Scuba Diving vs. Snorkeling: Which is Easier for Beginners?

If you are getting into water activities, snorkeling and scuba diving are two of the more popular activities you can do. Both are great for seeing more of the underwater world than most people would get the chance to do and can lead to great stories and memories. But, if you are a beginner in each activity, is it easier to learn than the other? 

Snorkeling is definitely the easier of the two water activities. Scuba diving requires a multi-day class/school and passing certifications while snorkeling does not require anything more than a special mask.

While snorkeling on the surface may seem like the clear-cut answer, scuba diving offers plenty more for people who want a little more adventure and interaction with sea life. Scuba diving combines a lot more team requirements and safety precautions, while snorkeling can be done in a solo mission. 

Snorkeling for Beginners

Comparing snorkeling and scuba diving can be broken down into a simple scenario: snorkeling doesn’t require training, uses easier to master equipment and is cheaper. Scuba requires training and either rental or purchase of more expensive equipment, and more preparation and pre-participation preparation.

If you are a beginner and want to get into snorkeling, you can do something as simple as pull up a YouTube video on “How to Snorkel” and learn from there. If you can swim in calm to semi-calm water and keep your snorkel above the surface of the water, snorkeling is an easy and fun activity to do.

Snorkeling 101

For beginning snorkelers, the best place to start would be a quick online search for wherever you plan ongoing. Snorkeling is great near beaches and shallow water areas, as you want to be close to the wildlife without having to swim too far out into the ocean or deeper waters. Snorkeling can more more tiring than you think, read my tips on taking breaks.

Also, be sure that the gear you have for yourself is a good fit and will not cause any harm or break while you are snorkeling. The last thing you want while going out snorkeling is to have your masks leak and force you to stop swimming. You also want to be wary of how good of a swimmer you actually are as that might determine what kind of extra gear you might need and where you can actually snorkel in certain locations.

Snorkeling gear requirements are simple, mask, fins and snorkel

Snorkeling Gear

Snorkeling gear on our Recommended Gear page is definitely the cheaper of the two activities. If you are a capable enough swimmer, all you would need is a mask and the snorkel; if you are not as strong of a swimmer, fins that go on your feet are great for helping you navigate in the water. Be sure that the gear you are renting or buying both fits well and will not break on you.

The Snorkel

The first piece of gear is the snorkel. Snorkels are the breathing tube that sticks out of the water and allows the snorkeler to breathe while having their face under the water’s surface. The snorkel is fitted with a mouthpiece at the bottom that the swimmer will bite into to breathe air through the tube. 

Snorkels come in three different types: the classic “j,” the semi-dry, and the dry snorkel. The following list is a great comparison tool to show the differences between the three types:

  • Classic “J” – This type of snorkel is the very basic version. Usually, it has an open top, a mouthpiece at the bottom, and not much else. It is shaped like its name—in a “J”—and is probably going to be on the cheaper end of snorkels. If there are any adjustments available, usually, the mouthpiece can be rotated to better-fit one’s mouth.
  • Semi-Dry – These are more expensive and high-end types of snorkels. The difference with these versus the Classic “J” is very evident. In the semi-dry versions, there is a splash guard at the top of the tube. A splash guard helps prevent water from coming into the tube where waves might crash over the top of the tube. There are flexible tube sections in semi-dry snorkels that can help make the adjustments to better fit a swimmer’s mouth and face. 
  • Dry – These are the most professional and most expensive snorkels you can find on the market. These snorkels are great for those who are experienced in snorkeling and will go free-diving. Like the semi-dry snorkel, the dry snorkels will offer a flexible section of the tube to allow for the best fit possible. The biggest difference is the splash guard at the top of the tube. Dry snorkels will have a dry valve, which is a more complex splash guard. It prevents water from entering the tube and is great if the snorkeler wants to dive below the surface.

When choosing a snorkel, be sure to try on the snorkel beforehand. Finding the best fit involves two different problem areas: the side of your face and the inside of your mouth. 

For the side of your face, make sure that the snorkel does not rub too much against it; this can be irritating for the swimmer both during and after snorkeling as a rash could appear. For the mouthpiece, making sure it fits properly is key as an ill-fitting one can lead to cuts in the mouth. You can make personal adjustments by cutting the mouthpiece to better fit your mouth as well.

