Main Difference Between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving that You Need to Know

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Expert: Cameron – I have been active in all water-based adventures since 2014. While working overseas I obtained my advanced PADI diving certificate and when needing to fly within the day I go snorkeling instead. Snorkeling in particular has been a hobby of mine since I was a child.

Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular activities that allow individuals to explore the underwater world.

While they share similarities, such as the ability to observe marine life, there are distinct differences between the two.

What is this big difference between snorkeling and scuba diving?

Snorkeling and scuba diving differ in equipment and depth. Snorkeling involves swimming near the water surface using a snorkel to breathe, suitable for shallow exploration and observing marine life. Scuba diving requires specialized gear allowing divers to explore greater depths for extended periods, also requiring a certification.

In this article, we will delve into the contrasting aspects of snorkeling and scuba diving.

Including their equipment, depth of exploration, breathing techniques, training requirements, access to marine life, safety considerations, cost, popular destinations.

As well as factors to consider when choosing between the two activities.

Understanding How Snorkeling and Scuba Diving Differ

Snorkeler in Vibrant Ocean

Overview of Snorkeling

Snorkeling is a water activity that involves swimming on the water’s surface while using a mask and snorkel to breathe and observe the underwater world.

This does not require any certifications or extreme equipment.

Despite popular opinion, you do not even need to know how to swim while snorkeling.

Overview of Scuba Diving

Scuba diving is a form of underwater diving that utilizes specialized equipment, including a regulator and tank, to allow divers to explore greater depths and remain underwater for extended periods.

Scuba diving requires certification when renting out gear and heading out even with guides.

You might be able to scuba in certain destinations, but this is highly not recommended under a safety standpoint.

Equipment and Gear Differences for Snorkeling and Scuba

Check out this article to know what you need to wear when snorkeling.

Snorkeling Gear

Snorkel Gear Outside
Snorkel Mask

Both activities require a mask, but there are some devices like clear flotation devices that will allow you to see underwater without a mask.

This is not usually qualified as snorkeling in the popular opinion.


There are several types of snorkels that can be used when snorkeling.

While you also need a snorkel to dive, you will mainly be using it when surfacing the water when diving.

While snorkeling, you will be using this constantly, so knowing which type you prefer is important for this activity.

Snorkeling Fins

Fins are highly suggested but not at all necessary when snorkeling.

Snorkeling does not require fins, but to be able to move through the water easily and without exerting great effort, you should purchase a pair depending on your needs.

I have snorkeled with and without fins, so it really depends on your situation.

Do you really need fins to snorkel? Find out in this article.

Scuba Diving Equipment

Scuba divers use a buoyancy control device (BCD) to control their depth, a regulator to breathe from the tank, and a tank containing compressed air or other breathing gas.

Buoyancy Control Device

These devices strap to your back and include your breathing hoses, weight pockets, and other areas for attachment.

They have an attachment that directly feeds to your tank where you can add air to be able to remain buoyant at certain levels of depth.


According to PADI, the regulator is what connects all your gear to allow breathing.

This gear connection flows from the tank, your BCD, your pressure gage, and you.


According to the professional association of diving instructors, divers typically use air (approximately 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen) or Enriched Air Nitrox (ranging from 22% to 40% oxygen with the remainder filled in with nitrogen).

Depth and Duration of Exploration for Scuba and Snorkeling

Snorkeler Overcoming Open Water Fear

Snorkeling Depth

Snorkeling typically takes place in shallow waters, allowing individuals to stay close to the surface.

The dive time is limited by breath-holding capacity, unless you are just remaining at surface level to which you can remain in the water theoretically indefinitely.

Scuba Diving Depth and Exploration Capacity

Scuba divers have the ability to explore greater depths, depending on their training and certification level.

They can stay underwater for longer durations due to the use of breathing equipment.

With nitrox enriched tanks, the diver will be allowed to stay underwater for even longer.

Breathing Techniques Used for Scuba and Snorkeling

Man Snorkeling Underwater

Snorkeling Breathing Requirements

Snorkelers breathe through a snorkel tube while floating on the water’s surface, periodically lifting their heads to inhale.

A free diver can hold their breath for extended periods of time while exploring or fishing underwater.

A master free diver will on average be able to hold their breath for 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

Scuba Diving Breathing Technique

Scuba divers breathe through a regulator connected to a tank, which allows them to breathe continuously underwater.

This is still limited to with reference to the depth you are diving down and the amount of time for that depth.

One who dives down to 60 feet and remains their has 56 minutes to dive before they need to begin their controlled ascent.

Training and Certification Requirements for Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

Seagull Walking on Shoreline During Winter

Snorkeling Certificates and Training Requirements

No Formal Training or Certification Required: Snorkeling does not require formal training or certification.

Basic swimming skills and water awareness are sufficient for participation.

Scuba Diving Certificates and Training Requirements

Scuba diving requires completing training courses, such as those provided by PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), and obtaining certification to ensure safety and competence underwater.

There are other diving associations that can earn you certifications, however the most well known around the world is PADI.

Access to Marine Life and Underwater World When Snorkeling vs Scuba Diving

Sea Turtle Philippines

Snorkeling Marine Life Access

Snorkelers observe marine life from the surface, looking down into the water.

They can enjoy the beauty of coral reefs, fish, and other aquatic creatures.

Even though you cannot remain at depths with the marine life, this does not mean you cannot enjoy it as much as scuba divers.

All of my sea turtle interactions have been while snorkeling since the sea turtle comes near the shore to feed.

