So you’ve just arrived at the beach with some new snorkeling gear. You’ve never used a mask and snorkel before, but how hard can it be, right? Being able to see underwater and breathe without always lifting your head up feels awesome! And yet, maybe not as awesome as you were hoping… Perhaps you find yourself accidentally inhaling some water, feeling out of breath, or getting a sore jaw. When snorkeling, how you should breathe is not as simple as sticking a tube in your mouth and continuing as normal.
Most of the time, we don’t think very much about breathing. It’s a thing our brain controls automatically beyond or conscious awareness. But when it comes to underwater activity, whether it’s snorkeling or SCUBA, breath becomes the center of our attention.
Mastering any underwater sport begins with mastering your breath.
A great way to prepare yourself for snorkeling is to reacquaint yourself with regular old swimming. Take some time in a pool lane to recall the muscle and breath memory of the front crawl, breaststroke, or even a simple flutter kick. Remember how important it is to synchronize your breathing with your movements?
If you can’t swim, then please take a few lessons before trying open-water snorkeling for the first time. For many reasons, safety being foremost among them, I personally do not believe non-swimmers should be snorkeling. You should learn how to breathe while swimming first before using a snorkel!
Once a snorkel is in the equation, breath control serves three key functions:
- Ensure you get adequate fresh air by breathing deeply
- Avoid accidentally swallowing or inhaling water
- Control your buoyancy by adjusting your ventilation
Each of these functions represents an advancement in your mastery of breath control.
In the beginning, you must simply learn how to breathe deeply. Once you learn how to control your breathing, you’ll be better able to deal with water in your mouth and snorkel. When using your snorkel becomes intuitive, adjusting your breath to intentionally manipulate your buoyancy will be easier to practice.
Breath Control for Snorkeling: How To Breathe Deeply
The first step in learning how to breathe while snorkeling is to simply become more aware of your breath in the first place. Take a few moments right now just to appreciate how complex your breathing is!
How deeply are you inhaling and exhaling? Are you breathing with your mouth, nose, or both? Which parts of your body move the most when you breathe? Can you change how much your chest vs. your belly expands? Do you notice your heart rate changing slightly when you breathe faster, slower, more shallowly, or more deeply?
There’s a lot going on!
At rest, most people’s breathing is fairly shallow. You’re not exchanging a lot of air each ventilation cycle because your body is not active. During even mild exercise, you will automatically breathe more deeply to exchange more air and get more oxygen to your muscles. Snorkeling is no different, but because you have water and a tube to deal with, you’ll be much more comfortable if you practice how to do deep breathing intentionally.
What is Deep Breathing?
Deep breathing (sometimes called belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing) means inhaling more fully and exhaling more completely each ventilation cycle. In other words, you’re exchanging more air in your lungs each time you breathe. As such, deep breathing requires more engagement from your diaphragm than normal breathing. Typically, this is done to a deliberate count of 4 to 8 on each inhale and exhale. Some folks find it useful to match their breathing to relaxing animations like these:
Exercises for deep breathing are great for reducing stress and developing mindfulness. Additionally, they’ll train your lungs to be more elastic, so your breathing will be deeper even at rest. They tone your diaphragm, intercostal muscles, and help lower blood pressure and heart rate. That means they’re also a great complement to any kind of exercise or athletics training.
For snorkeling, learning how to breathe deeply is important for getting adequate oxygen. Deep breathing ensures that all the air in your snorkel tube is exchanged each time you breathe. Some folks may find themselves feeling fatigued, a bit dizzy, or get a slight headache while snorkeling. This is most likely from not breathing deeply enough, which results in “stale air” with higher carbon dioxide content building up in the tube.
Simple Exercises for Deep Breathing at Home
Deep breathing exercises are most effective if you can make them a daily habit. Initially, you may spend only 2-5 minutes on them but can proceed to 10-15 minutes multiple times a day as you continue to practice.
At first, deep breathing may feel unnatural because your body isn’t used to the feeling. Chances are you also have stress and tension working against you. That’s why it’s important to find a comfortable, quiet place to practice.
Simple deep breathing exercise:
- Lie on your back on a bed/mat with a pillow under your head (and your knees too if you want!)
- Put one of your hands on your chest, and the other on your belly, so you can feel the movements of your rib cage and diaphragm, respectively
- Inhale with your nose for a count of 4, paying attention to your chest and belly movements with your hands
- Exhale with your mouth for another count of 5 and keep your lips lightly pursed as if you were blowing a kiss
- Focus on keeping the hand on your chest from moving as little as possible, concentrating your breath on the movement of your diaphragm/belly
Tips and modifications:
- Use the second-hand of a clock to count your inhales and exhales. Start with a count that is comfortable for you and work your way towards five-second counts or more (six breaths per minute or less)
- Ignore counting and simply try to inhale as deeply as you possibly can and exhale as completely as you possibly can for a couple of breaths.