Other features can be on some of the more expensive snorkels as well. One of those features is a purge valve. The purge valve is at the bottom of the “j” part of the tube underneath the mouthpiece. Its job is to help expel excess water in the snorkel from reaching the mouthpiece and therefore be breathed in by the snorkeler. The only downside for this part of the snorkel is if the chamber becomes too large, breathing can become a little more difficult. 

Snorkel and mask on beach. Long snorkels are harder to use and may be unsafe

Snorkeling Masks

The other part of the snorkeling gear that is most important is the mask. These are larger than normal swimming goggles, to allow for a wider field of vision to see all of the wildlife below the surface. There are so many different types and fits of masks that finding the right fit can be challenging if you do not know what you are looking for.

First and foremost, the shape of your face will determine which mask is the best fit for you. Figure out which type of face you have (long/short face, nose type, wideness of cheeks, etc.). Once you have that, find masks that fit your face rather than a mask with a lot of features; the fit is more important than the features. When trying on masks, the suction test is a great way to tell if the mask will fit properly without leaking.

The suction test involves the mask being put on your face without the strap going around the back of your head. First, press the mask to your face, and then inhale through your nose to create suction with your face. Now take your hands off the mask, and if the mask fits properly, it should be suctioned to your face without any assistance; try moving your face muscles, smiling, laughing, anything to try and break the seal. 

Once you have completed the suction test and the mask fits well, but the mask on entirely, straps and all. The straps should fit on the top of your head and not rest on your ears. Make sure the mask fits flush against your face but does not leave any deep red marks when the mask comes off. Also, be sure you can still pinch your nose in case you need to clear your ears while underwater. 

The final test is to try the mask with a snorkel and see if the two will work together. If possible, test both underwater and see how each interact with each other and with your face/breathing. If you cannot test the two in water, simply seeing how the two work together can be a big plus. 

Finding the correct fit of the mask is a very important task to conduct before you head out into the water. Other factors with a mask that you need to know are the silicone skirt that will be attached to your face, the number of lenses a mask has, and the volume of a mask.

Shallow reefs can be viewed easily while snorkeling

Snorkeling Masks’ Lens

For snorkeling masks, there are several different types of masks to choose from. The best ones fit your face frame and allow for a comfortable fit against your face. One important factor to consider when buying a snorkel mask is the number of lenses a mask has.

Depending on what you will be doing while snorkeling (just looking, deep diving, photography, work, etc.), you will want a different number of lenses for your mask. There are four different kinds of lens masks: one lens, two lenses, side lenses, and big teardrop lenses. 

The one lens mask is the most generic one you will find. There is no break at the nose bridge, just an unobstructed view across your field of vision. These masks typically do not work well with people with bigger noses, as the mask goes right across the bridge of the nose. 

Two lens masks are better for people with bigger noses or for people looking for masks with prescriptions. The mask has a little plastic piece in the middle of the two lenses to separate them and allow for bigger sized noses to fit more comfortably. The downside for these masks is that you can see the plastic piece, and it can become distracting and make people go cross-eyed. But generally, once people start snorkeling, they tend to forget about the plastic piece. 

Side lens masks are great for those looking to get the most field of vision out of a mask. They typically are one lens masks in the front, and then more plastic is added on the sides to get a bigger, more fluid field of vision; this allows people who want to explore and see more the ability to do just that without having to move their head as much.

The final mask type is the big teardrop lens. These are great for those who might have a problem with their necks and experience pain if they move too much or have trouble bending their neck downwards. The teardrop lens allows for people to see below them much easier and without having to move their necks as much as with the other types of masks. 

Pair of masks showing different types can fit different people
Other Features

While the fit and the style of the snorkel mask are two important features that need to be addressed when buying a mask, there are still other features that need to be included when looking for one.

The first feature would be whether the mask is high- or low-volume; this simply means how much air is in the mask. Masks with bigger lenses or more than one lens typically have more air in them (because of a greater volume of space inside the mask). Smaller volume masks typically have smaller lenses and can have a silicone skirt that forms to your face and eliminates as much air from getting into the mask as possible.

The biggest reason to go for a high- or low-volume mask is the type of snorkeler you are. If you like to deep dive and go below the surface, a lower volume mask is ideal because the deeper you go under the surface, the more pressure there is. The pressure will press up against your mask and force the mask to be more stuck to your face. Smaller masks limit your field of vision, though, as they tend to have smaller lenses. 

