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How Does A Snorkel Work?

If you’ve been to a beach or a popular resort/travel destination, chances are you’ve seen people snorkeling. The activity involves people floating on the water surface whilst exploring underwater. The scenery beneath many water bodies is breathtaking thanks to the presence of marine animals and plants.

An important piece of snorkeling equipment is the snorkel which assists snorkelers with breathing when their face and mouth are submerged. And this allows snorkelers to take in and enjoy underwater attractions for longer. If you’ve ever wondered how a snorkel works, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll extensively discuss the working principle of a snorkel as well as the different types of snorkels in this article.

A quick overview of how snorkels work: Snorkels are basically tubes with a curved section that ends into a mouthpiece. The snorkeler will breathe through the mouthpiece and the top of the tube will have to be above the water so the snorkel can exchange air with the surface.

How Does a Snorkel Work? – Parts of a Snorkel

In their simplest forms, snorkels are made of a tube, mask clip, and mouthpiece. There are now several modern snorkels on the market that come with added features for improved comfort and snorkeling experience. Such features include:

  • A splash guard at the top of the snorkel to prevent water (usually splashed and waves) from getting into the tube.
  • A flexible time at the bottom of the snorkel for better comfort by bringing about a more comfortable fit. Also, jaw fatigue, which is common with classic snorkels, is significantly reduced.
  • A purge valve at the bottom of the snorkel. The purpose of the purge valve is to conveniently remove any water that finds its way into the snorkel.
  • A float valve that ensures water doesn’t fill the snorkel if the device gets submerged.

To better understand how snorkels work, it’s important to understand the basic components of a snorkel.

Main Tube

The purpose of the tube of a snorkel is to facilitate the exchange of air between the snorkeler and the surface. The tube usually ends at the mouthpiece that snorkelers put in their mouth. And this makes the exchange of air between the mouth of the snorkeler and surface air possible.

Traditional snorkels have J-shaped tubes but it’s becoming more common to see modern snorkels featuring contoured tubes to bring about a more comfortable fit with the snorkeler’s face.

Snorkels constitute respiratory dead space. And for every fresh breath, a snorkeler takes, he/she is going to inhale some of the previously exhaled air. The effect of this is an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide and a reduction in the amount of fresh air. This is one of the reasons why snorkels can’t be made to reach great depths underwater because the buildup of carbon dioxide will be too much.

That aside, the lung muscles can’t inflate at great depths, and breathing at such depths requires pressurized air. And this is why a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus is used to breathe at great depths. Check out my article on scuba diving to learn more.


The mouthpiece, as the name implies, is placed in the mouth and connects the snorkeler to the tube of the snorkel for air exchange. Most snorkel mouthpieces have a similar design which involves a flag that makes a seal on the inside of the lips. There are also two bite tabs that snorkelers can rest their teeth on.

Many snorkel manufacturers are tweaking their mouthpiece design to improve comfort and snorkeling experience. AquaLung, for example, has incorporated their patented Comfo-Bite mouthpieces on their snorkels. And the benefit of this design is that AquaLung snorkels don’t require snorkelers to bite down on the mouthpieces thanks to the larger silicone panels.

Some brands still manufacture mouthpieces with bite tabs but they make them from soft and high-quality silicone for improved comfort and fit. In fact, many modern snorkel mouthpieces are made from silicone because the material is comfortable, durable, easy to clean, and hypoallergenic.

Ideally, your snorkel mouthpiece should be comfortable and easy to use. You shouldn’t need to bite down hard on your mouthpiece to use it or keep it in place.

Mask Attachment

Snorkeling involves the use of a snorkel mask that allows you to see clearly underwater. Because how then are you going to take in and enjoy the beautiful underwater scenery if you can’t see clearly? As a result, snorkels come with an attachment to snorkeling masks.

Modern snorkels feature improved clips that make it easy to attach and remove them from masks. Some may even come with pivots to allow you to move the snorkel in multiple directions.

Different Types of Snorkels

To the newbie who isn’t familiar with snorkeling gear, all snorkels will look the same. However, this isn’t so as snorkels come in different designs making some more suitable for particular conditions or skill levels. There are three types of snorkel namely dry snorkel, semi-dry snorkel, and wet snorkel.

