Snorkeling vs. Freediving – What’s the difference?

Being in the water with just mask, snorkel and fins is all the same, right? Not quite. There are three ways in which you can enjoy the water using minimal equipment. These are snorkeling, skin diving and freediving. What are the differences? I’m glad you asked.


First, we will cover the simplest form – snorkeling. To enjoy snorkeling you must have a mask, snorkel and, possibly, fins. Without these, you’re just swimming.

You need a mask to see underwater. A snorkel makes it possible to breathe without lifting your head. The remaining equipment is optional. Some things that might help you enjoy snorkeling more include:

  • Comfortable, full-foot fins
  • A rash guard or wetsuit to protect you from stings, abrasions, the sun and getting cold
  • A snorkeling vest to increase your visibility and floatation on the surface

Once you have your gear, grab your buddies and hit the water. You can enjoy hours of snorkeling with minimal training. A good place to start is the Snorkeler course from Scuba Diving International (SDI).

Snorkeling is essentially swimming on the surface while breathing through your snorkel. Any dives you make will be brief and shallow — no more than 5 m/16 ft. This is like the deep end of a swimming pool.

Every day, millions around the world enjoy snorkeling. This includes:

  • Families on vacation or at home on the lake
  • Scuba divers between dives
  • People who want this to be the extent of their in-water experience

Snorkeling courses are readily available almost anywhere snorkeling is popular. They help make snorkeling a safer and much more enjoyable experience.

Skin Diving 

The sport of skin diving is the next level of diving without scuba. It gained popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, chiefly among soldiers and sailors coming home from overseas. Skin diving is generally more involved than snorkeling. It uses largely the same gear, but without the snorkel vest.

Skin divers typically go slightly deeper and stay somewhat longer than snorkelers. Hitting depths in the 5-10 m/16-33 ft range, skin dives generally last around 20-30 seconds. These are short dives to snap pictures of fish or perhaps collect dinner. In the past, many agencies required skin dives as part of the certification process.


If snorkeling represents one end of a spectrum, freediving represents the other. It is significantly more complex both in terms of skill and risk.

People have been freediving for commerce and sustenance since the dawn of time. As one example, the Ama of Japan have been doing this for centuries.

There were many notable freediving pioneers including US Navy dive instructor Robert Croft, Jacques Mayol and Enzo Majorca. Breath-hold diving played a significant role in World War II with the USA, Italy, the UK and others employing freediving special operations troops. The legendary Jacques-Ives Cousteau was a freediver before inventing modern scuba with Emile Gagnan.

Modern competitive freediving traces its roots to 1949. This was when Hungarian-born Italian Air Force captain Raimondo Bucher won 50,000 lire by diving to a depth of 30 m/100 ft off Naples. Scientists predicted the pressure would crush Bucher’s lungs at this depth. They were wrong.

Today freediving is among the fastest-growing water sports. Although freediving has its competitive side, not all freedivers compete. Some spearfish. Some simply enjoy the activity.

Modern freedivers use highly specialized equipment. This includes:

  • Long-bladed fins which provide exception propulsion 
  • Low volume masks which make equalizing easier
  • Special wetsuits which are warmer and more flexible than those used by scuba divers

Instead of the inflatable buoyancy devices scuba divers use, freedivers weight themselves for neutral buoyancy at 10-20 m/33-66 ft. Doing so makes controlling buoyancy easier and helps ensure a safe return to the surface.

The threshold for freediving is a depth of 10 m/33 ft and bottom times exceeding 30 seconds. The risks involved are substantial. This is why not only proper equipment but proper training is essential.

Fortunately, you can get this training through Performance Freediving International (PFI), the world’s leading freediver training organization. Like SDI, PFA is a member of the International Training family. PFI offers a wide variety of courses from beginning freediver through instructor trainer.

Whether your interests tend toward snorkeling or freediving, SDI and PFI have the right course to get you started.

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