Snorkeling, Freediving, and Skin Diving: What’s the Difference?

Snorkeling, Freediving, and Skin Diving: What's the Difference?
Yuri Arcurs

Ever thought of diving without a tank? Snorkeling, skin diving and freediving are just that.

The difference between snorkeling, skin diving, and freediving–and scuba diving for that matter–is essentially defined by how long under the water divers spend.

Here are the different ways these activities are enjoyed and what scuba divers learn from those disciplines?

What are the differences between snorkeling, free diving, skin diving,

Scuba diving is fairly easy to define: strap a tank of breathable air on your back to breathe underwater without any help from the surface you’re scuba diving. But remove the tank and things get a little difficult to pin down. Often terms like snorkeling, free diving, and skin diving are used interchangeably, describing the one when it is in fact the other. It’s not surprising.

But there are differences, and each has its advantages. Whether you’re a scuba diver or a free diver, a snorkeler or a skin diver, you can learn from the other disciplines and bring some experience from one activity to the other.

Dudarev Mikhail


Snorkeling is arguably the most popular activity of the bunch. Probably because of all the named activities, snorkeling is the most accessible and least daunting. Hundreds of thousands of snorkelers take to the water every year on holidays or in their home waters, floating along on the surface

Snorkeling is defined as an activity where the participants use full-foot snorkel fins, masks, snorkels, and possibly a buoyancy vest to help them remain afloat without strain. The defining point here is the tendency to stay at the surface, observing the aquatic environment below. The full face snorkel mask also provides a new riff on this old song, giving comfort and ease for some who have difficulty with a traditional snorkel.

Snorkelers can and will swim below to depth but not as much as skin divers.

Want to learn about snorkeling techniques and how to improve your skills? Read our Full Snorkeling Guide.

Dudarev Mikhail

Skin diving

Skin diving is as old as swimming. It’s an old term that isn’t necessarily used much anymore but is useful nonetheless. Back before masks or goggles allowed for better vision underwater, divers were holding their breath and submerging to hunt flashy fish or find shiny treasure.

Essentially, skin diving is snorkeling, except you dive below the surface when there’s something interesting you want to see up close. Who hasn’t been swimming with a mask and tried to dive down to investigate some crab or coral garden? But anybody who has done this know from experience the sudden pressure that clenches the nasal passages and causes discomfort in the head.

As soon the body passes more than a couple of feet deep, hydrostatic pressure begins to constrict the air and organs within. With every 33 feet (10 meters) of depth, the pressure squeezes any object by 14.5 psi. Any skin diver will then have learned well how to equalize, a skill used in freediving and by scuba divers.

Skin divers use snorkels at the surface and common diving equipment in terms of mask and fins are used.

Jon Milnes


The newest and fastest-growing of these tankless activities is freediving. Many people tend to call both snorkeling and skin diving  “freediving”, but it’s not correct.

Strictly speaking, freediving is a competition-oriented activity and requires more discipline than skin diving and snorkeling. Using techniques to both inhale as much air as possible and to use as little oxygen as possible while underwater, freedivers try to spend as much time as possible on one breath to achieve maximum distance.

Freedivers descend vertically to achieve maximum depth or distance underwater, following ropes or lines for efficiency and to use when ascending, pulling on it for greater speed toward the surface.

Herbert Nitsch is the current freediving record-holder, swimming to a depth of 830.8 feet (253.2 m) on one breath! He has earned the title “the Deepest Man on Earth” and often participates in conservation efforts too.

Masks are typically smaller than standard scuba or snorkeling masks, more similar to swim goggles. Freedivers use fins that are much longer than dive fins and many divers use monofins, where both feet are in the same fin, are sometimes used.

Unlike snorkeling and skin diving, the main goal is to spend as much time underwater as possible. And time at the surface is only meant to re-oxygenate the body between dives. A snorkel is often not used.

