How Does A Snorkel Work?

By David Fialkoff •  Updated: 01/05/21 •  8 min read

Many people are aware of the concept of the snorkel, but not everyone has a complete understanding of how the device works. So, how does a snorkel work? Well, the answer is fairly simple, and we’ll go over it in-depth in this article. As well, we’ll take a look at all of the things that you can do with a snorkel, plus a few different types of snorkels that are available for underwater swimmers with different needs.

What Is the Point of a Snorkel?

The main point of a snorkel is to allow swimmers to breathe while swimming without the need to lift their face up out of the water every time they need to take a breath. Generally, a snorkel is made up of a mask with a long J-shaped tube coming out of it, the end of which is meant to stay above the water while your face is submerged. This tube channels the air from above the surface of the water into your lungs without the need for you to ever lift your head up out of the water! One of the benefits of snorkeling is that it allows you to gaze upon the underwater wildlife for long periods of time without being disturbed. Of course, you’ll need goggles to be able to see underwater, which can sometimes also come with the mask.

How Do You Breathe Underwater with a Snorkel?

Snorkels allow you to breathe underwater by channeling the air from above the surface of the water into your lungs without the need for you to every lift your head up above the water’s surface. They are able to do so by using a generally long and J-shaped tube, the end of which will poke up above the water while your face is submerged.

How far you will be able to go underwater is determined by the length of the tube, with the average tube being just big enough to have your head barely submerged. The main point is to allow you to view underwater wildlife and scenery without the need to come up for a breath every few seconds. Although the basic concept of the snorkel hasn’t changed much over the years, the average snorkel has become much more light and effective through the advancement of modern technology. There are dry snorkels and wet snorkels, and each of these types has a different use for swimmers with different needs.

The average snorkel mask will have a closed mouth section and a closed nose section with separate areas for the swimmer to breathe in and out of while they’re swimming. The air that you exhale will typically be expelled through side channels instead of being expelled directly through the main valve, which keeps you from breathing in your own air repeatedly. The point of this is that when you’re just breathing in your own air over and over, it gradually loses it’s oxygen levels, which can lead to suffocation. This separation allows you to always be getting the oxygen you need without having to lift your head up out of the water to take a breath.

The snorkel mask will typically be sealed with some type of watertight mechanism, such as silicone frames. This ensures that the mask is completely sealed over your entire face, generally from the forehead down to the chin. Of course, the reason for this is to ensure that no water makes it’s way into your mask while you’re swimming, which would completely negate the point of the snorkel mask in the first place. If your snorkel mask is leaking, it’s not going to be effective.

When breathing with the average snorkel mask, you will need to make sure that the snorkel tube, or the tube that comes out of the mask and carries air through it, is always situated finely above the surface of the water. Otherwise, water will come through the tube and into the mask, which could lead to discomfort and even suffocation. There are different types of snorkels that feature an optional cap that can be put on the end of the tube to close it so that the swimmer can submerge the tube without the risk of water coming in through it. However, the swimmer still won’t be able to breathe during this time. If you’re looking to breathe underwater while fully submerged without having to worry about your snorkel tube staying above the surface of the water, you may be more interested in scuba diving with an oxygen tank.

Some full-face snorkel masks that cover your entire face will allow you to breathe out of either your nose or your mouth with minimal difference. With these masks, the tube will be connected to the top of the mask instead of directly to your mouth. These masks will feature the same solid seal that will prevent any water from getting into the mask.

It’s incredibly important when learning to use a snorkel mask that you choose a mask and snorkel that is comfortable for you. Many masks will come with adjustable straps that will allow you to adjust the mask to the correct size and shape for your head and face. However, not all masks will work for all individuals, even if they claim to be adjustable. One of the most important things to ensure is that the mask correctly seals around your face so that no water can leak into it, negating the purpose of the mask and causing a possible suffocation hazard. Once you’ve found a mask that has a correct and comfortable fit, it’s only a simple matter of correctly learning how to use it. Of course, before learning how to use a snorkel mask, you’ll need to know how to swim, but that should be a given.

To use the average snorkel mask after it’s properly fitted and applied, you’ll simply lay face-down in the water with the tube of the snorkel mask sticking out above the water’s surface. You’ll gently bite the mouthpiece of the snorkel and create a seal around it with your lips, which will hold it in place. From there, you’ll simply breathe as if you were breathing above the water, preferably with slow, methodical, and deep breaths. It may feel a little strange at first, but stay calm and you’ll soon get the hang of it!

How Long Can You Stay Underwater with a Snorkel?

With a basic snorkel mask, you’ll be able to stay underwater for as long as you feel comfortable! However, a caveat to this is that you’ll only be able to go as deep as the length of your snorkel tube allows, which is generally going to be a pretty small amount of submersion. Unlike with scuba diving using an air tank, there is no limit to the air supply leading from the snorkel tube to your lungs. That is unless the snorkel tube becomes submerged! So long as there is oxygenated air above the water, and your snorkel tube is situated finely above the water’s surface, you are going to be able to keep yourself submerged underwater for as long as you would like.

Wet Snorkel vs. Dry Snorkel

There are two different basic types of snorkels that you will find being sold, and these are the wet snorkel and dry snorkel. While they both function fairly similarly to each other, the dry snorkel will have some additional features that will better allow the swimmer to submerge themselves and the snorkel tube further underwater should the need arise. Dry snorkels will feature a float valve mechanism that can seal the snorkel tube when the swimmer wishes to go further underwater, preventing any water from getting in through the tube into the mask as it becomes fully submerged. If you were to try to do this with a traditional wet snorkel mask, the water would fill up the mask, which would be incredibly uncomfortable and would also prevent you from breathing as soon as the snorkel tube reaches above the surface level of the water.

Dry snorkels are very light and incredibly effective, providing minimal hindrance to the swimmer. They are not much bulkier than their wet counterparts, and shouldn’t be too much of a burden for snorkelers who would prefer one. They will also feature purge valves, which will allow the swimmer to expel any amount of water that manages to sneak into the tube.

Can You Breathe Underwater with a Dry Snorkel?

It’s important to note that, although the dry snorkel allows you to go further underwater without the risk of water filling up in your mask, you still won’t be able to breathe once the snorkel tube is fully submerged. Those who are wishing to be able to breathe while being submerged underwater to a greater extent than snorkels allow may prefer scuba diving with an oxygen tank. Scuba diving with an oxygen tank will allow you to go as far underwater as you would like while still being able to breathe just as you would if you were above the water’s surface. However, the equipment is much more bulky and cumbersome and only lasts for a short period of time.

David Fialkoff

David Fialkoff is the founder of Spearfishing.Live, a site that's dedicated to the sport of spearfishing. He is a full-time digital marketer and loves to spend time chasing fish underwater on the weekends.