Snorkeling And Scuba Diving – What Are The Differences and Similarities?

Snorkeling vs. scuba diving, which is better, which is easier to learn, which would be better for me? These are the most frequently asked questions that arise in people who fall in love with the ocean and decide to start the adventure of exploring the underwater world. Either activity you choose, you can’t go wrong, since they are both fun and enjoyable, but there are a few aspects you need to know in order to decide which will suit you better. To make things clear, as a certified diver and well-experienced snorkeler, I will discuss the differences and similarities between snorkeling and diving.

What are snorkeling and scuba diving?

People who are just getting into beach activities often ask if scuba diving and snorkeling are the same things, so let’s clarify first what these water sports exactly are.

Snorkelers use a mask, a breathing tube and usually a pair of fins to observe the underwater world while swimming on the surface and occasionally dive down to a few meters/feet deep (this is called skin diving or freediving).

People snorkeling on the surface of the Ocean

While scuba diving, divers carry independent breathing apparatus (regulator), a compressed air tank as well as a buoyancy control device (inflatable/deflatable vest) which allow them to dive deeper and stay longer underwater.

Scuba divers underwater

Note: actually, the combination of snorkeling and scuba diving also exists and is called SNUBA. It is technically surface-supplied diving when people are connected through a hose to a raft floating on the surface. This raft carries an air tank and like this, it allows people to dive down up to 15-20ft/4.5-6m and stay underwater for approx. 20-25 minutes. SNUBA can be experienced through licensed centers at select locations.

Differences between snorkeling vs diving

Qualification and training time

One of the key differences between snorkeling and diving is how much experience doing these activities require.

To go scuba – expect when going for an intro dive when can you experience the underwater world under the guidance of an instructor – you need to be a certified diver. An open water diving course starts with a medical checkup followed by a theoretical course when you learn scuba diving principles and about the gear.

Two scuba divers descending into the Ocean

Finally comes the practical part when you actually learn how to dive first in a pool, then in open water which can be a clear water lake or ideally, the sea. By the end of the training, you will learn all the necessary skills to go diving up to 60ft/18m with a more experienced diver or with a group led by a divemaster.
There is no training requirement for snorkeling, however, you need to learn how to use the snorkel mask, breathe through a snorkel and swim with fins. Such skills can be practiced in shallow water or in a pool and are easy to learn.

Snorkeler swimming over corals

Snorkeling (in classical terms) is essentially just floating on the water’s surface which requires very little swimming. It is often promoted for non-swimmers too, but I recommend against going snorkeling if you don’t know how to swim. You don’t need to be a strong swimmer, but since it is a water activity, basic swimming skills are required for safety reasons.

Equipment

Scuba diving requires a lot more equipment than snorkeling. Basic snorkel gear includes only a few items: a mask, snorkel and a pair of flippers but technically, snorkeling is possible using a single mask only.

To go diving, even if you count on just the must-haves, you will need the following: mask, snorkel, scuba fins, regulator, tank, BCD, gauge or dive computer. Moreover, a wetsuit also needs to be worn in most cases which depending on the water temperature can be a light shorty, a thick neoprene suit or even a dry suit.

Girl standing next to the sea with basic snorkeling gear

In my opinion, it is always worth having own equipment for snorkeling due to hygienic and practical reasons (you will know that your gear fits well) even if you don’t use it regularly. A good-quality snorkel set does not cost that much (30-50 USD) and does not take a big space so can be easily packed when traveling.

Equipment for diving

If you are just started diving and don’t know yet how you will like it in long term, buy only basic gear and rent the rest. However, when you feel it is not just a one-summer hobby anymore – although it is a bigger investment (1000-2000 USD) – it is recommended to buy your own equipment so you can go diving with peace of mind that your gear is good-fitting, regularly cleaned and maintained.