- Do your deep breathing exercise while sitting up instead of lying down
For more tips and to learn more about the health benefits of deep breathing, check out this helpful summary from Healthline.
Do You Ever Hold Your Breath When Snorkeling?
Yes and no. While snorkeling, how you breathe is what you control, not if you breathe! That might include adjusting how deeply you’re breathing or how quickly you’re breathing in order to manipulate your buoyancy or expel water from your snorkel. But you won’t actually be holding your breath for extended periods.
The only time a snorkeler should actually be holding their breath is if they’re diving under the surface. However, this is a more advanced technique that I advise against if you’re totally new to snorkeling.
Breath Control for Snorkeling: How to Breathe Without Swallowing Water
Unfortunately, if you’re snorkeling you’re going to get water in your mouth at some point. There’s no avoiding that. Being an expert snorkeler means knowing how to deal with water in your mouth comfortably (i.e. without panicking or accidentally inhaling it).
Proper Snorkel Position and Mask Attachment
Minimizing your chances of swallowing or inhaling water starts with proper gear. Make sure you have a mask and snorkel that fit your face properly. Your mask strap should be just below the crown of your head and your snorkel should be positioned so that the tube is at roughly a 45-degree angle between the top and back of your head.
Some folks find that getting this correct position is easier if you attach the snorkel to the top separator of the mask’s backstrap (assuming it isn’t neoprene of course) instead of the typical position next to the strap buckle.
While snorkeling, make sure you keep your chin tucked and your face looking down and slightly forward as if you were focusing on the seafloor ahead of you. New snorkelers tend to bend their neck back to look straight forwards, which can tilt the snorkel below the waterline. Keeping your neck more in line with your back also encourages good “trimming”, a streamlined position ideal for propulsion and buoyancy control.
How To Breathe While Snorkeling Without Swallowing Water
Even with proper gear and good trimming, you’ll still get water collecting in your snorkel’s reservoir. Sometimes this can create a lapping or popping sound while breathing that many snorkelers find distressing at first. When it builds up, new snorkelers may also accidentally inhale some of that water, causing an unpleasant bout of coughing. How do expert snorkelers deal with water in the snorkel?
For one, experienced snorkelers simply get used to having small amounts of water in the snorkel reservoir. Remember how important learning to control your breathing was? Here’s where that skill becomes very useful. Breathing deeply also means breathing slowly. When your inhales are slow and measured, you’re much less likely to accidentally draw water from the reservoir into your mouth. And if you do, chances are it will simply get caught in your mouth instead of getting into your airways.
Experience will improve your technique
There are also a few other things I personally find myself doing that mitigate accidental swallows. These are subtle adjustments I developed intuitively just from experience.
For example, I keep my jaw slack and relaxed. This creates a larger chamber in my mouth for water to catch in and keeps my jaw from getting sore on the snorkel mouthpiece. Sometimes, I also breathe with my soft palate partially open (basically that means making a Darth Vader sound). This has the effect of very slightly constricting my deep breathing in a way I can adjust based on how choppy the conditions are. That way, in case of accidental snorkel flooding I’m less likely to be drawing all that water into my airways. I call these kinds of adjustments “breathing around water“. I know other snorkelers who have developed similar levels of mouth and airway control simply through intuition. If you snorkel enough, chances are you will too!
In any case, if too much water builds up in your reservoir or the snorkel tube floods completely, then you need to clear the snorkel.
How to Clear Water from Your Snorkel Using Your Breath
Snorkel clearance is the act of using a forceful exhalation to expel water from the snorkel tube. The technique is a lot easier if you’re using a snorkel with a purge valve, which allows water to be expelled out the bottom of the tube instead of having to force it all out of the top.
This is another area where breath control is very important. With good breath control, if your snorkel floods accidentally (say from a wave or head tilt), then 1) you won’t inhale any of the water and 2) you will have enough air in your lungs to purge the snorkel.
The best way to become good at snorkel clearance is to practice it. I recommend a pool so you’re in a controlled setting. If you’re in open water, ensure you have a buddy and you’re at a spot you can safely stand in if necessary.
