What Is Skin Diving?

By David Fialkoff •  Updated: 02/01/21 •  8 min read

Have you ever wondered what is skin diving? It is an underwater sport in which a diver uses a face mask, fins, and a snorkel to swim and dive.

But is it the same sport as scuba diving or freediving? What are the main differences? What are the dangers associated with it? Let’s find it out!

Is scuba diving the only underwater sport?

Any diver can easily define scuba diving: a type of diving in which you carry a tank of compressed air or breathing gas to breathe underwater. However, once we remove the air tank, things get quite tricky to pin down.

If you are new to diving, you may get confused about the terms divers use to describe the underwater sport disciplines. Skin diving, freediving, snorkeling, and other terms are often used interchangeably, making it difficult to understand the difference between them.

Still, each of them is a separate sport, with its unique advantages and shortcomings. Whether you are a freediver or a skin diver, a scuba diver or a snorkeler, you can learn something new from the other activities, bringing some experience from one sport to the other.

Why is it called skin diving?

Although skin diving is an old term that is not used much anymore, it is still useful. This sport is as old as swimming. Back before googles and masks for better vision underwater, swimmers used to hold a breath when submerging to find a shiny treasure or hunt flashy fish.

Basically, it is the same activity as snorkeling. Skin divers also use snorkels at the surface and basic diving equipment such as fins and mask. The only major difference is that you can dive below the surface when you find something you would like to see up close.

However, this sport also has some limitations. Most of us have tried to dive down to investigate a coral garden or some exotic fish while swimming with a mask. And anybody who has done it knows the sudden pressure that causes discomfort or even aches in the head.

The reason for that is hydrostatic pressure. As soon as you pass a couple of feet deep, it starts to compress the air and organs within. With every 10 meters (33 feet) of depth, the hydrostatic pressure increases by one atmosphere. For this reason, if you want to dive deeper, you need to learn how to equalize the pressure.

What is the difference between freediving and skin diving?

Many divers tend to call both skin diving and snorkeling “freediving,” but they are not the same. Although freediving is the newest among these three tankless underwater activities, it is also the most popular one. It requires more discipline and is rather a competition-oriented activity.

Freedivers are trying to spend as much time underwater as possible in a single breath and, at the same time, reach the maximum depth. To do this, they try to maximize the amount of air they inhale and minimize the amount of air they use while below the surface.

Besides, freedivers often use lines or ropes for extremely deep vertical descends and fast ascends. It allows them to reach maximum depths that are not achievable for skin divers or snorkelers. The current freediving record was set by Herbert Nitsch when he dived to a depth of 830 feet (250 m) in a single breath!

Freediving has many applications: manual aquarium fishing, Muro-Ami, spearfishing, and, of course, setting depth records and dominating competitions. Skin diving, on the contrary, allows you to completely immerse yourself within this beautiful marine environment and become an integral part of the marine community down below.

Also, skin divers apply some freediving practices to dive more safely. It is probably the reason why many people refer to this sport as recreational freediving.

The main differences between skin diving and freediving include:

While skin divers dive to relax and enjoy marine life, freedivers dive for depth, doing it as a sport.

While skin divers’ bodies are typically seen oriented horizontally, freedivers usually dive vertically.

Coral reefs normally thrive in the shallows; therefore, skin divers do not need to go deeper than 30 feet (10 meters). However, it will be just a warm-up for an average certified freediver, as they usually dive from at least 50 feet (15 meters) to over three hundred.

Skin divers do not need to go deep to enjoy the marine life, so they would be fine with regular snorkeling fins. Moreover, they prefer short fins so as not to hurt corals or underwater animals. Freedivers have to wear long fins, as they help them to go deeper more quickly and more effectively.

Skin divers prefer sites teeming with an abundance of colorful sea life, such as coral reefs. Freedivers usually choose deep spots with little marine life.

Skin divers are fine with basic snorkeling equipment: snorkels, fins, and mask. Freedivers need much more gear: weights, lanyards, dive line, freediving watches, freediving wetsuits, and nose clips.

What are skin divers?

In many respects, skin divers are just advanced snorkelers. Most skin divers find it an extremely relaxing activity, which is much more enjoyable than scuba diving. Once you have mastered the basic principles of this sport, you may spend most of your time beneath the surface.

You don’t have to concern yourself with numerous technical aspects of scuba diving like monitoring your depth or time underwater. Moreover, you can access the most beautiful areas of the reef that are not accessible for scuba divers.

Another great advantage of skin diving is that there are no bubbles, so you will not scare or disturb marine organisms. For this reason, it is probably one of the most eco-friendly ways to explore coral reef environments.

How deep can you skin dive?

Once you are proficient at diving with scuba gear you may become interested as to how deep you could dive without special equipment. So how deep can you skin dive?

Although our bodies can theoretically handle any pressure, for most people, the maximum safe depth for diving without scuba gear is 60 feet (20 meters). However, regular swimmers usually dive to a depth of no more than 20 feet.

It is not the case for freedivers. They use special breathing techniques and freediving equipment that allows them to reach depths far beyond what skin divers can achieve.

Why is diving so dangerous?

Although skin diving is one of the safest diving sports, it can still be quite dangerous. So let’s take a closer look at the risks associated with this activity.

Drowning is the most common cause of death in this sport. It is usually caused by panic, lack of experience, or a combination of the two – for example, when a diver sees a shark or a diver’s mask fills with water.

Unless you have been trained to clear your mask, you can easily inhale water. When it happens well below the surface, it often causes drowning. Moreover, a skin diver is in danger of death from drowning when he loses consciousness due to any cause.

Increasing pressure on your organs is another danger of skin diving. Lungs and ears are the most commonly affected organs, but increased pressure also affects intestines and sinuses. For this reason, it is advisable to wear earplugs to protect your ears.

Other risks also include environmental issues like underwater sea life. The seas and oceans have amazing sights to see under the surface such as kelp forests and coral reefs. However, there are also hazards like poisonous creatures or predators. Jellyfish, coral snakes, cone snails, lionfish, sharks, and other animals can all be potentially deadly.

If you have lung, heart, diabetes, seizure, blood pressure, or other medical conditions, you should be especially careful. Also, do not skin dive for too long if the water is cold. Your body temperature may drop too low, leading to hypothermia. The opposite is also true with dehydration, heatstroke, or heat exhaustion.

Freediving Dangers

Unlike skin diving, freediving can be extremely risky, especially for beginners. The dangers of this sport can stem from health conditions, dehydration, environmental hazards, blackout, pressure and equalization issues, and more.

Poor breathing techniques, pre-dive exercise, hyperventilating, as well as changes in pressure when a diver ascends, all may contribute to blackouts. Hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen to the brain, is one of the results of the shallow water blackout. It is also one of the most common reasons for death in freediving.


Skin diving is a great way to improve your diving skills while enjoying the beauty of marine life. Moreover, it allows you to feel the freedom of movement since you do not have to carry an air tank on your back. Besides, it is much easier to get close to several marine animals, including dolphins or whale sharks, when you do not exhale bubbles.

You can also apply skin diving techniques to enhance your air consumption and better manage your breathing underwater. With so many benefits, it’s no wonder people love this sport!

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.