Costs

Given the mandatory training, long list of basic scuba equipment, the charge of tank filling, renting weights etc…, scuba diving is way more costly than snorkeling.

scuba diving training


Another factor that helps snorkeling remain a budget-friendly water activity is that if you choose your vacation destination well, you don’t even need to pay for snorkel trips but can snorkel locally all day long. Pick up a hotel that has a nice house reef or a place that features easily accessible shore snorkeling spots, so you don’t need to pay anything extra.

To go diving – even if you have your own gear- will add extra to your costs; you will need to register yourself at a school and join organized trips (or pay for private sessions) since most countries allow diving only through licensed operators due to safety reasons.

Time spent in the water

Snorkeling vs scuba diving has a major difference in terms of how long you can enjoy exploring the underwater world. You will not face any limitations when you go snorkeling; you can stay in the water as long as you want or as long as you feel it comfortable, not freezing, are not tired or the weather and sea conditions are suitable.

scuba diving in the ocean

A typical recreational dive lasts about 45 minutes. This time can vary slightly depending on the depth and on the divers’ air usage but is between 30 and 60 minutes when carrying a standard tank.

Flexibility

Snorkeling does not require special preparation; this makes it very practical since if you have your gear with you, technically you can just jump in the water anytime, even if you have just arrived at your vacation destination 5 minutes earlier.

People are snorkeling from the beach in the afternoon

To go scuba diving, however, planning is necessary including equipment preparation, finding a suitable dive spot but also many other things. First, you cannot go diving whenever you want; having a cold or flu or a simple allergy is unsafe for scuba since the sinuses and eustachian tubes may become blocked making equalizing difficult/not possible.

Also, a hangover poses a higher risk of decompression sickness and you need to pay attention to the required surface interval times between dives as well as to the time before you can hop on an airplane. Such rules are very important to follow for your own safety and are explained in detail during every scuba training.

Age limit

No matter you choose snorkeling or scuba, exploring the underwater world is a fantastic activity for young and old but be aware that children need to be at a certain age to be able to go diving. Most scuba diving organizations recommend for kids to be at least 8 years to try diving in a pool and have an age limit of 10 years old to be able to participate in a Junior Open Water Diver course.

Young boy goes diving

Kids snorkeling does not have such age limitations, so when they are comfortable in the water and are mature enough to understand the knowledge and handle the skills, you can start teaching them how to snorkel (just make sure to buy proper, small-sized kids snorkeling gear). I bet you will be surprised how quickly and effortlessly they will learn it!

Grandma goes snorkeling with young boy

On the other hand, there is no maximum age for snorkeling and scuba diving. The basic rule is that the person needs to be in good physical condition and confident in the water. Moreover, those who want to become certified divers at a later age may go through a detailed medical examination.

What you can see

Putting a snorkel mask on your head gives you the opportunity of exploring a completely new world. While snorkeling, you will get to see thousands of marine species since marine life concentrates on shallow reefs so those who think that snorkeling is not that enjoyable are wrong.

Snorkeler with a sea turtle in the Sea

There is a lot to see from the surface or when diving into a few meters of depth while holding your breath, however, it is true that scuba divers get to experience a completely different perspective of the underwater world and have a higher chance to see rare marine creatures. For instance, encountering a shark while diving is more likely than seeing a shark while snorkeling.

Scuba diver getting close to an anemonefish

Since divers can go deeper and can stay there longer, they can get closer to marine life, find creatures that usually hide in caves, cracks, under rocks or just blend in the environment and find better angles to take photos/record videos.

Weather conditions

It often happens that diving is still possible and safe when snorkelers are not allowed to enter the water. This can be explained by simple reasons: snorkeling happens on the surface while divers go into certain depths; surface conditions such as waves and strong winds usually do not affect underwater conditions and do not restrict diving.

Hotel jetty closed for swimmers due strong wind

Moreover, while snorkelers are advised to avoid currents, scuba divers often dive around continuous movement of water since this is where big marine animals – for example manta rays – are likely to be spotted. However, in such cases, high-level experience and knowing different finning techniques is necessary along with carrying special accessories like a reef hook and surface marker buoy to indicate your location if you become separated from your group.