Mask straps are also a big factor to consider when buying a snorkel mask. Depending on your hair type, you might want to find a mask that has straps that split in the back and allow for ponytails and buns. If the strap does not split, then buying a neoprene strap or cover is a good backup option. The neoprene straps are great for longer hair types as they do not tangle or pull on the hair.

Fins

Fins are an optional gear for those who are snorkeling but are great if you happen to be snorkeling in an area with stronger currents or are deep-dive snorkeling. Fins typically come in U.S. men’s shoe sizes, so be wary when buying. They also come in two types: open-heel and closed-heel. Many subcategories exist based on size and shape.

Open-heel fins can be worn with or without boots. The ones without boots are typically smaller and more compact, while the ones worn with boots are a bit clunkier. The downside for open-heeled fins is that they leave your heel exposed, which can be scraped on rocks and coral or other dangerous materials in the water. The boot open-heeled fins typically are bigger and require more energy to use in the water as well.

Closed-heel fins are the other option for fins. They are typically lightweight and compact in size and do not require much energy to use. They also are better for protection when in and under the water. But the downside for these is that they are not great for walking on land with. So entering the snorkeling water might be difficult as you either have to walk into the water with sandals or waterproof shoes on, and then put the fins on. 

Choose the right type of fins for snorkeling to make if safer and more fun

Snorkeling in Summary

Snorkeling is a great activity for all ages of people; the only caveat being that the person must be a good enough swimmer to be able to be on their own in the water. From the young to the old, snorkeling is an activity that all can enjoy. For the young, though, making sure the equipment they are using is properly-suited for their size is key.

A child trying to use masks or snorkels that are meant for adults can lead to difficult times in the water. Masks for children are going to be smaller than those for adults, and if ill-fitted can lead to difficult times in the water swimming. Also, snorkels that are fitted for adults can be more difficult for children as the larger snorkel can be more difficult for a child to breathe through.

Scuba Diving for Beginners

Scuba diving, on the other hand, is a more advanced activity that requires a longer period to learn, find time and people, and go down below the surface. But, that should not discourage people from trying scuba diving. If you are more adventurous and want a more immersive experience, scuba diving is the sport for you.

Scuba Diving 101

The more important question that people ask when it comes to scuba diving is: when can I start? Before you can think about swimming among the fish and other sea creatures, you must complete a course and become certified

Most dive shops that you would rent gear from do not rent gear to those who are not at the very least certified by one of the reputable organizations that have classes and courses available for people take. If you are certified but have not been on a dive in a long time, some places may require a refresher course before they allow you to go into the water.

Once you have become certified, though, then renting or buying your own scuba diving equipment becomes easier and more accessible. Finding a local dive shop or finding equipment on cruises or other vacation packages are easy ways to rent equipment. If cruising is in your future plans, save big bucks by checking out this guide (not affiliated).

Something to keep in mind though about scuba diving is the age and physical requirements. For the most part, the main scuba certification schools will not allow children under the age of 10 to become scuba certified, though checking with local schools is the best way to be certain. There are also physical requirements of scuba divers, including being able to tread water for some time (typically 10 minutes) and being able to swim 200-300 meters without any aids. 

Diver over orange reef showing neutral buoyancy and no touch

Scuba Diving Certifications

Before you can get in the water with a scuba tank and search the underwater world, you must become scuba certified. A scuba certification can be done through one of three associations: PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors, NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors), and SSI (Scuba Schools International). All three are great places to find local schools and instructors that will take you through the process of becoming scuba certified.

The process of scuba certification plays out in three parts: coursework, confined-water dives, and open-water dives. The coursework can be completed in person through a classroom-type setting, or more recently, schools are allowing people to take courses virtually at their own locations; this allows the students to complete the work on their own time and schedule and leaves the other two parts to be completed in person.

The confined-water dives typically take place in local pools; this is where people are tested on their physical fitness and their abilities in the water to see if they can handle scuba diving in a controlled setting; this is also where instructors can show students how to put on and take off the gear, how to properly work the gear, and what to do in emergencies. 

The last part of the process is the open-water dives. This typically involves going out to the ocean or an open body of water and actually going under the water with instructors and learning how to operate in a freer environment. Once the instructors are satisfied that the student has passed this portion of the course, then the student becomes scuba certified.

The certification allows students to show that they have the knowledge and ability to handle scuba diving and all that it entails. The courses typically take a total of five days to a week to complete, depending on how long the coursework takes a person and if they have the time to go out to the pool and open-water locations.