How to clear a flooded snorkel:
- On a full breath, bob your head under the water to deliberately flood the snorkel
- Keep the snorkel flooded for a few moments while holding your breath. Reassure yourself that you’re safe. Become familiar with the feel of a flooded snorkel in your mouth
- Give a forceful, puffing exhale. I find I make something like a “chuh!” or “puh!” sound when I do it. You should feel most of the water shunt out of the tube, either through the purge valve if you have one or out the top (often both).
- Take your first inhale carefully. There will likely be some water left in the reservoir, especially on your first attempts! Inhaling carefully after clearance is generally a good habit to get into.
Breath Control for Snorkeling: How to Breathe for Buoyancy
You’ve learned how to relax and breathe deeply with your snorkel. You’ve also learned how to deal with water in your snorkel/mouth to the point it doesn’t make you nervous anymore. Now it’s time to add another layer of nuance to your breathing: buoyancy control.
Now you might be thinking that buoyancy control is something only divers have to worry about, but that’s not true! Anyone who does any activity in water will benefit from good buoyancy control. Being able to precisely tune your position in water using your lungs is a skill that will increase your confidence and enjoyment whether your snorkeling, scuba diving, or even just swimming.
What is Buoyancy Control?
Buoyancy control is deliberately sinking or floating by adjusting your density and displacement. SCUBA divers do this with weights and a buoyancy control device (BCD), but your lungs can affect your buoyancy too. By inflating your lungs, you cause your body to take up more space without increasing your weight. This lowers your density, causing you to float. In fact, skilled SCUBA divers rely more on their lungs for fine-scale buoyancy control than their weights or BCD.
Buoyancy control is important even for snorkelers because it affects your position in the water. That means good buoyancy control is necessary if you want to get up close to coral and sea life without accidentally touching or bumping into anything. Relying on your lungs to control your vertical position will also keep you from expending excess energy by treading with your arms and legs. This will not only keep you from getting fatigued but will also help you avoid accidentally damaging or grabbing onto coral.
The ideal body position for good buoyancy control is streamlined with your legs straight behind you, your head facing down and slightly forward, and your arms at your sides or gently clasped in front of you. With good buoyancy control (and fins on your feet), you should be doing very little with your arms!
Connecting Breath to Buoyancy
Your lungs are essentially a natural buoyancy control device! To lower yourself a bit, exhale fully with your lungs for one or two breaths with normal or shallow inhales in between. When I do this, I usually find I can completely submerge my body and drift just under the waterline.
To float comfortably at the surface, do the opposite: inhale fully for a few breaths with normal or shallow exhales in between. I like to do this on my back sometimes to relax because it keeps my face well above the waterline. It’s also useful if I’m snorkeling over a particularly shallow area.
Remember, when using your lungs for buoyancy control you should still actually be breathing and not holding your breath! As a snorkeler, even though holding your breath for a second or two on the inhale or exhale is ok, it’s a good idea to avoid the habit if you’re at all interested in SCUBA diving (where breath-hold is a big no-no).
When it comes to buoyancy control, the only way to improve is through experience. Every time you’re in the water, even if it’s just a pool, take a few minutes to focus on your lungs and experiment with how your breathing can affect your buoyancy!
How To Breathe While Snorkeling: Summary
As you can see, breathing with a snorkel is more than just sticking a tube in your mouth and calling it a day! To control how you breathe while snorkeling, keep these points in mind:
- Breathe deeply to fully exchange the air in your snorkel tube on each ventilation cycle
- In the water, streamline your body and look down and slightly forward to keep your snorkel above the waterline
- Learn to breathe “around” the water in your snorkel reservoir
- Practice flooding and clearing your snorkel until it becomes second nature
- Practice controlling your buoyancy by changing how you breathe (not by holding your breath)
- Don’t rely on your arms to control your position in the water
By focusing on all these skills, you’ll be able to get a lot more out of your snorkeling experiences. You’ll also have a considerable leg up if you ever decide to learn SCUBA diving or freediving, activities where breath control is even more important!
Does how you breathe have an impact on your snorkeling experiences? Let me know in the comments!
The Best Kicking Technique For Snorkeling (No, It’s Not a Flutter Kick!)
How Snorkels Work (Classic, Semi-dry, and Dry)
How to Choose a Mask and Snorkel That Suits Your Face and Ability
10 Tips for Responsible Snorkeling on Coral Reefs
Some of the links used in this article are affiliate links (learn more here). That means I may get a small commission if you buy a product after following the link (at no extra cost to you!). If this article helps you with your snorkeling breath control, consider it like giving me a little thank you!
Olesia Sima says
Very well written, thank you for taking the time and efford. I learned a lot and now I feel more safe on my jouneys. Best wishes