How Long Can You Stay Underwater while Snorkeling?

Snorkeling is an exciting pastime that people of all ages enjoy during vacations or, if you are lucky enough to live near the beach, on weekend excursions.  Observing underwater life and topography from the surface is great fun. But sometimes you may want to see things up close when in deeper water.

If you are snorkeling along the surface with your face down and the top of the snorkel above the water level, you can enjoy the sea sights without a time limit. For submerging deeper, the average adult male can hold his breath underwater for 45 seconds to 1 minute. You can increase this time with the breathing training discussed below.

There are ways of improving lung capacity, though, as well as breathing techniques that can slow the heart rate and slightly reduce the body’s need for oxygen. Different styles of snorkeling gear can also aid in extending the joy of your dive. Descending deeper than surface depth while snorkeling is a short form of free-diving.

Improving the Duration of Time Underwater

As with any physical activity, the amount of time you can spend enjoying snorkeling will depend on your fitness level. Swimming will force you to use muscles that you didn’t even know you had!  The act includes your arms, legs, and your core.  It is a complete body exercise and, being such, will tire you out quickly if you aren’t prepared.

To get the most enjoyment out of your dive, you should spend some time getting yourself in shape before hitting the surf.  That doesn’t mean that you need to be able to run a marathon but spend some time doing laps in the pool before snorkeling, and you’ll be sure to have to hours of fun once you get there.

The sights of the sea are sure to make you want to explore more closely; this means you are going to want to hold your breath and dive down for a closer look.  While there, you won’t want to leave, but the amount of time you can hold your breath will be a limitation.

If you are more physically fit, that means that you will be able to hold your breath for more extended amounts of time and enjoy the close-up views of the eye candy you will experience.

Breathing Techniques

While you are snorkeling, be sure to take deep breaths and exhale fully.  We do not mean fast, hard, deep breaths that make you hyperventilate!  Take your time and practice taking slow, full breaths; this will help you to relax, conserving energy and keeping your heart rate slower.  A slower heart rate means less oxygen is needed, so you can hold your breath longer on deeper dives.

With practice, you can enlarge your lung capacity; this will allow you to hold your breath for more extended amounts of time and, in turn, permit you to stay under the surface for lengthier periods exploration.

Before going on your dive, many different exercises can aid in expanding lung capacity. We are going to show you two simple exercises that you can practice in your spare time that will help to do just that.  The first will increase the lungs’ capacity to retain more oxygen.  The second will help the body adapt to higher levels of carbon dioxide.  This combination will permit you to hold the breath longer.

First Exercise: Increasing Oxygen

  • Hold your breath for one minute; then breathe normally for one minute.
  • Hold your breath for one minute, five seconds, then breathe normally for one minute.
  • Hold your breath for one minute, ten seconds, then breathe normally for one minute.

Keep repeating this exercise while slowly increasing the amount of time you hold your breath by five seconds.

Second Exercise: Raising Carbon Dioxide Levels

  • Hold your breath for one minute; then breathe normally for two minutes
  • Hold your breath for one minute; then breathe normally for one minute, forty-five seconds.
  • Hold your breath for one minute; then breathe normally for one minute, thirty seconds. 

Keep repeating this exercise while slowly lowering the amount of time you breathe, after each hold, by fifteen seconds.  (No matter how good you get, you will only get so far with this one!)

Free diving from the surface

Once you’ve gotten used to breathing techniques and snorkeling, you may want to start taking some underwater swims. To do this, you will have to learn to equalize your ears, as pressure can cause pain in as little as 5 feet of depth. Some freedivers wear earplugs, but there are specific types that must be used to allow equalization.

To equalize, you breathe in then exhale with your mouth closed and your nose pinched. This will force air from your throat through the Eustachian tubes into your ears. This offsets the building external pressure as you go deeper, just like in diving. Unlike divers, though, snorkelers don’t have a full air supply. So equalizing quickly is important to give you more time under the surface.