Scuba Diving: The Gear

Scuba diving gear has some similarities to those of snorkeling. They typically have a similar mask to snorkelers and can wear the same type of fins as well. But, the breathing apparatus for scuba diving involves an air tank strapped to the swimmer with hoses attached to a mouthpiece in the swimmer’s mouth/mask. 

Depending on how experienced and how often you plan on scuba diving, renting versus owning your own gear is a great discussion to have with yourself. If you are just starting out, renting your equipment from a local dive shop is a great way to just get your feet wet with the sport. The shops can help you find the best gear that will fit you.

The shops can also give tips and information about which brands and types of gear you can buy if you want to continue diving. Buying your own diving gear is a great cost-saver in the long run as you do not have to continually rent gear from shops. Plus, if you have your own gear, then the fit and feel are generally better, which can lead to more enjoyable dives. 

For the most part, the typical scuba diver needs a few things: a mask, snorkel, fins, wetsuit, buoyancy compression device (BCD), scuba regulator, and a dive computer. The mask, snorkel and fins are all typically what you would need if you were snorkeling. But the other items are generally necessary to scuba dive, with a wetsuit being the exception.

Wetsuits are great for when you plan on scuba diving in colder temperature waters. Typically, tropical waters are warm enough that a wetsuit is not needed. Though you might want to wear one, for comfortability when wearing a BCD.

Buoyancy Compression Device (BCD)

A buoyancy compression device, or BCD, is one of the more important pieces of equipment that you will need to buy for scuba diving. This backpack is essential to all aspects of scuba diving, so this may be your most expensive purchase. The BCD allows you to hold all of your gear, hold your oxygen tank, floats you to the surface and allows you to achieve neutral buoyancy at any depth.

You will want to test your BCD extensively before purchasing, as it is the most important piece of equipment. You want a snug fit, but not too overbearing. When testing, be sure you are wearing a wetsuit that you will most likely wear when scuba diving, to get the best feel possible. 

When testing, be sure to over-inflate the BCD and test if it restricts your breathing if it is overinflated. If so, the BCD is not the correct fit for you. Finally, be sure all of the pockets and straps are up to par and make sure the inflate/deflate buttons are clearly marked and easy to use.

Scuba Regulator

The scuba regulator is probably the second most important piece of gear you will buy; this is because you need it to breathe while underwater. The regulator is great, though, because most companies that make them have them tested so thoroughly that even the cheaper versions will still perform well.

The scuba regulator takes the high-pressure air in your tank and converts it so that you can breathe in the air while underwater. It also delivers air to other places, such as your BCD and alternate secondary stage. 

Finding the best regulator involves finding the one with the most comfortable mouthpiece and one that performs well even under higher pressure. There are different controls and switches on each brand of regulator, so be sure to test each one extensively before buying to make sure you are getting the best fit for yourself.

Dive Computers

Using dive computers is essential to have the maximum time underwater in the safest possible setting. They are essential for showing how much air you have and how much time a diver has in their no-decompression time. When looking for a dive computer, finding one that is user friendly is essential. Also, see which location is best for your dive computer: wrist, BCD, gauge console, hoses, etc. This can determine which dive computer to purchase as well. If you do only guided dives, using the printed tables may be fine. But always double check your guide’s math; don’t put your safety in a stranger’s hands. Check the tables to make sure you are safely diving within the limits despite what your guide says.

Terrific snorkeling versus scuba video

Conclusion

The question of which activity, snorkeling, or scuba diving, is easier for beginners is explained by how much time is required for each sport before beginning. Snorkeling requires very little time to get ready for and to learn how to do. There are no courses to take, and the gear is simply a mask and snorkel. But you are limited in your adventure with snorkeling to the water’s surface.

Scuba diving, meanwhile, involves a longer process to begin: coursework, certifications, gear renting/buying, locations to find, etc. But, once you get your certification and have your gear, you are bound for a more immersive experience than snorkeling.


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Sources:

https://www.tropicalsnorkeling.com/first-time-snorkeling.html

https://www.tropicalsnorkeling.com/snorkel.html

https://www.tropicalsnorkeling.com/snorkel-mask-fitting.html

https://www.tropicalsnorkeling.com/snorkeling-fins.html

https://www.scubadiving.com/training/basic-skills/your-first-set-gear-buyers-guide

https://www.scubadiving.com/scuba-diving-faqs

https://www.scubadiving.com/learn-to-dive

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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