What is the Difference Between Skin and SCUBA Diving?

26 October 1998

You might say that the biggest difference between skin and SCUBA diving is air.

A North Carolina Aquariums SCUBA diver shows young visitors what it’s like to be underwater.

When you skin dive, you’re limited to how long you can stay underwater by the amount of air you can hold in your lungs. When SCUBA diving, you carry a supply with you so you can stay down longer.

Skin diving is also referred to as free diving, breath-hold diving or sometimes snorkeling. A skin diver uses a face mask to see underwater, fins for propulsion and a snorkel.

The snorkel is a tube that is attached to the strap of the mask which allows the diver to breathe without raising his or her head completely out of the water. When using a snorkel, skin divers can float almost effortlessly on the surface of the water or they can dive down underneath the surface and swim until they need to come up for air. Several techniques can be used to clear the water out of the snorkel so that the diver can breathe through it without getting a mouthful of water. With a little practice, anyone who is a confident swimmer can master these techniques.

While SCUBA divers also use masks, fins and snorkels, they also carry tanks of compressed air on their backs. This allows the diver to stay underwater much longer than the skin diver who is just holding his or her breath.

SCUBA stands for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. A complete SCUBA unit consists not only of the air tanks, but a regulator and a buoyancy compensator as well. The air in the tank is supplied to the diver through the regulator, which reduces the high pressure inside the tank to that of the surrounding underwater pressure. That makes the air in the tank breathable. Attached to the regulator is a submersible pressure gauge and a depth gauge. The pressure gauge indicates the amount of air in the tank while the depth gauge charts the diver’s depth. The buoyancy compensator is a vest-like device that helps the SCUBA diver float effortlessly through the water without sinking or floating to the surface. SCUBA divers also wear weight belts which compensate for their own natural buoyancy and help them stay underwater. Skin divers sometimes will use weights as well.

You’ve probably seen pictures of SCUBA divers who are wearing snorkels attached to their masks, despite the fact are carrying air tanks. SCUBA divers use snorkels when they are on the surface and want to conserve the air in their tanks before descending underwater. Snorkels also come in handy after a dive, when swimming back to a dive boat or to shore on the surface of the water.

SCUBA divers must understand the effects of pressure on the body and how to deal with them in order to dive safely. Unlike skin diving or snorkeling, SCUBA diving requires certification in order to purchase or rent gear or receive other diving related services. Most dive shops offer certification classes, and they may even be available through your local college, university or YMCA.

SCUBA was invented by the late oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Without its development, we wouldn’t know nearly as much as we do about the ocean. Both skin and SCUBA diving are wonderful ways to explore the underwater world and learn more about the creatures that live in it.