Snorkeling can be tiring: Here are reasons why

It can be a misconception that snorkeling is easier and less tiring than swimming or scuba diving. However, even without using vigorous swimming strokes or finning done in scuba, it can be as tiring as both because it uses similar movements at a slower pace but often over a longer period of time.

Snorkeling requires swimming and at times paddling against waves and currents. It is similar to swimming as a form of exercise, and that can be tiring. Snorkeling is often slower paced than scuba but done for longer times. Sunny days can lead to dehydration, worsening your fatigue.

Because beginning snorkelers may lack awareness of these things, they possibly don’t know how to prepare well and manage stress both physically and mentally. It could appear that basic snorkeling is more like floating, but with all these sustained swimming and kicking movements, the body can get just as fatigued as with a session of swimming. Beginners can read more in this post for first time snorkelers.

Common Misconceptions

Everybody at some point or another in their life has underestimated how easy a sport looks based on what they have seen but not experienced. Snorkeling is a great example because it’s considered to be a leisurely activity for most. Most people who pick up snorkeling are first-timers or beginners on vacation in an area that is easily accessed from shore or a boat and known for goood reefs or varied sea life. 

For example, snorkeling is widely popular in Australia at The Great Barrier Reef. If you read some forums from people who talked about their experience, most will report that it was surprisingly tiring and a lot of work. Fatigue is one of the possible dangers of snorkeling that I’ve posted about before.

Why snorkeling is more tiring than expected:

  • Didn’t take account for the weather
  • Expected less gear meant less work
  • Didn’t account for ocean currents
  • Not a great swimmer/doesn’t realize treading water is tough.
  • Didn’t practice proper floating and finning before
  • Body stress when fatigue sets in
  • Excitement or stress seeing unfamiliar animal species 

The image of the laid back snorkeling experience one gets isn’t always entirely accurate. It is important to plan for environmental factors and these unexpected stresses your body will endure.

If you are pregnant, snorkeling can be a great form of exercise that is easy on your body and perfectly safe to do. But it can also cause you to fatigue more quickly. My tips on snorkeling while pregnant should help.

Below is a deeper explanation of the factors listed above. Learn what you can do about them to help yourself prepare so that you can know what to expect when snorkeling. Practice managing your energy and output levels to experience less fatigue during or after your session. 

Environmental Factors

Snorkeling at The Great Barrier Reef in the dead of summer in Australia is quite a different experience than snorkeling in Southern California around October. One climate has extremely warm air temperatures and most likely warm bathwater temperature while the other is on the cooler side. 

If Australia has dry heat and the water feels good, but the sun is beating down on us, we lose a significant amount of energy. Compare that to colder water, which requires the body to burn more calories to stay warm unless you wear proper gear (source Livestrong). So extremes in each direction increase the rate of fatigue.

But because one might feel good in Australia, they aren’t aware of the extra energy spent because of the warmer climate. Temperature and UV exposure are not the only environmental factor that snorkelers don’t take into account. They forget that depending on the timing and location, the ocean currents will be stronger or weaker. And they can shift quickly during a snorkeling session.

The stronger the current, the harder you have to work to swim and stay afloat. Even if the current and waves are minimal, a little by little over time adds up to be a lot. Smooth waters are a snorkeler’s best friend. When snorkeling in currents, either drift along with the boat or start by snorkeling into the current so it will aid your return to the boat or shore.

Underestimating the Difficulty of Swimming

Swimming is usually viewed as a fun activity. It’s a favorite past time of warm weather seasons for everyone. Swimming in a pool or going to the beach is vastly different than snorkeling. 

Pool water has no flow, which goes back to the strength of the currents and ocean. But if you head to the beach, you may think it’s the same as a pool. We know what to expect! Not really. At the beach, you will be fighting waves and current, but probably take many breaks as you want.

You can certainly take breaks while snorkeling, but it’s easy to lose track of time due to the fascination of the underwater world. You have to keep this in mind and force yourself to take breaks, eat healthy snacks and stay hydrated to prevent excessive fatigue, overexposure to the sun or exhaustion.

And should you be concerned about fatigue leading to safety issues, you can always wear a low-profile inflatable vest or a full life jacket. Read more in this post on snorkeling with a life jacket.

Comparing Scuba Gear to Snorkel Gear

Snorkeling may seem easier because there is less gear to carry and use. But in reality, scuba gear is only more work when on the surface. Once in the water, you are typically weightless (neutrally buoyant), so the bulk of the gear doesn’t matter. In snorkeling, you still use fins and breathe through a small tube.

You still have to focus on regular deep breaths and keep a steady pattern, just like in scuba. Fins work the quadriceps muscles pretty hard, much like swimming and scuba. Some people may prefer to snorkel without fins, but the truth is you’ll work harder without them than with them (read Can You Snorkel Without Fins?)

Body Stress and Common Situations 

The stress your body experiences during snorkeling can be surprising, but some of the stressors are manageable. The more you manage stresses like breathing or being prepared for running into surprises underwater, the better you conserve energy and the less stress experienced.

Here are a number of common stress factors and appropriate reactions. 

SituationTypical ResponseAppropriate Response
Your breathing is uneven, too shallow, or too deep.  When one is trying to get used to breathing through a snorkel underwater, it’s common to take quick short breaths followed by a mix of uneven breaths try to compensate. This expends a huge amount of energy resulting in fatigue early on.Working on your breathing with a snorkel before entering water is helpful. Then a step further using a snorkel at a pool where your feet can touch the ground, and you can focus on breathing before adding in the swimming and stress. 
You encounter some species you are afraid of.  You see something a little bigger than you like underwater and start freaking out internally and shortly after externally—your body tenses, which takes more effort, and it also affects your breathing. Be prepared. Do the research of the area you are snorkeling and what things you may come across in the ocean. Remember, snorkeling is not the same experience in every location. 
Fatigue sets in early.  The mind quits long before the body as we have fight or flight responses. Once someone realized snorkeling can be work, it’s easy to succumb to fear and tighten up and overcompensate by trying to swim too hard.  Practice swimming and treading water. The more relaxed you are in the water, the easier it is to stay there. 

Last Thoughts

It makes sense why most people will underestimate the level of energy one needs to snorkel. It is harder than splashing around in a pool or the ocean. However, the comparison to lap swimming and scuba diving is valid. There is much overlap in technique and energy expenditure. There are also specific snorkeling considerations when compared to recreational swimming. 

The most important factor is to do your research, practice and train when possible, and pay attention to your body while you are snorkeling. It might seem like common sense, but these are the things we may not consider until we actually experience them for ourselves. 

Remember that you don’t have to be a professional swimmer or the most fit person in the world to snorkel. Understand what you will be doing, plan your adventure in advance, and monitor your body’s signals while you’re snorkeling. By doing so, you will get the most enjoyment out of the experience. 

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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