Summary: One of the great debates in the diving industry is whether or not to wear a snorkel when recreational scuba diving. In technical diving it is unanimous not to wear snorkels, but in recreational diving there are two camps and there are certainly pro’s and con’s on both sides of the camp. However, the debate has a bit of a bite to it. Many are quite judgmental to the people who disagree with their position. In this unique article not only will we look at the top points for and against wearing the snorkel while scuba diving, we will also look at the pro’s and con’s of each point. We will also look at considerations not often mentioned – considerations that are overarching rather than scenario-dependant.
THE “YES” TO WEARING A SNORKEL WHILE SCUBA DIVING CAMP
We will start here since this has been the diving industries’ historic position on training standards and equipment requirements for recreational divers.
POINT 1: The snorkel is good for surface swimming pre or post dive as it conserves air from the tank.
PRO: This is true as it will conserve air in the tank. This also lets you see underwater while you’re swimming, which can aid in orienting and direction. It is ideal when you need to keep your eye on something underwater while swimming at the surface. Using the snorkel keeps that uninterrupted vision by keeping your face continuously submerged. The snorkel is good for long surface swims in easy conditions where you would like to see underwater while you are swimming.
CON: But, the amount of tank air conserved needs to be measured against conditions, distance and time. At the surface (1ATA) the amount of air we breathe from the tank is quite small, as compared to the increased density of air consumed at depth. For a short and simple surface swim, breathing from the regulator may not have much effect on air supply at all. However, if there is a strong current or if the surface swimming distance traveled is long (let’s say 5 minutes or longer), then the amount of air used from the tank may be a factor and the snorkel may be a better option. However, note that if the conditions are causing heavy breathing at the surface using a snorkel, this could be worsened by the “dead air” space (residual CO2 that remains in a snorkel after exhalation) that continues to be breathed in keeping the diver’s CO2 levels high, thus increasing respiration. Also, if the surface conditions are rough, it may be better on the diver to abandon the snorkel swim and slightly descend and continue the swim underwater using the regulator. This will cut down on the exhaustion that may set in from surface swimming in large waves. Another con is the drift diving scenario when surface swimming up to a boat with its engines running. I will often wait at the surface using my snorkel, but when the boat approaches, that nasty taste of diesel exhaust makes me switch right away to my regulator and breathe the regulator the whole time I am waiting my turn to get out – as a dive professional, I am always the last one out of the water for whatever group I am supervising, (see FILO article) so that would be a long time to sit with a snorkel breathing exhaust.
POINT 2: The snorkel is essential for surface swimming if the tank has no air.
PRO: It’s true that we can’t breathe off the regulator if the tank has no air. So, when maintaining a face-down surface swim, the snorkel is the best method. I watched a diver with no air and no snorkel perform a surface search for his buddy who was still underwater. He followed his buddy trying to get his buddy’s attention. For ten minutes he swam at the surface lifting up his head every time he needed to breathe. He came back on the boat with a raging hypercapnia headache caused by such high levels of CO2 for such a long period of time. The snorkel would have helped greatly.
CON: Let’s consider this question… is swimming face-down on the surface while wearing full scuba the most efficient surface swimming position? Hmm. Many instructors, myself included, like to teach all levels of students that a faster and more efficient method to surface swim while wearing scuba is to swim on your back. This method rarely works with a snorkel. Most divers with a positively buoyant BC are easily able to swim on their backs while maintaining a controlled airway even in waves – as now the airway is above the water line instead of under it.
POINT 3: It is a safety tool, there when you need it.
PRO: By wearing the snorkel during a dive, it is immediately available when needed at the surface. The scenarios of having it immediately at the ready are subjects of discussion as there are nearly endless scenarios to consider.
CON: But, by wearing the snorkel during a dive, can all the con’s that we will see below outweigh the pro’s of having it readily available? The con side really does not see many “needs” for the snorkel that could trump all the con’s. And those who see merit to both pro and con sides of the point of “it is a safety tool, there when you need it” often jump to the “collapsible” or “folding” snorkel. (See “THE HYBRID” below.)
THE “NO” TO WEARING A SNORKEL WHILE SCUBA DIVING CAMP
POINT 1: It tugs on the mask and is unwieldy in a current.
PRO: In a strong current a snorkel may wobble, tug and pull on the mask strap. This can cause the mask to leak and/or flood completely. The wobbling snorkel may be a nuisance as it moves and bumps equipment or one’s head.
CON: It is not fair to generalize this point as the design of the snorkel relates greatly to how much it will wobble, tug and pull in a current. The more streamlined the design and the closer it is worn to the head dramatically reduces the snorkel’s profile in the water. Plus, a slight tilt or turn of the head changes the hydrodynamics of the water rushing by one’s head and can also reduce the resistance of water flowing by the snorkel.
