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Part 1 – Shopping for a used snorkel…when is a tube not just a tube?

Are you about to go on a snorkeling or diving vacation in a tropical location? Maybe you are gearing up for your first open water certification class and need a snorkel? Or, maybe you just want to update your outdated gear? This blog series will help you with all of those needs, and more. I will discuss the entire snorkel spectrum, from the “what it is”, thru “how to”, all the way thru “let’s make a deal”. This initial blog will discuss the definition of snorkeling, a brief history, the basic anatomy and function of a snorkel, and safety tips about older snorkels (some of which will be repeated later in the series).

A snorkel is basically a bent tube used for breathing assistance while swimming. Snorkeling, swimming with a snorkel, is a popular recreational activity at tropical resorts and scuba diving locations, as well as swimming pools and lakes all around the world. Snorkels have been mentioned historically all the way back to free-divers sponge diving in Crete, using hollow reeds as snorkels. Snorkeling requires no special training, minimal equipment, and is employed by children and adults alike who wish to observe marine life at the surface with ease, in a natural setting, without the use of Scuba Gear. Scuba divers also use snorkels at the surface for safety. If you have an upcoming Open Water Certification course, you will learn to snorkel as part of your initial scuba diving training. Many experienced divers continue to wear a snorkel after certification, for safety at the surface while waiting for the boat operator to fish them out of the water at the conclusion of their boat dive.

A snorkel tube is typically ~12 inches long, with a diameter of ~1 inch. The tube, constructed of silicone, rubber, or plastic, has a mouthpiece on one end, and has been bent into an “L” or “J” shape. Some have an extra bit of curve on the end opposite of the mouthpiece, allowing improved water resistance. There is frequently a piece of corrugated silicone at the bend just after the mouthpiece, for comfort. A snorkel also has a small attachment to fix the snorkel to your mask without causing mask leakage. Many snorkels also have a one-way valve to assist with purging water and/or preventing water inhalation. Another feature is a splash guard at the top of the snorkel, keeping it partially or completely free of water. Some snorkels actually fold into a small package that can be stored in a BCD pocket during the dive, to improve trim and mask fit at depth. At the surface, the snorkel simply unfolds and is ready for use. These snorkels are becoming very popular.

Modern snorkels are made to allow a snorkeler to float on the surface of the water while quietly observing sea life, or to free-dive and “Blast clear” (or sharply exhale just as surfacing) upon returning to surface. Extended use of longer or wider snorkels can result in a buildup of carbon dioxide in the user. This is because when the snorkeler exhales, the air remaining in the tube (with oxygen already removed) at the end of exhalation is re-inhaled in the next breath. A larger diameter tube, or a longer tube, would increase the amount of poorly oxygenated air the snorkeler rebreathes, despite making the actual act of inhalation easier. A good snorkel doesn’t have to be new, or have expensive features. But, it does need to work safely, fit comfortably, and fit appropriately.


  • Some older snorkels are made of natural rubber which “oxidizes” and breaks down with exposure to the sun, causing them to malfunction. Bad buy!
  • Some old snorkels had an appliance at the end of the tube, a ball in a cage functioning as a one way valve. The ball uncovered and covered the tube to preventing water influx. I don’t know when I saw one of these last, but they are unsafe and should not be used.
  • Application of silicone grease to snorkel parts in an attempt to make them watertight, to “renew” them, or make parts work smoother, is unsafe. It can cause parts to stick during use and malfunction. If your snorkel seems to be old or malfunctioning, call the manufacturer or take it to your local dive shop for assessment and repair. DO NOT USE A POORLY FUCTIONING OR POORLY FITTING SNORKEL.
  • Mask/snorkel combinations are unsafe.

Other tips:

  • Rules of swimming should be followed and one should not snorkel alone. Wear a floatation vest specially made and color marked to safely snorkel in. You want to be seen by passing windsurfers, sailboats, motorized boats, and small watercraft.
  • If your snorkeling for extended periods, take care not to black out due to poor oxygenation.
  • Be aware that your body loses heat very quickly in water, and snorkeling for extended periods can cause hypothermia (critically low core body temperature).
  • Stay near the shore or a boat, snorkel within the level of your physical fitness.
  • Watch the weather, snorkeling can be very dangerous in storms or high wave conditions.
  • Safety first!

My next blog will be a tutorial on how to choose your snorkel (new or used), how to snorkel, and how to care for your snorkel. Stay tuned!

Authored by Lisa J Henry

“Be the sea”