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June 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 31, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Snorkels: Love ’em or Hate ’em?

mixed feelings about snorkels for scuba

from the June, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Not many people know that it was the Italians who invented the snorkel and that it was the Dutch Navy that was the first to fit them to its submarines. However, the German Navy famously used 'schnorchels' fitted to its wolf-pack submarines during WWII. These enabled the U-Boat crews and engines to breathe while just below the surface, out of sight of any intended targets, so playing an effective role in the Battle of the Atlantic.

"One problem has been the transition of snorkels from a simple device extending one's windpipe to rest the head in water into nuclear-cooling-tower monstrosities with more drag and that flop around"

For us divers and snorkelers, a snorkel has an optimum length of about 12 inches and a diameter of about 1 inch. If the tube is any longer, the user will inhale expired carbon dioxide, leading to breathlessness. Any fatter and surface water will splash easily into the tube.

Some manufacturers, hoping to take the needed skill out of using such a device, fit splash guards at the top end and drain valves at the bottom. The advantage of a drain valve is that the snorkeler doesn't need to waste energy putting his head above the surface to clear any water. A relaxed snorkeler can spend hours looking down at what goes on below.

Some manufacturers, rather like seeking to invent a 'better mousetrap,' have come up with snorkel designs that use two tubes, one for inhalation and one for exhalation (Kapitol Reef Luxury Snorkel), or with valves at the top end to keep the snorkel 'dry' (Scubapro Spectra), and nearly every year at the DEMA, a hopeful designer comes up with another idea to improve on the basic design. Most sink without trace.

Experienced divers have all sorts of opinions about the value of snorkels, so we asked our readers in our monthly email for your views. We said, "PADI insists its trainees have a snorkel attached to their masks. It's useful if you need to make a long surface swim before or after diving. Other divers say it's better to swim on your back in such circumstances, with your BC inflated."

We were inundated with opinions. They seem to be divided into three camps: those who wore a snorkel attached to their mask, those who carried a snorkel, and those who did neither.

Des Paroz (Darwin, Australia) was quick to point out, that the PADI Instructor Manual states a requirement that each diver has a snorkel, "but does not require it to be constantly attached to a student's mask."

That may be so, but a straw poll at any dive site will reveal a large percentage of scuba divers wearing their snorkels attached to their masks, so indicating a great many divers (and their instructors) misunderstand the ruling -- or prefer otherwise.

Veteran Undercurrent reader and retired diving instructor David Hass (Stow, OH) wrote that he thought the PADI requirement should go the way of dive tables and other anachronisms. He said, "One problem has been the transition of snorkels from a simple device extending one's windpipe to rest the head in water into nuclear-cooling-tower monstrosities with more drag and that flop around so that breathing through some, whether easy snorkeling to free diving with dolphins or other fast encounter situations, is almost impossible."

And these snorkels clipped to a mask strap can make removing a mask and repositioning it underwater complicated. In a current, the tube can vibrate and cause an irritating, yet perpetual, ingress of water into the mask. Within the confined spaces of a wreck, they can get caught up.

Many experienced divers dispense with the snorkel altogether. Many make surface swims on their backs with their BCs or wings fully inflated. However, this introduces a significant hazard -- you cannot see what is going on in front of you or below you, and that could mean big problems. You need to know that the engines are stopped and the propellers are not turning. It is not unheard of for a diver to be drawn on to the rotating props of a boat that was reversing, with fatal consequences.

Mike Davis, editor of Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine, was positively in favor of a snorkel when he told us, "I have dived for 53 years with a snorkel attached to my mask when on open-circuit scuba and would never under any circumstances not do so. In my long diving career, I have needed quick access to it on a few occasions, but far more importantly, I save gas on the pre-dive surface swim, while at the same time getting to see what wonderful sights might be beneath me! At the end of a dive, I use it either swimming back to shore or to the dive boat, and I have no risk of getting my airway swamped by an unexpected wave that I could not see because I was swimming facing away from where I was headed!

"I have dived for 53 years with a snorkel attached to my mask when on open-circuit scuba and would never under any circumstances not do so."

"If I am diving from a 'live' boat, it also ensures that I can keep the boat in view all the time and take evasive action if the skipper proves to be a dickhead and to ensure that the prop has stopped -- while conserving the remaining air in my cylinder in case of an unexpected emergency."

Complex snorkel designs intended purely for snorkeling can lead to entanglement with kelp or discarded fishing line. Wreck divers find a mask-mounted snorkel positively awkward when in confined spaces.

The mouthpiece -- is it a snorkel or a regulator?

One cause for concern was pointed out by Rich Erickson (Marietta GA). He always kept his snorkel attached to his mask until "I was using my snorkel on the surface. After everyone had entered the water and the signal to descend was given, I exhaled sharply and fully to sink with my minimal weights. At about 10-15 feet underwater, I could not hold my breath any longer and took a deep breath, only to discover that salt water was entering my lungs! I still had the snorkel in my mouth! I could have drowned if I did not have the training to instinctively do the right thing and not panic."

This basic error is often featured as a scenario in PADI instructor exams. The diver playing the part of the trainee diver is instructed to swim down from the surface with a snorkel in the mouth, and the candidate instructor has to be alert enough to spot it and take appropriate measures, so it's not considered to be that unusual. This raises the question, should mouthpieces for snorkels be designed to be instantly recognizable as different from that of regulators?

A solution is to carry a snorkel elsewhere on the body and deploy it only should you need to. TUSA is one of several manufacturers that make a folding snorkel that will tuck into a pocket, or you can slip a simple one through a knife strap on the calf.

Mary 'Mel' McCombie (New Haven CT), a repeat contributor to Undercurrent, went further. "My wetsuits all have snorkel holders sewn in on the left thigh so I can carry a snorkel and grab it if needed, but it stays out of the way otherwise."

Allen Vogel (Manasquan NJ) probably summed it up well. "Free diving/spearfishing, I love them. Wreck diving or shooting video, they just get in the way. PADI may require [a snorkel] for basic skills, but if you surveyed wreck divers, probably very few use them."

What's the right thing to do? Keep it simple and deployed only when you need it. Keep those complex luxury snorkels just for snorkeling, not when you're sporting a tank.

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