How Does A Snorkel Work

If you’re yet to try snorkeling for yourself then you might have wondered – how does a snorkel work?

This simple piece of equipment has advanced a lot over the years that there are now several different types of snorkel!

Each type of snorkel can work slightly different to one another and have different applications and benefits. So in this guide we’re going to break down for you, just how do snorkels work?…

What Is A Snorkel

What Is A Snorkel

There are many different types of snorkels, but they basically fit into one of these three categories – The traditional snorkel, the semi dry snorkel, and the dry snorkel.

Accompanied with a snorkel mask so that you can see underwater, you can potentially swim for hours whilst gazing downwards at beautiful reefs and schools of fish.

We’ll go in depth into each snorkel type below but we also have a guide to the best snorkels on the market that you may be interested in as well!

How Does A Snorkel Work

In its simplest form, a snorkel is just a hollow tube used to breathe through whilst your face is submerged underwater.

One end of the snorkel will be in the users mouth, and the other end will reach up and above the water so that you can breathe.

Whilst using your snorkel you will be able to keep your face submerged for any extended period of time, allowing you to leisurely float around looking at whatever wonders lie beneath you.

Can You Breathe Underwater With A Snorkel

No. You cannot breathe underwater with a snorkel.

A snorkel is used to breathe from at the surface of the water only, and you can only breathe from it whilst the top of the snorkel is above the water line.

A snorkel shouldn’t be confused with underwater breathing apparatus (like a scuba diver uses).

When you submerge your snorkel underwater – like if you choose to dive underwater to get a better view of something – you will need to breath hold until you resurface.

Can You Breathe Underwater With A Snorkel

How To Snorkel

Learning to snorkel and taking your first few breaths can feel really strange at first.

After all, your first instinct isn’t to breathe in whilst your face us underwater!

I’ve written a really in depth guide on how to snorkel that you should definitely check out if you’re new to snorkeling, but here’s a quick summary;

  • Buy a good quality mask and snorkel. (This is an excellent quality dry top snorkel and mask combo for beginners).
  • Practice breathing through the snorkel before you get into the water.
  • Once you’re in the water, continue to practice your breathing but this time with your face underwater (make sure the top of the snorkel is pointing up and out of the water!).
  • Stay calm and focus on your breathing until you are comfortable.
  • Pick the right spot to snorkel in as a beginner (calm waters/close to the shore/at a comfortable depth where you can still stand up)
  • Stay calm and relaxed. You’ll conserve precious energy this way and enjoy your snorkeling a lot more
  • Don’t snorkel alone! Always swim with a buddy for safety reasons.
  • Don’t touch anything. Reef’s are very delicate and can be easily damaged by people touching or standing on them.
  • Relax and stay calm. If you need to, just pop your head out of the water, spit out the snorkel and compose yourself.
  • Have fun and explore! That’s what you’re there for after all.

Types Of Snorkels

There are three main types of snorkels.

One type isn’t better than the other, but one type may suit you better, so it’s helpful to know the key differences between them.

Traditional Snorkel

traditional snorkel

Your traditional snorkel, (also referred to as a classic snorkel, wet snorkel, or J snorkel), is the most basic form of snorkel that you can buy.

It has a mouthpiece on one end, and the top of the tube is completely open.

This type of snorkel has no special bells or whistles, and as a result they tend to be the cheapest type of snorkel that you can buy.

They are a very reliable, lightweight and durable snorkel, often lasting for many years, due to the fact that they have very limited parts that can go wrong with them or break.

Water can very easily get into the snorkel tube of a classic snorkel, therefore they usually aren’t favoured that highly for beginners.

They are however popular with free divers and spearfishers as they create much less drag underwater, and have less unwanted buoyancy then semi dry or dry snorkels.

When I was young this was the only type of snorkel that you could really buy but “snorkel technology” has become much more advanced since then, and evolved into the below snorkel types….

Semi Dry Snorkel

Semi dry snorkels

Semi Dry snorkels have a few additional features which make them a really popular choice.

At the top of a semi dry snorkel will be a splash guard.

