Freediving and Snorkeling; the Odd Couple

We get the question on our little paradise island all the time; what is the difference between Freediving and Snorkeling, and why should I take a course to learn how to snorkel? Luckily, the word is spreading, and the more exposure people have to the sport of freediving and what exactly is involved, the less confusion there tends to be. For those of us who have taken courses, learned about the sport and trained for it, this is a blatantly obvious difference. However, this blog is written for those who are still genuinely wondering if freediving is in fact just a fancy name for “deep snorkeling” (no judgement involved- we have all been there).


Let me first paint you a picture; you are out for a day on the reef with friends, the water is crystal blue and calm, allowing you to conceptualize the world's biggest bathtub, full of cool stuff. You have your eco-friendly sunscreen on, you’ve been working out all winter for that well earned and deliciously toned summer bod, and you’re feeling pretty great about the moment. The company is good, the scene is set, and you can’t wait to get in the water and be the first to spot some curious little turtles that the captain hasn’t stopped talking about. The captain hands you a mask and some fins, and you dawn them furiously quickly and jump awkwardly into the water, the mild chill hitting you like a very small, but cute bus. You start to kick to keep yourself afloat, while adjusting the mask which seems to be leaking an unusual amount. The mask is supposed to be clear in color, but has somehow developed a yellow-green tinge from overuse and unkept routine. Ah well, vacation problems right?


You start to swim, snorkel firmly clenched in the mouth, admiring the colors and the life below you. You’re in your own world, kicking, kicking, kicking with what seem to be relatively useless added appendages on your feet. The fins look like they could have come free with a purchase of a walmart kiddie pool. Regardless, you’re loving it. You decide to try and swim down to be one with the fish, and take a big breath at the surface before duck diving with your arms, kicking frantically to get below. After a mild struggle to get under, you feel your feel finally in contact with water, and you can see the reef getting closer as you fin aggressively, putting the small piece of plastic to work. Your ears hurt, but you have SCUBA dived before, you know how to equalize them- so you blow against your pinched nostrils and feel a pop, and a sense of relief. The snorkel stays uncomfortably in your mouth, but for some reason you feel compelled to keep it in, knowing that you will use it when you arrive back at the surface. 

The reef is almost there, you’ve made it, and you reward yourself by taking a quick look around, your hands moving upwards against the water to keep yourself down. You see a fish, and then all of a sudden you know it's time for you to go up- your body feels low on oxygen so you kick as quickly as you can to the surface and take a fast breath while yelling at your friends, who are quite far away from you at this point, and telling them to come and see the cool fish you just discovered. You look down to try and find it again, but the fish has moved. You think to yourself, “don’t worry, I’ll find it on my next dive”.

Does this sound familiar? It does for me! It sounds like a great day out on the water, a great time spent with friends, and a cool way to spend your vacation. For someone who has taken a proper freediving course, this story probably brings back memories of how uncomfortable we used to feel underwater, and how a few basic (and sometimes counterintuitive) techniques could allow us to have the same experience, but be infinitely more comfortable.  

So what is the difference between freediving and snorkeling? Let’s start by analyzing just a few points of the above story:

First off, equipment. In freediving we use equipment that is purpose built for what are trying to accomplish. It might surprise you to hear that our goal is not depth, but instead efficient movement through the water, regardless of depth. Long fins and lower volume masks allow us to glide effortlessly through the water with less water around our nose, and less air wasted on mask equalization. Weights, if necessary, allow us to be intimately aware of our neutral buoyancy so we can make adjustments depending on how deep the reef lies. We don’t want to be using our hands underwater, acting like a bird trying to fly upside down. We want to be perfectly weightless. 

Secondly, technique. We have lots of habits that become conditioned throughout our lives, and often take some time to break. One of the most common habits is looking the direction we are going as we descend, which creates an enormous amount of tension in our back, shoulders and hips. Try it right now- look to the ceiling without moving your back and hold it for 10 seconds. How comfortable is that? Taking a course and getting proper instruction allows you to break these habits much easier, as you have a outside party drawing attention to what you may subconsciously be doing. Grunting at students underwater so that they correct this position is a common technique used by freedive instructors. 

Finally, but most importantly, safety. In the perfect description of a perfect day, you were in your own world. The reef was like Pandora, and you were happy to explore it alone. Taking a course prioritizes buddy safety, and goes into detail about how to respond in an unlikely situation where an accident occurs. With proper buddying technique, not only are we allowing our mind to relax more knowing that our buddy has our back, but we don’t have to yell at our friends to come and see the cool fish, and then lose it before they arrive. Good buddying means freediving is a team sport, which makes it a social sport, which makes it more fun.

Take our word for it, if you practice proper technique, use proper equipment and have a good buddy you can rely on, you will never want to get out of the water. Time to take that course!