Visit a dive forum and ask the forum users if you should bring a snorkel while diving and watch the reactions (and the trolls) roll in, both pro and con. Considering that a snorkel is little more than a glorified plastic tube, you wouldn’t think it could stir such emotions, but oh boy, it can. Some dive organizations, such as PADI, support snorkel use, while some, particularly those based on “doing it right” (DIR) principles, see them as nothing but death traps strapped to your face. And generally, divers tend to divide along similar lines: snorkels fall somewhere on the spectrum between lifesavers and accidents waiting to happen. Here we’ll discuss some of the pros and cons of snorkel use during a dive.
Snorkels are the original piece of dive gear, along with masks and fins. In many ways, they are the most basic of gear even today — hence the term “ABC gear” that’s often used to describe the trifecta. Most people are first introduced to the underwater world on snorkeling trips; in the days before scuba gear was common, using snorkels was the primary way of diving, known then (and now) as “skin diving.”
Today, most divers don’t use snorkels. They can, however, be useful during long surface swims, wherein you must look down to observe the bottom either for natural navigation or to find a reef or wreck. Instead of breathing down your tank, you can switch to your snorkel and breathe through that until you’re above your descent point, then switch to your reg.
Snorkels are also useful for diving when there are large waves. A snorkel, particularly one with a good splashguard or, even better, a one-way valve, will keep saltwater out of your mouth and allow you to breathe easier.
Snorkels can also come in handy in a number of rescue scenarios. If you’re back on the boat or shore and spot a diver in distress some way off, taking the time to get back into your gear might take too long, and surface swimming with full scuba gear isn’t always the optimal solution. Swimming out with simply fins, mask and a snorkel can be much quicker. And a snorkel can be used as an improvised facemask in case you need to do CPR, in particular if you need to do it while still in the water.
Snorkel opponents point to the fact that, by and large, snorkels are unnecessary. Most dives don’t require extended surface swims, and, as long as you’re diving in reasonable conditions, waves won’t be much of an issue. Many divers also believe very strongly you shouldn’t bring gear you don’t need.
And while snorkels have advantages when the seas are a bit choppy, they can also be a problem in those conditions. The extended profile created by a snorkel means it’s more likely that a wave can pull your mask off your face. It also increases the risk that you’ll lose your mask underwater if it gets snagged on something.
And finally, a snorkel is an entanglement risk. We absolutely do not need a snorkel underwater, and really just creates an excellent entanglement point on your head. For any dive in an overhead environment, or when there’s higher risk of entanglement, such as areas with large amounts of fishing lines and nets, or in kelp forests, snorkels can quickly become more trouble than they’re worth.
Definitive conclusion — or not
Ultimately, whether you bring a snorkel on a dive is a personal choice. If you’re diving in areas with little or no entanglement risk, or if you have a long surface swim, they can be useful. If you’re diving a wreck or a kelp forest, however, leave your snorkel at home. If you just can’t make up your mind A compromise can be a collapsible snorkel that fits into a BCD pocket when you’re not using it, but these are rarely as good as “real” snorkels.