Scuba diving and snorkeling are both fantastic options for those looking to explore the sea, as they both give you a unique look at marine life that you quite simply cannot get from the deck of a boat. That said, there are undeniably a number of differences between the two activities, and it’s worth weighing the merits of scuba diving vs snorkeling when deciding which one is for you. It’s also important to assess your level of comfort with the ocean before deciding on a particular marine activity – are you a fish out of water when it comes to the sea, or is gliding through the coral second nature to you?
Differences Between Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
Though both scuba diving and snorkeling involve exploring the sea, they each take a very different approach towards doing so. Let’s look at scuba diving vs snorkeling and see what these two marine activities are at a basic level:
Snorkeling is an activity that happens on the surface of the sea, wherein the snorkeler uses a mask and breathing tube (called, unsurprisingly, a ‘snorkel’) to look down at the seabed. Snorkelers do not descend to the seabed, but simply observe from above.
‘SCUBA’ stands for ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’ and, as you might expect, involves diving beneath the surface of the ocean (or a different body of water) in order to explore it more thoroughly. It is a more intense activity than snorkeling and, correspondingly, requires more technical knowledge and caution. That doesn’t mean that scuba diving is necessarily hard, however.
Now that we have a basic understanding of the differences between the two activities, let’s take a more in-depth look at scuba diving vs snorkeling.
Scuba Diving Requires Much More Equipment
In order to go scuba diving, you’ll need a wetsuit, goggles, fins, an oxygen tank, a regulator, a BCD (buoyancy control device), weights, a diving computer, and no small number of gauges.
To go snorkeling, you’ll need fins, a mask and a snorkel. That’s basically it (although there may sometimes be more to it, as we’ll explain later).
Scuba Diving Requires Intensive Training
Snorkeling is an extremely straightforward activity – after a couple of minutes familiarizing yourself with the basics, you’ll be ready to hit the water and enjoy the sights of the sea.
Scuba diving is a little more intensive, however. You’ll be heading underwater to depths of up to 20 meters, and it’s important that you’re taught not only how to navigate your environment, but how to keep track of essential data as you go. You’ll need to monitor your depth, remaining air supply and dive buddy, and it’s also very important that you understand the concept of decompression before you hit lower depths. You’ll also need to learn other important safety fundamentals, such as what to do if your mask becomes filled with water or if your dive buddy runs into difficulties.
Think of it as learning to ride a bike as opposed to driving a car – they’re both accomplishing roughly the same thing, but one requires far more knowledge and training to operate correctly!
Scuba Divers Go to a Much Lower Depth
As we touched upon earlier, scuba divers go much deeper than snorkelers. Snorkelers are limited to about 4 meters’ depth, although experienced snorkelers may go as deep as 7 meters (free-divers go even deeper, but that’s a subject for another article!).
Scuba divers, by comparison, can go as deep as 40 meters, though beginner divers are unlikely to go deeper than 20. This makes for a very different experience, and also means that…
Scuba Divers Get to See a Whole Different Side of the Ocean
While snorkelers get a wide-angle, panoramic view of the entire ocean floor, scuba divers have a more intimate perspective on things. The marine life found on the seabed is, of course, very different to that found near the surface, and it is only via scuba diving that you’ll have a chance to see octopuses, cuttlefish, coral, anemones, eels and other bottom-feeding creatures from a sometimes very close distance. It’s also a great way to explore nooks and crannies that are all but invisible from the surface – you might spy, for instance, a group of sharks sleeping in a shallow cave; something that you’d never be able to see from the surface!
What Equipment Do I Need for Snorkeling or Scuba Diving?
As we touched upon earlier, there is no small amount of equipment needed for scuba diving, and even snorkeling requires a piece or two. Let’s take a look what you’ll need for scuba diving vs snorkeling before you’re ready to explore the depths.
As we said earlier, snorkeling requires generally less equipment than scuba diving – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always just a mask and fins. Here’s what you may need when snorkeling.
- A snorkeling mask to be able to see clearly when your face is underwater (which is pretty much all the time). The mask covers your eyes and nose and is a snug fit in order to prevent water from leaking in. It’s also worth mentioning that the area in the mask is too small to accommodate glasses, so if you are severely visually impaired you may want to buy a special prescription mask.
- Fins in order to move through the water smoothly and quickly. Fins make it easier to swim, meaning you’ll tire more slowly.
- A snorkel so that you can breathe whilst your face is underwater. The snorkel is attached to your mask and is designed to stick up out of the water, facilitating breathing whilst you look down into the water.
- A wet- or drysuit to keep you warm in temperate or cold water. A suit won’t be necessary in warm, tropical waters.
Scuba Diving Equipment
Scuba diving involves spending prolonged periods of time at much lower depths than snorkeling – which is a lot of fun; but as such, a lot more equipment is needed in order to do it safely.
- A diving mask in order to be able to dive to lower depths and see clearly. You may be wondering why a different mask is needed for scuba diving versus snorkeling – simply put, diving masks are less buoyant so that they don’t pull you towards the surface, and they’re generally better made due to their need to withstand greater pressure. A diving mask failing, after all, is far more serious than a snorkeling mask failing.