Related post: What is the best time to go snorkeling?

Snorkeling and scuba diving similarities

You will need a buddy

Most people know that diving works on buddy system meaning divers dive always in pairs or in a group to improve safety. Well, the same applies to snorkeling too.

Three people snorkeling in the Red Sea

However, you may think that it is just like swimming, why can’t you go alone, think about safety. While in open water, many unforeseen things happen such as leg cramping, jellyfish sting, coral cut when having someone with you who can help solve the situation or get back to the shore quickly is crucial. Never dive or snorkel alone!

Use of a snorkel

A good-fitting, ergonomic snorkel is a must-have snorkeling gear since it allows viewing the underwater world without lifting the head out of the water to breathe. Many think that divers do not need or use a snorkel tube since they swim underwater while breathing through the regulator, but this is wrong.

In fact, recreational divers are highly advised to carry a snorkel (underwater, they usually tuck it into the BCD’s pocket to avoid creating additional drag) because there are many situations when they may require it.

One is when surface swimming is needed, for example when diving from the shore. Often dive sites are far from the shore; in such situations, a snorkel allows the divers to swim comfortably on the surface until they reach the actual site to submerge so there is no need to use up the air in the tank.

diver using a snorkel

Another example of practical uses of a snorkel for divers is while waiting on the surface. It happens before diving (when not everybody is in the water yet and you need to wait while others getting ready) and after diving too (when you wait to be picked up by the dive boat). If so, by breathing through the snorkel you can wait cozily floating on the surface without emptying your dive tank.

To cut it short, the snorkel is an important safety in diving, so recreation divers are advised to carry one. There are different types of snorkels so before buying one make sure to read which one will work the best for you.

Can be done in freshwater and in the ocean

Although scuba diving and snorkeling are usually associated with seaside destinations, there are many clearwater lakes and rivers worldwide (for example in France, Italy and Austria in Europe, in Florida or in Mexico just to mention a few) that provide excellent conditions and a lot to see.

Snorkeling in freshwater cenote in Mexico - Tulum

Snorkeling or diving in freshwater is a completely different experience than in the ocean; you will see different creatures, usually a large variety of animals and plants.

These environments are also a bit more challenging since the water temperatures are usually colder and buoyancy is different in freshwater, but if you are visiting a destination where there is a lake or river suitable for such water activities, don’t forget to pack your gear!

Planning and patience are important

Marine animals are -luckily- wild and free creatures, so they do not appear always in the same place and at the same time. This means that both snorkeling and scuba diving requires planning as well as patience since it is never guaranteed what you see in the water. It can easily happen that you travel to a place where it is said that specific creatures can be seen such as whale sharks or manta rays, but they won’t be there on that given day.

snorkelers with a manta ray in Indonesia

Therefore, before booking a trip or choosing a location, do your research on what type of marine life is present in the area, what season is the best to visit etc… Even when on the site, be patient; you may not be encountering the creatures you wanted to see on your first dive or snorkel session or experience bad visibility that ruins your day but will find excellent conditions and teeming reefs the next day!

You learn about water creatures

The underwater world is so fascinating with thousands of interesting creatures living in it. There is no better way of learning than observing; while snorkeling or diving, you will get the fantastic opportunity to encounter corals, fish, invertebrates and marine mammals, witness their behavior and understand how the marine ecosystem works.

father and daughter observing marine life in shallow water

Get some fish identification books that are excellent resources to identify the species. Buy an underwater camera to take your own photos. You may not be a marine biologist but can become an enthusiastic naturalist if you take up the hobby of exploring our waters.

This fantastic activity can be done with your family or friends, and you will not only learn about marine creatures, but I am sure it will raise your awareness of the importance of the health of our oceans and the threats it faces.