The splash guard won’t prevent water from getting into the breathing tube entirely (it will still completely flood when submerged), but it can help to prevent water from entering it whilst you’re at the surface such as from splashes and waves.

Not having to focus so much clearing water from your snorkel can make for a much more enjoyable snorkel experience overall!

Other features often found on semi dry snorkels are;

Purge Valve

one way purge valve

Snorkels that have a purge valve will have a larger ‘well’ at the bottom of them.

Water will collect in the well and as your breathe out, the one-way purge valve will open and release the water that’s collected in the tube back out again.

This is a really convenient feature as the purge happens without interrupting your breathing, or involving you having to stop and clear the water out manually.

Flexible tube

flex tube of a semi dry snorkel

A flexible tube is a great feature to have on a snorkel as it allows for the mouthpiece to angle towards your face far easier than if the snorkel tube were rigid.

It is therefore far more comfortable on the jaw as you’re not having to clench down on the mouthpiece to keep it in place.

Another reason this is a great feature is a flexible tube allows for the snorkel to fold up, and this is why they are a type of snorkel often used when scuba diving.

For scuba divers the flexible tube means the mouthpiece will fall out of the way of the face when not in use, and it also makes them easy to fold up and stow away in a BCD pocket when not in use.

Dry Snorkel

the float valve of a dry snorkel

These days dry snorkels are often the go to type of snorkel for most people, and they’re an especially good choice for beginners.

A dry top snorkel will have all the beneficial features that a semi dry snorkel has such as a splash guard, flexible tube and a purge valve, but they go one step further with the incorporation of a special dry top valve.

So how does a dry snorkel work? Well it prevents water from entering the tube altogether.

The dry top mechanism is really simple, and this special valve works like this;

  • There’s a float that sits inside the dry top. When the snorkel is submerged underwater the float rises and it completely blocks the opening at the top of the snorkel, therefore preventing water from entering the tube.
  • When you resurface and the top of the snorkel comes back above the water line, the float valve will drop back down again and the airway is now completely open again.

What this all means, is that you can basically snorkel completely uninterrupted and potentially without any water getting into the snorkel at all.

You can dive underwater and then resurface and you can immediately start breathing again and not have to worry about clearing water out of your snorkel.

These features make dry snorkels one of the most popular, as they let you focus on just simply snorkeling, and not having to worry about clearing water out of it, or getting salty water in your mouth.

As for myself – I’ve used all three categories of snorkels extensively, but for general snorkeling I prefer using a dry snorkel.

[Check out our guides to the best snorkel, best semi dry snorkel, and the best dry snorkel].

Other Snorkel Gear

Obviously your mask and snorkel are essential gear but there is plenty of other snorkel gear you can buy to further enhance your experience;


Snorkel fins are so useful that I would be almost inclined to call them essential.

If you’ve ever had to swim an appreciable distance (especially against current), then you know why.

But even in calm waters snorkel fins are an extremely useful piece of gear as they allow you to cover distance quickly and easily therefore conserving a ton of energy.

Rash Guard

If you’re going to be snorkeling for hours (which you probably will be when you’re having fun!), then the safest and most effective way to protect yourself is with UV protective clothing.

A rash guard will protect you from the sun and is more cost effective than having to constantly reapply sunscreen – Not to mention, it’s better for the environment if you minimise your use of sunscreen.

Snorkel Vest

A snorkel vest is a floatation device specifically designed for snorkeling. 

They typically come in bright colors that make you easy to see, and they have a device on them which lets you manually adjust their buoyancy by inflating or deflating the snorkel vest as needed.

Snorkel vests are an important, (and potentially life saving safety device) that work as a buoyancy aid for young children, people who aren’t the strongest swimmers, or simply to help you preserve energy whilst in the water.

In Conclusion

Hopefully you found this article useful and now know how a snorkel works as well as all of the different types of snorkels you can buy.

Now armed with this information you should have a good idea of which snorkel you would want to use on your first snorkel adventure!

How Does snorkel work

How Does A Snorkel Work

Gia Halliday

Gia Halliday

Hey, my names Gia! My biggest passions are food, travel and basically anything to do with being in the water. Combine all of that with an addiction for buying gear and you end up with with this website!