POINT 2: It can easily get caught or entangled.
PRO: Having over a foot of plastic attached to the side of a diver’s head could be an object that gets bumped, caught or entangled. The snorkel can get caught in throw/tag lines, current lines, down lines and reel lines. It is also possible to get caught in other objects like monofilament line or on hoses when doing BC removal and replacement. In overhead environments such as caverns, caves and wrecks students are emphatically taught not to wear snorkels for this very reason.
CON: Many pieces of equipment we wear underwater protrude slightly off our person. What makes the snorkel that much different than the tank valve and first stage, the hoses, fins, gauges, etc.? Proper training and experience allows for the diver to accommodate for those items. We do what we can to minimize them (danglies) and we work with and around them. Those who have worn snorkels for a very long time have a great sense of their presence and rarely have an entanglement situation with their snorkels.
POINT 3: It gets in the way during a dive.
PRO: My most recent rescue class had a student who went to put her Air II in her mouth during an air sharing exercise, and as she brought it up to her mouth the snorkel mouthpiece came up on top of it! She put the wrong mouthpiece in and took in quite a gulp of water. This is a classic example of the snorkel really getting in the way in what could have been a drastic level. Sometimes the snorkel can be uncomfortable as it is hanging down next to the face and neck. This can be very distracting during a dive.
CON: Again, the profile of the snorkel and how it is worn has a lot to do with the comfort of wearing the snorkel. Most seasoned snorkel wearers have become very accustomed to the snorkel and do not perceive it as a nuisance. It is just another piece of equipment on their profile to which they know how to use and are aware of.
THE HYBRID: “HAVING” A SNORKEL INSTEAD OF “WEARING” A SNORKEL
One solution that both camps often agree on is the use of a “collapsible” or “folding” snorkel. Several brands exist wherein the snorkel can be folded up and carried either in a BC pocket or attached to the BC during the dive, then deployed and attached to the mask strap at the surface when needed.
PRO: This seems to be the best of both worlds. It is not worn while underwater scuba diving, and it is there when you need it at the surface. It also works towards many training agency standards that call for a diving professional to carry a snorkel when teaching or supervising a dive.
CON: Although their flexible design works for storage, some can bend in surface currents/waves and squeeze down upon a strong inhalation. When you think of times when the snorkel may be needed, there is a strong chance that heavy breathing will accompany its use. To have a snorkel that restricts airflow, even slightly, leads to high CO2 levels and is also extremely frustrating. These folding snorkels can function as a snorkel in ideal conditions, but do they function well in robust situations? Not really. Many people give them good reviews for what they accomplish in theory, but when really used and put to the test they often come up short.
LET’S TAKE A TIMEOUT: THE GREATER ISSUES AT-HAND
So we looked at many points, and the pro’s and con’s of those points. As you can see scenarios really dictate the need to wear or not to wear a snorkel. But we are missing bigger issues. For this I must stand atop my soapbox…
SOAPBOX POINT #1: We need to take a look at the modern-day snorkels hanging in dive centers everywhere. They are huge! With their ultra-hyper-uber-dry features they come with literal “domes” on top. To make it so they get rid of water easily they have large purge assemblies under the mouthpiece. To make it so they move out of the way when used with a regulator they add corrugation to allow the mouthpiece to drop away. To make this large contraption fit on a mask strap, there needs to be a large keeper assembly. With all of these conveniences comes lots of plastic. This makes snorkels longer, heavier and bulkier. When I wear these, I want to end my dive, ignore the divemaster’s briefing on what to put in a marine toilet, and flush them down the head! The modern snorkel has, in my opinion, become ridiculous because of point two…
SOAPBOX POINT #2: We’re getting lazy! It is truly not hard to clear a snorkel – and I mean ones with no purge valves. But instead we’ve relied on technology to design an easier product. But that design has had a backlash as more and more divers are recognizing all the negatives to wearing these monstrosities while diving and they’re simply ditching their snorkels. And since many scuba classes downplay snorkeling so very much, the certified diver is often uncomfortable and not proficient with the snorkel to begin with (yet it was required to buy for their class).
Sure technical diving is blending into recreational diving, but that is not the main reason for this large-scale rejection of the snorkel. For these reasons above it is no surprise why divers of the last ten years are shying away from wearing snorkels and why this is such an area of great debate.
I am fond of low-profile, simple J-design snorkels – such as freediving type snorkels. I am also completely proficient in their use. That combination of user proficiency and low profile design allows me to comfortably and skillfully scuba dive with my snorkel in place.
Ah, to wear a snorkel, or not wear a snorkel… that is the question.