weather.

Related: What to Wear For Snorkeling

Snorkel Vest

If you are yet to learn how to swim freely and safely, you might want to get a snorkel vest. It’s the perfect gear for keeping you afloat even as you keep your face submerged in water.

A snorkel vest is not mandatory, though. It’s one of those items you simply invest in to build your confidence and enhance your safety.

And just in case of unexpected ocean waves and currents, a snorkel vest or other floatation device can go a long way in helping you find your footing.


Just the same way fish need fins for stability and balance, snorkelers should always use fins to remain in control, especially when swimming in ocean water. Oceans can prove messy and unstable at times and no matter how experienced you are as a swimmer; fins can come to your rescue during such times.

Related: Snorkeling Fins vs. Diving Fins – What are the Differences?

That said, fins do give you extra buoyancy, which though not a big deal for beginners, it might be a cause of frustration for experienced divers.


What Skills Are Required for Snorkeling?

Snorkeling is a relatively straightforward water activity. However, without some basic skills, you’re bound to find it a scary experience. These skills include:

  • Breathing Techniques: Take slow deep breaths through your mouth.
  • Swimming: Slow swimming is recommended over fast, haphazard swimming.
  • Situational Awareness: It is important to be aware of what is happening in the water around you.

Can You Breathe Underwater with a Full Face Snorkel Mask?

As long as the top of the tube stays above water you can comfortably breathe underwater even when wearing a full-face mask.

How Old Do You Have to be to Snorkel?

You can have your kids snorkeling as soon as they’re comfortable in the water. Some parents start their children from as early as two years of age.

Why Do Scuba Divers Use Snorkels?

Even the most sophisticated dive tanks have limited air supplies. For this reason, scuba divers may need to rely on snorkels to breathe near the surface so they can conserve the precious air in their dive tanks.

Sharing is caring!