For someone just discovering the world of underwater sports, there’s seemingly no end to the different disciplines. The most common are the ones in the headline: scuba diving, snorkeling, skin diving, and freediving. But what’s the difference between them?
While there are somewhat clear definitions, there’s also considerable overlap, so some might disagree with these definitions. They are slightly too simplistic by design to help newbies tell the different sports apart. And ultimately, opinions will differ. With that disclaimer, let’s give it a go: what’s the difference between scuba diving, snorkeling, skin diving and freediving?
This one is the easiest to define. Scuba is the abbreviation for “Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus,” which is an old term for the combination of a scuba tank and regulator. So, if you’re wearing a tank on your back and breathing through a mouthpiece connected to that tank, you’re scuba diving. You’ll wear a mask to help you see, fins to help with propulsion and a BCD to control buouancy. You’ll also usually wear some sort of exposure protection, such as a rash-guard in the tropics, a wetsuit in temperate climes, or a drysuit in cold water. Boots are often part of this exposure protection, and if so, your fins will have heel straps or bungees. Scuba diving involves specialized training and certification.
Snorkeling is the most popular option on our list, and the one that you can enjoy with the least amount of experience. In snorkeling, you stay on the surface, looking down through a mask and breathing through a snorkel. You don’t have to lift your head to breathe. You may wear exposure protection, usually a rash-guard or wetsuit, but in some places you may even need a drysuit. Snorkeling fins are softer than scuba fins and, rather than using a heel strap, they’ll slip over your full foot without a boot. Some snorkelers also wear floatation vests, especially if they’re not particularly strong swimmers.
Freediving is not a new sport per se, but it has seen a dramatic spike in popularity. Unlike the others on this list, freediving is largely a competitive sport. It consists of various disciplines, all centered around the same principle: staying underwater for as long as possible on a single breath. Disciplines range from static apnea, where you lie stationary, face-down in a pool, holding your breath for as long as you can to ones where you have to cover as much distance horizontally or vertically as you can.
Freedivers wear masks that are often a blend between a dive mask and swim goggles, but do not use snorkels. You also wear exposure protection, usually wetsuits. You’ll rarely (if ever) see a freediver in a drysuit. Freedivers sometimes wear fins, although some disciplines don’t use them. They’re usually either very long, full-foot fins, or a monofin — a single, broad-bladed fin that you wear on both feet. This creates a profile similar to a fish tail. Freedivers focus on the diving, spending little time at the surface apart from surface intervals and recuperation time.
A somewhat antiquated term, skin diving refers to a mix of snorkeling and freediving. A skin diver spends time at the surface, looking down on the landscape below while breathing through a snorkel, and does breath-hold dives, swimming down to observe interesting objects or marine life. Many advanced snorkelers practice skin diving, as well as freedivers just diving for fun rather than competition or training. Skin divers wear masks, snorkels and sometimes wetsuits, depending on water temperature. Drysuits are not appropriate. Fins can be either snorkeling or freediving fins.
Again, the lines between each discipline — except scuba diving — can get blurry. Not everyone will necessarily agree with our distinctions but, at the very least, they might help a novice get an idea of what to expect.