Scuba Diving, Snorkeling, Skin Diving, Freediving: What’s the Difference?

You have plenty of friends who don’t dive. Here’s how to explain to them the difference between scuba diving, snorkeling, skin diving and freediving.

For someone just discovering the world of underwater sports, there’s seemingly no end to the different disciplines. The most common are the ones in the headline: scuba diving, snorkeling, skin diving, and freediving. But what’s the difference between them?

While there are somewhat clear definitions, there’s also considerable overlap, so some might disagree with these definitions. They are slightly too simplistic by design to help newbies tell the different sports apart. And ultimately, opinions will differ. With that disclaimer, let’s give it a go: what’s the difference between scuba diving, snorkeling, skin diving and freediving?

Scuba Diving

This one is the easiest to define. Scuba is the abbreviation for “Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus,” which is an old term for the combination of a scuba tank and regulator. So, if you’re wearing a tank on your back and breathing through a mouthpiece connected to that tank, you’re scuba diving. You’ll wear a mask to help you see, fins to help with propulsion and a BCD to control buouancy. You’ll also usually wear some sort of exposure protection, such as a rash-guard in the tropics, a wetsuit in temperate climes, or a drysuit in cold water. Boots are often part of this exposure protection, and if so, your fins will have heel straps or bungees. Scuba diving involves specialized training and certification.



Snorkeling is the most popular option on our list, and the one that you can enjoy with the least amount of experience. In snorkeling, you stay on the surface, looking down through a mask and breathing through a snorkel. You don’t have to lift your head to breathe. You may wear exposure protection, usually a rash-guard or wetsuit, but in some places you may even need a drysuit. Snorkeling fins are softer than scuba fins and, rather than using a heel strap, they’ll slip over your full foot without a boot. Some snorkelers also wear floatation vests, especially if they’re not particularly strong swimmers.

Free diver


Freediving is not a new sport per se, but it has seen a dramatic spike in popularity. Unlike the others on this list, freediving is largely a competitive sport. It consists of various disciplines, all centered around the same principle: staying underwater for as long as possible on a single breath. Disciplines range from static apnea, where you lie stationary, face-down in a pool, holding your breath for as long as you can to ones where you have to cover as much distance horizontally or vertically as you can.

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Freedivers wear masks that are often a blend between a dive mask and swim goggles, but do not use snorkels. You also wear exposure protection, usually wetsuits. You’ll rarely (if ever) see a freediver in a drysuit. Freedivers sometimes wear fins, although some disciplines don’t use them. They’re usually either very long, full-foot fins, or a monofin — a single, broad-bladed fin that you wear on both feet. This creates a profile similar to a fish tail. Freedivers focus on the diving, spending little time at the surface apart from surface intervals and recuperation time.

Skin Diver

Skin diving

A somewhat antiquated term, skin diving refers to a mix of snorkeling and freediving. A skin diver spends time at the surface, looking down on the landscape below while breathing through a snorkel, and does breath-hold dives, swimming down to observe interesting objects or marine life. Many advanced snorkelers practice skin diving, as well as freedivers just diving for fun rather than competition or training. Skin divers wear masks, snorkels and sometimes wetsuits, depending on water temperature. Drysuits are not appropriate. Fins can be either snorkeling or freediving fins.

Again, the lines between each discipline — except scuba diving — can get blurry. Not everyone will necessarily agree with our distinctions but, at the very least, they might help a novice get an idea of what to expect.

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Thomas started diving during college and has since been diving over most of the world: Australia, Indonesia, Iceland, France, and many other places. He is a NAUI instructor and a commercial diver, and participates in environmental and archeological diving projects around the world.

Difference Between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

The key difference between snorkeling and scuba diving is that the snorkeling involves floating underwater near the surface of the water with the help of a snorkel while the scuba diving involves diving deep underneath the sea using a scuba.

Both snorkeling and scuba diving are popular recreational activities that allow you to explore underwater attractions. Moreover, they require some common equipment such as diving masks and swim fins. While both these activities require some basic swimming skills, scuba diving requires specialized training.


What is Snorkeling?

A snorkel is a breathing tube that helps the swimmer to breathe inside the water. Snorkeling involves exploring the underwater with the help of a diving mask, snorkel and swim fins. In cooler waters, a swimmer may also use a wetsuit. These equipment help the swimmer to enjoy the underwater scenery for an extended period with relatively less effort. Snorkeling usually takes place in shallow water where you can observe the underwater life from the surface of the water.

Difference Between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

Figure 01: Snorkeling

Snorkeling is a popular recreational activity, and its main appeal is the chance to observe underwater attractions in a natural setting, without using any complex equipment or training. Coral reefs are favorite places to snorkel due to their rich biodiversity. Moreover, warm, calm seas with clear water are ideal for snorkeling.

What is Scuba Diving?

Scuba diving is a mode of underwater diving that involves using a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA), containing compressed air. A person who dives using scuba is known as a scuba diver. Scuba diving is one of the fastest growing extreme sports in the world.