Scuba Diving Marine Life Access

Scuba divers have the opportunity for immersive experiences, swimming among marine life, and getting closer to the underwater environment.

Being able to remain in the water longer gives you a greater opportunity to witness marine life in their natural habitat.

While something is swimming away or swimming by you have a chance to follow them and get even better photos and experiences.

Safety Considerations for Both Scuba Diving and Snorkeling

Potential Safety Risks and Beach Rules

Snorkeling Safety

Snorkeling safety involves being aware of water conditions, practicing basic swimming skills, and avoiding potential risks such as strong currents or fatigue.

However, you do not need to be a masterful swimmer to enjoy this activity.

Check out this article to see if you need to know how to swim to snorkel.

The main safety key to remember when snorkeling is to always bring a buddy with you.

Scuba Diving Safety

Scuba diving requires thorough dive planning, following safety procedures, utilizing the buddy system, and adhering to decompression limits to prevent accidents or injuries.

Decompression Sickness

As you just read there is much more to worry about when diving.

Just like a flight plan, you need to have a dive plan.

Planning the depth you are going, how long your session will last, and how long you need to decompress before getting back in the water for another session is key.

If you head into the water and dive again without waiting the proper amount of time you could get decompression sickness.

According to a Harvard post, Decompression sickness, also called generalized barotrauma or the bends, refers to injuries caused by a rapid decrease in the pressure that surrounds you, of either air or water.

It occurs most commonly in scuba or deep-sea divers, although it also can occur during high-altitude or unpressurized air travel.

Flying After Diving

For the same reason as decompression sickness, there is a minimum wait time after diving to fly.

As a pilot myself there I know there is a minimum wait time of 12 hours before a flight that I need to have been out of the water; for multiple dives per day the minimum recommendation is 18 hours.

This is because the decompression sickness rapidly escalates from the altitude of the aircraft causing you to pass out.

If the plane does not land quickly, and you do not receive medical treatment, you could die.

This rule is imperative, I have had master diving instructors inform me they have passed out on flights and had to have emergency landings because of it.

With quick searches you can also see recreational divers take friends out to dive then attempt to fly them back to their meeting spot where everyone on the flight passes away from the blackout they had and the plane crashing.

Marine Life Dangers with Scuba Diving

Beyond the general rules of scuba diving, you need to be concerned for potentially dangerous marine life around you.

There are sharks, sting rays, and harmful jelly fish that you are spending time around.

Understanding the potential dangers of the marine life around you should also be part of your dive plan and understanding of the area.

During critical moments, you must understand what to do when attacked or a creature is attempting to provoke you.

Cost and Accessibility for Snorkeling vs Scuba Diving

Snorkel Gear and Accessories

Snorkeling Cost and Accessibility

Snorkeling is a relatively affordable activity, and it is accessible to people of all ages and swimming abilities.

It can be enjoyed in various locations, including beaches, lagoons, and reefs.

There are also very cheap snorkel rental centers in most tourist destinations if you do not want to purchase your own gear.

I have rented gear for as low as $5 US and have purchased reliable gear for under $20 that I still use.

Scuba Diving Cost and Accessibility

Scuba diving involves higher costs due to equipment, training, and certification fees.

It requires a greater level of commitment and may have age or health restrictions.

This activity is not cheap by any means.

A diving mask is usually required to purchase if you are gaining your certificate and that can run anywhere from $80-$150.

These masks will usually come with a snorkel.

If it is not included with your certification, you will also need to rent a tank and purchase the air for the tank.

If you do not plan to purchase scuba gear, you will need to rent this as well.

The certifications can run high depending on what certification you are looking into.

There are destinations around the world however, that offer high class certifications, like PADI.

The cheapest for a PADI certification is in Guam.

My full certification to Advanced Open Water ran me around $1500 all together.

This was all conglomerated within a week so if you push the time out it could be more or less.

Choosing Between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

Choosing between snorkeling and scuba diving depends on personal comfort level in water, physical fitness, and desired goals for underwater exploration.

Snorkeling should always be an option when going to a beach.

Bring along your mask and snorkel anytime your near some water just in case.

Diving is a more serious hobby than a leasurly activity.

If it is something that you are interested in then you will need to invest time and money to be able to enjoy yourself.

I can tell you that it is 100% worth the investment to gain your scuba qualification, and even with this qualification, I always am ready to snorkel!


Which activity is right for you?

Consider the information provided in this article, evaluate your preferences and abilities, and make an informed decision about whether snorkeling or scuba diving suits you best.

Snorkeling and scuba diving offer unique experiences to explore the underwater world.

While snorkeling provides a simpler and more accessible way to observe marine life near the surface, scuba diving offers the opportunity for immersive encounters and deeper explorations.

By understanding the differences in equipment, depth, breathing techniques, training, access to marine life, safety considerations, cost, and accessibility, individuals can make an informed choice based on their preferences, comfort level, and goals.

Whether you choose to snorkel or scuba dive, the wonders of the underwater realm await your discovery.

[Sources and References]

Wormald, Sarah. “How Long Do Freedivers Hold Their Breath?” PADI Blog – Scuba Diving and Freediving Tips, Dive Travel Insights & More, 5 Jan. 2023,
“Regulator.” PADI, Accessed 7 July 2023.
Keaveny, Andrew. “What Is in a Scuba Tank?” PADI Blog – Scuba Diving and Freediving Tips, Dive Travel Insights & More, 1 May 2023,
“Decompression Sickness.” Harvard Health, 13 Mar. 2023,,altitude%20or%20unpressurized%20air%20travel.