This is the second installment of my series on choosing equipment. I’m writing this series more for the beginning diver. As always I recommend that checking with your instructor is a good idea (they may not agree with all my ideas 😉 ). You’ll find that the retail staff at your local dive shop can also be a great help when purchasing dive gear. Having some information to start with though can help provide a basis for discussion. The first installment, if you missed it, was on “Choosing a Mask”. This time I’m going to write about snorkels.
When I was 12 I purchased my first set of really good quality snorkeling equipment from Copeland’s in Corpus Christi, Texas. (in case y’all were wondering that would have been in 1970 😉 ). Copeland’s was the first dive shop I ever went in. My father was working in Corpus Christi and I was visiting him for the summer. When I saw the dive shop I begged him to stop. (I’d already became enamored of diving from watching Sea Hunt re-runs and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau on TV). I walked out with a set of ScubaPro snorkeling equipment 🙂 The snorkel, of course, was the simple J type. With a little practice, it did the job quite well and it would actually be a few decades before I used any other type!
A snorkel is a required piece of equipment in the open water course. Below I’ll write about the two primary types of snorkels I believe are appropriate for scuba diving, and what I personally use. First I will discuss some of the reasons that having a snorkel is a good idea.
Here on Guam we are very fortunate to have many quality dive sites that can be dived from shore. It’s easier to find your descent point (the place you want to begin your dive) with your face in the water. That means breathing from a snorkel or your regulator. Although air consumption at the surface is minimal, that doesn’t mean that a diver doesn’t want to save all of their air for the actual dive!
Anyone who dives from a boat will likely find themselves at some point, coming up a distance away from the boat… not always by choice 🙂 If seas are choppy or rough then keeping your mask on your face to avoid water in your eyes and something in your mouth to breathe with is a good idea! A snorkel in these conditions comes in handy while waiting for the boat to pick you up.
Lastly, you may end up surfacing away from the boat or your exit point and have a long surface swim back.
In my opinion (some might not agree) for scuba diving the choices are really between the traditional “J” type snorkels or the “Semi-dry” snorkels. A dry snorkel is great for snorkeling, but not so much for scuba diving (or even freediving) in my opinion. They generally work quite well at keeping water out. But, since it doesn’t allow water in, the snorkel is filled with air and therefore is buoyant underwater. This may pull the mask away from your face breaking the seal. They normally use some type of valve to keep water out and this is another failure point (If you purchase one of these types spend the money for quality). The mechanism at the top of the snorkel that keeps water out also makes the snorkel a bit more top heavy. Some people swear by them for snorkeling and if by “snorkeling” you mean floating on the surface and observing what’s below, I can understand that. Again, just my opinion, but I don’t like them for scuba diving.
For those reasons, I consider either the traditional J style or a semi-dry type to be the best choice. For both of these snorkels, you want to look for a comfortable mouthpiece made from silicone. Tubes can be from half an inch to an inch in diameter. The largest diameter is easier to breathe from but can be harder to clear. I personally own one of each type.
The traditional “J” snorkel, is basically just a tube in the shape of a J. These are the simplest design and what we all used when I first started snorkeling in the early 70’s. There have been a few improvements, mainly in areas like materials and comfort of the mouthpiece, but the basic idea remains unchanged. This is still the type preferred by many free divers and spearfishermen. They are very simple but require a certain amount of skill and practice to use. Swallowing seawater is no fun! Water can splash into the top and the water has to be blown out using your own lung power. There are two methods which are both taught in your Open Water course. There are both rigid and flexible types.
One innovation of this old design is materials. I have an Aqualung Nautilus Travel Snorkel made from soft silicone which rolls up, has it’s own case, and easily fits in a pocket. No purge valve or splash guard. This is the snorkel that’s normally attached to my mask these days when I’m teaching and shore diving in Guam. I saw this one in the shop after I came to Guam. I liked the compactness of it when it was rolled up so much that I bought it!
The “Semi-dry” snorkel has a splash guard at the top which helps keep water out at the surface in the event of a wave or splash. This normally is accomplished in the form of slits or vents to divert water that splashes over the top. They don’t keep water out when fully submerged though so you will still have to clear it at the surface before using it. A purge valve at the bottom for water to drain out makes this easier. There is an area for the water to collect below the mouthpiece and a one-way valve there. Although this makes them much easier to purge, some would argue it’s a potential failure point. This is less of an issue for a snorkel than a mask in my opinion just due to the way a snorkel is utilized. I will say that I’ve had mine for years and it still works fine. The area between the mouthpiece and the tube that sticks out above your head is corrugated and flexible so that the mouthpiece will hang out of the way when the snorkel is not in use.
I’ve owned an Oceanic Pocket Snorkel for years. This one folds up and has a band to secure it. It’s not as compact at the Nautilus, but it still fits easily in a BCD or thigh pocket.
I really like both these snorkels. The semi-dry is definitely easier to purge and this is likely a factor to consider for a new scuba diver. The J type is normally less expensive if you purchase a traditional one. One like mine made from soft silicone so it can roll up is a bit more expensive.
I consider a snorkel to be an important piece of safety equipment. In a real emergency, in choppy seas, and with an empty tank and no boat in sight a snorkel could make all the difference. Although it’s never happened to me, it has happened to other people, so I think of it like insurance. Even when I take mine off my mask (for example when I’m diving in an overhead environment like a wreck penetration), I have a snorkel in one of my pockets if there is even a remote possibility of need.