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  • Scuba tanks which contain compressed air
  • Regulator for breathing the air from the tank
  • Buoyancy control device (BCD), which controls whether the diver sinks or floats
  • Depth gauge, which helps divers to know the depth they are in

In addition, divers also use snorkeling equipment, including snorkels, wetsuit, mask, and fins.

Key Difference Between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

Figure 02: Scuba Diver

Knowing how to swim or dive is not enough for scuba diving. You must first learn how to scuba dive. Scuba diving training includes learning how to handle equipment as well as learning how to prevent accidents and solve problems you may encounter underwater. When you complete a scuba diving course, you’ll get a diving certificate that will allow you to scuba dive anywhere in the world. However, your ability to dive is limited to the level you have completed. For example, the depth limit for recreational divers is between 30 and 40 metres.

What are the Similarities Between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving?

  • Both allow you to explore underwater attractions.
  • You need to know basic swimming and floating skills.
  • They require a mask, snorkel and fins.

What is the Difference Between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving?

Snorkeling involves exploring the underwater with the help of a diving mask, snorkel and swim fins. In contrast, scuba diving is a mode of underwater diving that involves using a SCUBA, which contains compressed air. The main difference between snorkeling and scuba diving is their equipment; you only need snorkels, diving mask, and swim fins to snorkel while you’ll need a scuba tank, regulator, BCD, depth gauge in addition to snorkeling equipment to scuba dive. Moreover, you don’t need any training to do snorkeling while scuba diving requires a certain level of training.

Difference Between Snorkeling and Scuba Diving in Tabular Form

Summary – Snorkeling vs Scuba Diving

Both snorkeling and scuba diving are popular recreational activities that allow you to explore underwater attractions. The fundamental difference between snorkeling and scuba diving lies on the equipment used and the depth of the sea.

Image Courtesy:

1.’Snorkel-xel-ha’By Angelique800326 – Own work, (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Commons Wikimedia
2.’Buzo’By Soljaguar – Own work, (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Commons Wikimedia

Snorkeling vs Scuba Diving – What’s the Difference?

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Scuba diving and snorkeling are both very fun underwater activities that allow you to experience the beauty of marine life and their underwater world. However, when looking at snorkeling vs scuba diving, they greatly differ.

Of course, snorkeling involves a mask and snorkel while scuba diving requires a whole lot more safety procedures and diving equipment. But, how else are they different? Is one better than the other?

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Snorkeling vs Scuba Diving Key Differences

The question shouldn’t necessarily be which one is better, but which one is best for you and what you’re looking for. The best way to figure that out is to look at the difference between snorkeling and scuba diving.

There are a few main differences such as purpose, equipment, duration underwater, risk factors, and skill level.

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Snorkeling allows you to observe marine life and coral reefs all without leaving the surface of the water. Snorkeling is mainly for recreation purposes.

Scuba diving, on the other hand, allows for much more extensive exploration and is more multi-purpose than snorkeling. Diving is generally also for recreational reasons, but there are also man professional divers.

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Scuba diving professions include underwater welding, civil engineering, offshore construction, military diving operations, rescue and recovery diving, and more.


Snorkeling only requires a snorkel mask that covers your eyes and nose, a snorkel (or tube), and a pair of swim fins (optional). The mask helps keep water out of your eyes and nose while the snorkel allows you to hold your breath while keeping your face underwater.

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Scuba diving requires extensively more equipment. At a minimum, every scuba diver needs an open water certification, a diving mask, a buoyancy compensator (BCD), a scuba tank, a regulator, fins, and possibly a wetsuit.

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For the most part, snorkeling can be done for as long as you want. If you want to be able to dive deeper (free diving), you’ll be limited to how long you can hold your breath underwater.

Scuba diving allows you to stay underwater for longer periods of time. However, you still have to follow guidelines to eliminate the chance of decompression sickness.

The deeper the dive, the faster you will run out of air in your tank. Scuba diving definitely allows you to stay much longer compared to snorkeling.

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Risk Factors

Snorkeling, in general, is relatively safe. The main dangers are motorized boats. Other things to keep in mind are sunburns, scrapes from rocks and corals, jellyfish stings, dehydration, and so on.

Scuba diving comes with significantly more risk. While it is relatively safe as long as guidelines are followed, it is much more complex. Risks include motorized boats, equipment malfunction, nitrogen narcosis, oxygen toxicity, decompression sickness, and more.

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Skill Level

Snorkeling can be done with no experience or certifications, aside from swimming experience. If you’re snorkeling in reefs deeper than 12 feet, you may need or want more practice with repeated breath-holding.

Scuba diving requires much more serious and in-depth training. At a minimum, it requires an open water diver certification.

Snorkeling allows you to enjoy the water and marine life from the surface with less cost, equipment, risk, and training. Scuba diving provides a much more intimate and in-depth experience but with more equipment, cost, and training.




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