Overall difference

In very much layman’s terms, you could say that snorkeling is surface only, freediving strives to spend as much time underwater, while skin diving mixes the two. Participants in all three activities may not like this definition, but it can help others distinguish between them.

Martin Valigursky

The benefits of diving without a tank

Scuba divers can learn a lot of skills trying out these activities. Especially skin diving forces you to equalize and work with buoyancy. It used to be that a skin diving dive was a part of all entry-level scuba courses. Diving without a tank on your back can be very rewarding, as it allows a diver to feel the freedom of movement that you just don’t get with a lot of gear on.

Also, a number of marine animals are easier to see and get close to when we don’t exhale bubbles, including whale sharks and dolphins. When traveling, it allows us to take a look below the waterline without having to bring or rent a lot of gear. For rescue scenarios, we don’t always have the luxury of dive gear and may need to assist a diver using only our fins, mask and snorkel.


Bring your non-diving friends

Snorkeling is an easy, no-fuss way to take non-divers out to experience the underwater world. This is especially true if they are not completely comfortable with swimming in the ocean.

Once non-divers view the amazing world underwater, they’ll get a better understanding of why humans have been obsessed with the ocean and why it’s so important to protect it.

Skills that will make you a better diver

You can also learn basic scuba skills from skin diving. Such as snorkel clearing this can be useful in the beginning and end of your dives. Descent and ascent techniques can also be useful skills to master for scuba divers.

You can also read All the best Skin Diving Techniques.

Freediving techniques can be used to further enhance your breathing and air consumption. Freedivers have perfected skills of efficiently re-oxygenating the body and managing your breathing underwater.

There are also a number of techniques for swimming underwater without using unnecessary energy, which you can use on almost any dive.

Would you ever dive without a tank to experience the underwater world or to enhance your scuba skills? Tell us in a comment below.


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Torben Lonne
Torben Lonne

It’s really one of the best benefits of skin diving 🙂 Thanks for sharing guys.


That is the way I do it in Southern California. I am able to SUP into the kelp beds offshore and slide right into underwater kelp forests without disturbing the sea life too much.


I live in Cyprus and have been snorkeling and skin diving for the last 11 years here. I once had a trip to the Gulf of Akaba in Jordan and had a few Scuba dives, it was amazing and would love to do it again but it’s a lot easier to keep a snorkel, mask and flippers in the car. My wife loves to go too… and the icing on the cake is now our 4 year old girl has a snorkeling addiction, which is cheaper and better than a games console!!! lol..


Yes. Most places include the equipment. I prefer no life vest as it gives you more freedom.

Sledge Abbamonte
Sledge Abbamonte

Having lived on the south shore of Long Island,NY my entire life I went from skin diving from an early age, to scuba. Now it seems, mostly due to time constrictions, I’ve come full circle and find myself skin diving again. Whenever I am out paddle boarding I always keep my mask and snorkel with me allowing me to dive in if I see something that looks interesting.

Derek Mcdoogle
Derek Mcdoogle

My family has been wanting to go on a tropical vacation for many years and this year we are trying to plan one. You mentioned that snorkeling is defined as an activity where the participants use full-foot fins, mask, snorkel, and possibly a buoyancy vest to help them remain afloat without strain. Do most snorkeling companies offer equipment to rent? Finding a place that offers snorkeling tours could be a good option.

Tony Holme
Tony Holme

I’m a new to diving but been diving without a tank for quite some time. I have been skin and free diving for years and are now opening by eyes to the tank. I’m glad I can use my free skills to get better at scuba.

Thanks, and I might have to bring my none diving gf on a snorkel, to show her the wonders.

Marton Scheller
Marton Scheller

I do both scuba diving and free/skin diving(I call it free diving but I don’t do it competitive) anyway, I’ve learned loads from skin diving that I use when scuba diving.

It gives me a sense of feel for my body, knowing my limits and strengths underwater is priceless. I’m also quite sure skin diving made me master my buoyancy in a completely different, but better, way.

Thanks for the clearing between skin and free diving. Great article!

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