This blog addresses the pros and cons of snorkel versus scuba. We’ll also discuss the vast range of other ways to experience the beautiful and exotic undersea world, in some cases without even getting wet!
The oceans cover almost three-quarters of the Earth’s surface. They are the likely birthplace of life on our planet. The oceans provide rainwater and much of the food we eat, and sustain a whole world of life, from microscopic plankton through colorful fish to gigantic mammals. It’s not surprising that many of us are curious about this huge world around us, and want to see it up close.
Snorkel Versus Scuba
Let’s start with the two best-known and most popular ways to see the world of life below the water’s surface: snorkeling and scuba diving.
It’s easy to find discussions of the pros and cons of snorkel versus scuba, for example at Diffen.com and Scuba Monkey. However, the comparisons are apples-and-oranges: fundamentally the choice is a personal one, based on your personal priorities, preferences and skills.
I’ll give a personal comparison of snorkel versus scuba based on my reading and my personal experience:
– I have advanced scuba certification and have completed hundreds of scuba dives all over the world at depths from 15 to 230 feet.
– My wife and I frequently visit Maui, where we snorkel with tropical fish and turtles in a secluded bay at Honokeana Cove Resort.
Art’s Assessment: Snorkel Versus Scuba
Snorkeling is a way to experience the underwater world from its boundary, that is, from the surface. You might think that you won’t see much unless you scuba dive, so you can get into the middle of the watery realm. However, you would be mistaken.
Consider the following: nearly all undersea life depends on energy from sunlight. Algae directly convert sunlight to energy; other fish feed on algae or on other fish, and they tend to find their food where there is sunlight. However, sunlight is rapidly attenuated as it passes through the water, due to absorption by the water and scattering by particulate matter. Thus although coral reefs can thrive at 150 foot depth and even more, there’s a tremendous amount of “interesting stuff” from just below the surface to thirty feet depth, and these are depths that are readily accessible to the snorkeler.
Scuba diving is essential to achieve some goals:
– If you want to explore shipwrecks then you need scuba, because the interesting wrecks tend to be far below the surface, sometimes very far below.
– If you want to explore underwater caves, for safety you need a breathing apparatus, that is, scuba (yes, scuba means “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”).
– If you are fascinated by tiny creatures like nudibranchs you will want to see them up close, so you need the three-dimensional freedom of action that scuba diving permits.
However, scuba diving brings with it some disadvantages:
– You must rent, or preferably buy, a lot of equipment.
– To be able to choose your dive site and explore on your own, you need to complete a scuba training course and get certified. Some people can never complete training because during training they discover that they become panicked under water; this can happen even to strong swimmers who are otherwise comfortable in the water.
– You need a wetsuit whose thickness is matched to the water temperature where you will be diving. A serious scuba diver will want to own several custom-fit wetsuits in different thicknesses, costing several hundred dollars each.
– Because most scuba diving occurs at 30 to 90 feet depth, you usually need to take a boat to get to a scuba site, and that adds to the cost of a scuba vacation.
So here’s my summary of snorkel versus scuba:
– Scuba is certainly a great sport, probably the best way to fully experience the undersea world.
– Scuba requires a commitment of time and money that doesn’t fit the priorities of a lot of people.
– Snorkeling with the right snorkel equipment is accessible, affordable and highly enjoyable for almost everyone. In fact, even if you think that scuba will be your preferred sport, snorkeling is a great place to start.
– In my personal opinion, you can see at least 50% of the “interesting stuff” from the surface of the water, that is, by snorkeling.
Scuba diving requires professional training and certification. However, snorkeling requires neither. With a few pointers, you can teach yourself everything that you need to know about snorkeling. As a help to those who want to explore snorkeling, the next few blogs in this series will provide a complete course, Snorkeling 101 if you wish, starting with how to choose your snorkel equipment.
If you are comfortable in the water, snorkeling and scuba diving are both skills that you should seriously consider. However, they are not for everyone. For the rest of this blog, I want to address all those readers who are interested in the underwater realm, but who are not enamored with putting their faces under the water for any period of time.
Water Shy! Or, Please Don’t Make Me Put My Face In the Water!
Even if you are comfortable in the water, if you travel with family or friends you will find that many people are uneasy about dunking their faces below the surface. However, there are many options available by which aquaphobes can enjoy viewing undersea life. We’ll discuss them all, starting with the ones that put you into the water, and ending with the ones that don’t even require you to put on a swimsuit!