Here is the best technique for beginning free divers. First take a deep breath on the surface and then equalize, feeling your ears pop. Then take 3 deep breaths in and out, trying to breath deeper with each one. On the fourth very deep breath, quickly start descending and equalize your ears at 5 feet and again if you feel slight pressure.

Swim as long as you feel comfortable with your lung capacity, then return to the surface. With fins and practice, I can get down to about 20 feet for several seconds to get closer looks before I have to return to surface to breath. I’m approaching 60 years old and overweight, so you can probably learn this, too. But I have scuba dived for 30+ years, so that helps. I compare scuba and free-diving in this post.

Remember you can do this with an uninflated vest, but you can’t do it with a life jacket or other flotation device. You may find that free diving adds a whole new dimension to your snorkeling experience. Just remember to not touch or bump coral or harass the sea life. Observe, take pictures and enjoy, but leave things alone. Take only photos, never souvenirs.

Free diving, covering more ground, saving energy, and being able to handle currents are some of the benefits of fins, as this female free diver shows
Fins offer many advantages, including free diving

Using the Right Gear

Choosing the right snorkeling gear goes a long way toward getting the maximum amount of satisfaction out of your dive.  First and foremost, make sure that the equipment you choose fits you correctly.  Masks that are ill-fitted can cause leaking.  This can become frustrating and cut dives short.

Snorkels that are too large to fit your mouth will become uncomfortable after some time as well.  Your jaw will grow sore, and can also decrease the amount of time you dive.

The Mask

You may choose a regular snorkeling mask from my Buyer’s Guide.  With the correct fit and combined with the proper snorkel, these will provide you hours of fun.  Just remember not to go too cheap.  Cheaper masks will leak no matter how good the fit and quality masks will be treated with anti-fog agents.

full-face mask (debated in that post) could be a better choice for you.  These masks are equipped with a snorkel that extends from the top of the mask and back.  That way, when your face is down, the snorkel is out of the water.  Full face masks generally provide for better visibility as well and eliminate the need for holding a snorkel tube between your teeth.

Snorkeling Fins

You can snorkel without fins, but they will provide faster movement with less energy if used properly.  Don’t kick fast and hard; this will wear you out quickly.  Just use slow fluid movements, and you will still move more quickly than without them with less effort.

The Snorkel

This is the most essential part of the sport.  Without the snorkel, you are just swimming!  The snorkel allows you to flip along the water’s surface and still breathe while keeping your face underwater, but there are a few different types to choose from.

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Traditional J-Shape

These are the type of snorkel most think of when considering the sport; they are more basic and held between the teeth with the lips positioned over the guard.  They are simply a curved breathing tube, and, if submerged, they will allow water into the tube.  So when you surface again, you will need to blow out to clear the tube.

Dry Snorkels

Dry snorkels are usually similarly shaped to the traditional type snorkel; however, they have a feature that the traditional does not.  If a dry snorkel is submerged, through diving or if a wave would happen to wash over it, no water will get into the breathing tube; this eliminates the need for clearing the tube, but these snorkels are somewhat more challenging to breathe through.

Semi-Dry Snorkels

This is a hybrid between the dry and traditional snorkels.  It is easier to get air through than the dry snorkels but does have a design that deters water from making into the tube when waves crest over the end.  If completely submerged, water will still get into the tube.

Full Face Snorkel Mask

This one does require mentioning again because the full face mask allows breathing through both the nose and the mouth.  Not only that, but it also eliminates the need for holding a snorkel between the teeth.  Also, all newer full face masks are dry snorkels.


For a great activity that is fun for the whole family in some of the best climates available, you cannot beat snorkeling.  It is a sport that should be respected, though, and knowing your limits is paramount to getting the full enjoyment out of this engaging activity.

Remember not to push yourself past your limits when diving.  Commit to good physical fitness before hitting the waves and practice breathing techniques to get the most out of your body.  Also, remember to gear up properly, and you are sure to enjoy hours of fun! 


Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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