Exercise and relaxation

While many think that snorkeling and diving are passive sports when you just float on the surface or calmly drift through coral reefs, actually they make you work out your whole body; pushing yourself against currents is a great exercise for the muscles, breathing through a snorkel tube or the regulator helps take slower and deeper breaths that improve the breathing ability.

Moreover, such water activities are proven to reduce stress. Being by the sea cheers people up, while watching marine life is incredibly relaxing. Whenever you feel overwhelmed and want to switch off, going diving or snorkeling is always a good idea!

You meet fellow people

No matter which activity you choose to practice, one thing is guaranteed: you will meet folks with the same interest. The love for the ocean and its creatures connects people and I bet you will make many new contacts, snorkel and dive buddies both where you live and at the places you travel to. Thanks to sharing the same hobby, you may make lifelong friendships and start exploring the world’s best snorkeling and diving spots together!

group of people enjoying snorkeling at-a tropical location

Which is better?

Both snorkeling and diving are rewarding activities when you can explore vibrant coral reefs and interesting marine creatures while enjoying yourself and making lifetime memories.

The main difference lies in the way you do it. Those who prefer simplicity and flexibility will possibly choose snorkeling over diving, while those who want to get closer to marine life prefer diving. It mainly depends on one’s personality and preferences which is the better fit and many people practice both depending on their mood or the destination’s water conditions they visit.

happy snorkelers in the Sea

I personally tried both and am a certified diver myself too, but when I realized that organizing a dive trip is more difficult (as well as more costly) than snorkeling, I decided to stick to the latter (however I still do dive sometimes). The best advice I can give you is to hit the water and try both activities to answer that question for yourself!

Which is easier?

Snorkeling does not require expensive gear or special training, therefore, usually it is promoted as the simpler of the two activities and most people start snorkeling first. Generally, it takes only a few hours to learn how to snorkel. Usually, the hardest part is to get used to the feeling of putting the head in the water and breathing through the tube, but with time, these become natural.

snorkeling woman underwater holding her breath

The use of specific equipment and the need of passing courses make diving look like a complicated sport that is time-consuming and difficult to learn, but this is just partly true. Dealing with the equipment is pretty straightforward, while breathing underwater through a regulator while enjoying the feeling of weightlessness is something that you will want to relive again and again if you experience it once.

group of divers are training in the Sea

It is of course correct that more effort, time, money and dedication are needed to learn how to scuba dive, but it is not as complicated as it seems at first sight.
Safety is extremely important while scuba diving, so I cannot stress enough how important is to choose a good instructor who only allows their students to get certified when they properly know all the skills and is ready to provide extra practice time for those who need it. Therefore, make research before engaging with a school and sign up for a course only when you feel you found an instructor you trust.

Conclusion

Snorkeling is a fun, enjoyable, easy to learn and inexpensive beach activity that allows you to discover the sea and its creatures while floating on the surface and making occasional dives into shallow depths holding your breath. It does not require special training and much equipment and can be enjoyed by almost anyone who is fit and comfortable in the water without age limits.

Diving – while it takes time and effort to learn and requires more equipment – allows one to experience the fantastic feeling of breathing and weightlessly moving underwater which is like being in space. Also, since you can spend more time underwater without the need of coming up for air, you can feel that you don’t only observe marine life but become part of it.

Which one to choose then? Diving and snorkeling are awesome sports, and it depends only on your personal preferences which one you will enjoy more. I suggest trying both to see which one you find better; maybe you will end up practicing both!

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Anett Szaszi

Anett is a certified scuba diver, freediver and an expert in snorkeling with more than 10 years experience. She fell in love with the ocean when she put her head underwater in the Red Sea in 2008. Since then , she is traveling all over the world to discover our waters. Wherever she goes, she takes her mask, fins and underwater camera with her. Visiting mega-cities is not her style but getting lost in tiny coastal villages, capturing the beauty of the sea while snorkeling. She is interested in sustainable traveling and marine conservation. She is hoping to inspire people to protect our oceans by sharing her underwater stories. Find her photos on @anett.szaszi Instagram too!