Wet Snorkels

These are the traditional or classic snorkels featuring J-shaped tubes. This type of snorkel gets ‘wet’ because they don’t have any specialized feature to prevent water from entering the tube. Also, they don’t have specialized features for draining water.

Wet snorkels are more suited for freedivers, spearfishers, or experienced snorkelers who prefer them possibly due to their minimal drag underwater and simple design. Beginner snorkelers should stay away from this type of snorkel.

Semi-Dry Snorkels

Unlike wet snorkels, semi-dry snorkels have a mechanism (splash guard) to prevent water from entering the tube when snorkeling at the surface. There is also another mechanism (purge valve) for removing water that gets into the tube. Splashing water from waves or swimming are the ways water can get into the snorkel.

While semi-dry water will mostly keep water out when they are used at the surface, the opposite is true when they are submerged. This type of snorkel is very versatile and offers a good combination of comfort and function. They are best used when the snorkeler has prior snorkeling experience. Scuba divers, freedivers, and spearfishers also favor semi-dry snorkels.

Dry Snorkels

You genius! I know you’ve already figured out what a dry snorkel is after reading about wet and semi-dry snorkels. But I’ll still talk about dry snorkels to fulfill all righteousness.

Dry snorkels have the same features as semi-dry snorkels with a significant addition which is a float valve. The function of the float valve is to keep water out of the tube when the snorkel is completely submerged. This particular feature makes dry snorkels, also called dry top snorkels, the snorkels of choice for beginners.

Despite the obvious advantage of dry snorkels in keeping water out when completely submerged, there is a drawback. The drawback is increased drag and buoyancy underwater as a result of the snorkel trapping more air inside the tube. And this makes dry snorkels unsuitable for spearfishing, freediving, and scuba diving.

How does a snorkel work - Guide

How to Properly Use a Snorkel?

While using a snorkel is easy, you might need some time to get used to breathing through a snorkel. The simple solution to this is practice, as practice makes perfect. To properly use your snorkel, follow the following instructions.

  • 1. Ensure your mask fits snugly (choose the right size) and seals properly to prevent fogging and improve visibility. Then, attach your snorkel to your mask through the mask attachment which could be a mask clip, snorkel keeper, or any other attachment.
  • 2. Adjust the snorkel as needed to achieve a comfortable fit.
  • 3. The mouthpiece should go in your mouth and bite it gently. Then, use your lips to create a seal around the mouthpiece as well as to hold it in place.
  • 4. Submerge your face while keeping the top of the snorkel above the water. Remember that your snorkel needs to exchange air with the surface. Always breathe through your mouth. It may seem a bit strange at the beginning but you’ll get used to it.
  • 5. Take slow, deep breaths to ensure adequate air exchange. This also helps you conserve energy.
  • 6. After you are comfortable breathing through your mouth, you can start swimming around while taking deep breaths.
  • 7. If you find yourself with a mouthful of water, don’t panic. It’s not unusual especially if you are just starting out. You can remove the water by exhaling sharply, removing the mouthpiece and spitting the water out, then draining any remaining water.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do You Need to Know How to Swim to Snorkel?

You don’t need to know how to swim if you’ll be staying on the surface of the water. However, if you intend to go underwater, you’ll need to have basic swimming skills. Whether you’ll be staying on the surface or going underwater, being comfortable in the water will make snorkeling more enjoyable for you.

Can You Breathe Underwater With a Snorkel?

You can breathe underwater with a snorkel as long as the snorkel is above the waterline. The reason for this has been mentioned already as the snorkel needs to exchange air with the surface. If the snorkel is submerged, the snorkeler won’t be able to breathe through the tube.

Final Thoughts

Snorkeling is fun and allows people to enjoy the underwater world without the need for rigorous training or complicated equipment. Scuba divers also engage in snorkeling when at the surface to preserve the gas in their tanks.

It’s important you choose the right type of snorkel for your level of experience to have an enjoyable snorkeling session. And here’s to you having tons of fun as you enjoy the surreal beauty the underwater world has to offer.

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