There are many people who don’t mind getting into the water and even swimming, but who are daunted by the idea of getting their air through a tube. Since air through a tube is a critical part of both scuba diving and snorkeling, these folks need a way to look under the water with their faces still in the air.
Fortunately, innovation has been hard at work, and there are a number of products that meet this need. There are two ingredients to the invention:
– A floating device such as a bodyboard, also called a boogie board, or an inflatable raft, that helps you float and keeps your upper body above the surface of the water.
– A window in the board allowing you to look directly through the surface and into the water below. There are typically windows on both sides of the board, with a sealed air pocket between them. In many cases there’s a shade around the window to reduce distraction and glare.
This combination of elements is a great invention, I think you’ll agree. I call it by the generic name view board. However, if you set out to rent or buy one, you’ll have more luck if you ask for “a boogie board with a window,” or for one of the trademarked names. The images below show, in order, the Looky Board (or Lookie Board); the Snorkelboard; the Spy Board; the Sea Window; and the Sea Sled.
Whichever type you choose, you can let the view board support the upper part of your body as you swim along, and you can look through the window at the fish and coral. When you rent a view board, get one with a window that is nice and clear (not scratched), and make sure there’s no water between the windows, which would indicate a leak. Using a view board is not as “up close” as snorkeling, but it’s still a nice way to enjoy the underwater sights.
Submarines are another way to experience the undersea world. You may think of a submarine as a cramped and dangerous place, something out of The Hunt for Red October. However, providers of tourist attractions have re-invented the submarine as a visitor-friendly boat that dives only a few feet below the surface, to give visitors a close-up view of coral and tropical fish. The image below shows an Atlantis tourist submarine, such as offered in Hawaii and in the Caribbean.
Glass Bottom Boat
Of course, the very idea of being trapped inside a metal can thirty feet underwater gives some folks the heebie-jeebies. So there’s an easier approach: the glass bottom boat. You may imagine a rowboat-type vessel, but the newest glass bottom boats have much better designs. They have two-story interiors, in which the upper level is always above water, and the lower level is a narrow room with glass windows on the sides. These boats are used, for example, for viewing the Great Barrier Reef and undersea life in Maui.
It’s also possible to get a good view of the fish in a more substantial setting than a boat. On the Great Barrier Reef there are a number of “pontoons,” basically floating platforms equipped with restaurants, rest rooms, showers, changing rooms and protected snorkel pools. The pontoon operated by Quicksilver Cruises also has an “underwater observatory,” basically a lower level room with glass walls through which you can see fish, divers feeding them, and perhaps coral gardens; it’s shown in the photo below.
Last but certainly not least, you can see well-curated professionally-presented vistas of undersea life at venues that are solidly based on dry land, namely, aquaria (or aquariums, if you prefer). Two of my favorite destinations are the Maui Ocean Center in Ma’alaea, Maui and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. However, one of the most breathtaking exhibits of all is the twenty-eight-foot high kelp forest at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California.
This completes our survey of the many ways to experience the wonders of the undersea world that surrounds us. As you see, it’s possible to see the amazing creatures that live there, even while keeping your feet on dry land.
However, there’s nothing like getting up close and personal with coral, fish and bigger critters like green sea turtles, seals and dolphins. For that I recommend both snorkeling and scuba diving, depending on your personal preferences and commitment.
Because snorkeling is more universally accessible and does not require special training, the following blogs will concentrate on snorkeling as a recreational sport. The following series of three blogs gives a complete short course in snorkeling, ranging from equipment selection, through the basics of safety and comfort, to the skills to make your experience the best ever.
Snorkel versus scuba is a difficult choice of activities. Whether you choose one of these, or one of the less demanding ways to view the underwater world, there is much to enjoy about exploring life under the oceans.
Thinkingboy by ryanlerch on openclipart.org
Reef snorkeler from author “Masato Ikeda”
Scuba diver at Playa del Carmen, Mexico, in the Tortugas, author “Soljaguar”
Glass bottom boat on the Great Barrier Reef, author “BUH” at German Wikipedia, user “Malkinann”
Kelp forest at Monterey Bay Aquarium, used with permission
Atlantis tourist submarine by Leonard G. in Wikimedia
Other images have been hosted in iFrame from other websites, with a link to the website in the accompanying text.