- A wet- or drysuit is a must when scuba diving, even in tropical waters – we lose body heat much more easily in water, and so it’s possible to get hypothermia even if the water feels warm! On top of this, a wetsuit (or drysuit) protects against jellyfish stings and the toxic spines of some of the nastier denizens of the depths.
- A buoyancy control device (BCD) to enable you to control your depth – very important once you’re at lower depths, as if you suddenly rose too quickly, you would put yourself at risk of decompression sickness (known colloquially as ‘the bends’). A BCD lets you control your depth with an inflatable jacket, making it easy to stay at the bottom, rise to the surface at controlled speeds, or make a decompression stop – in short, it enables to be neutrally buoyant.
- Weights in order to assist with the above and keep you lower in the water. As your body is naturally buoyant, just as your wet- or drysuit and potentially your tank on your back, you will naturally rise in the water without the assistance of weights, arranged around your waist on a belt.
- A scuba tank and regulators to keep you breathing whilst under the surface. The tank contains pressurized breathing gas, which can be air (21% oxygen, 79% nitrogen), or any other mix depending on the specific dive requirements (sometimes also including helium for technical diving). The regulator(s) allow you to breathe the air at the correct pressure. Why do you have a secondary regulator? In case the first one fails or your dive buddy has a problem and needs to borrow one.
- Fins in order to move through the water smoothly and easily. Conventional swimming isn’t possible whilst scuba diving (in fact, you could in theory scuba dive without knowing how to swim, although this is definitely not advisable!) and so fins are essential.
Snorkeling or Scuba Diving: Which One Is Better?
It’s not really possible to say that one activity is ‘better’ than another – they each have their pros and cons – but it’s possible to give you an idea of which you might prefer. Let’s take a look at scuba diving vs snorkeling, beginning with snorkeling:
Why Should You Go Snorkeling?
- Not much equipment is needed: if diving in tropical waters (the most common place for casual holidaymakers to go snorkeling) then all you need is a snorkeling mask (snorkel typically already attached) and fins – that’s it! You can usually hire these off local snorkeling companies, driving the costs down even further, and these companies will usually offer boat trips out to the best places to go snorkeling.
- No training required: provided you can be swim (you don’t need to be Michael Phelps, but you should be able to swim decently), you can snorkel. After a few minutes being shown how to fit your mask and breathe through the snorkel, you’re basically good to go!
- Snorkeling tours are far cheaper: renting snorkeling gear and going on a day tour will run you around $100 at most. A scuba diving day tour? $200-300 (of course depending on the location). Overall, snorkeling is far, far cheaper.
- It’s much better if you’re not comfortable with the sea: the sea can be a frightening place, and thalassophobia (fear of the ocean/sea) is a very common phobia. If you’re uncomfortable with the thought of being underwater (or even being in open water at all) then snorkeling is a nice, gentle introduction to being in the sea. It’s a great way, in fact, to remove one of the biggest reasons for being afraid of the ocean – not being able to see what’s going on underneath you!
- It’s easier: minimal equipment and no special training makes snorkeling nice and straightforward – just get in the water and go!
- It’s safer: let’s get this straight – scuba diving is, when done properly, extremely safe. That said, if something were to go wrong, it can be much more catastrophic 20 meters down, as opposed to on the surface. With snorkeling, even if something does go wrong, you’re generally next to a boat or not far from the shore, and it’s easy to get you out of the water.
It’s not as if, however, scuba diving doesn’t have its pros either – and, in fact, can be better than snorkeling in many respects. Let’s take a look why you should consider scuba diving over snorkeling:
Why Should You Go Scuba Diving?
- You can stay submerged for much longer: this one is self-evident, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless: if you go snorkeling and want to dive, you’re limited by how long you can hold your breath for. When scuba diving, you’re sometimes down for as long as an hour. This leads to sights and sounds you simply cannot get from snorkeling.
- You can get much closer to the wildlife: when snorkeling you might see a sea turtle or a shark from afar, but they’re unlikely to get close to you. When scuba diving, however, you have many opportunities to get up close and personal with the denizens of the deep, which can lead to some unforgettable memories! Note, however, that you should never touch anything in the ocean, as much for their protection as yours.
- It’s a much more adventurous experience: yes, scuba diving requires a lot more investment on your part in terms of time, money and certification, and it can be more dangerous – but there’s nothing like diving below the surface and exploring caves, seabed marine life and shipwrecks. Snorkeling is great for a (literal) surface look at the depths, but for the real deal you need to go scuba diving.
As we can see, there’s a lot to consider when thinking about scuba diving vs snorkeling, and it ultimately boils down to personal preference. Do you want a quick, casual trip out into the ocean with the minimum of fuss and expense? Or are you willing to invest a little more time and money in order to give yourself the most intense and exciting way to experience the depths? It’s ultimately your choice, and remember that there’s no such thing as the wrong choice when it comes to exploring the ocean!