Scuba Diving/Snorkeling

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Humans have long sought ways to extend the time they could spend underwater and the depth to which they could descend. Accounts of using long hollow reeds as snorkels, or breathing tubes, date to the first century a.d. Breathing tubes were ineffective at depths of more than three feet because of the force needed to exchange the air in the tube. It was not until 1535 that Guglielmo de Loreno found a way to provide a source of air at greater depth. He developed the diving bell that, when lowered into the water, trapped air inside of it. The diver was able to breathe underwater by keeping his head inside the bell.

Over the next 400 years, diving equipment evolved slowly. Developments included air pumps that could force air into diving bells, air tanks filled with compressed air delivered from a surface hose, and self-contained diving rigs that used compressed oxygen. Diving was of great interest to naval forces, and the Royal Navy established the first diving school in 1843. As experimentation with diving continued, risks associated with time submerged and depth were better understood. Decompression sickness, or the bends, was first reported in 1843, but no explanation for its cause, or how to avoid it, was presented until 1878.

Snorkeling equipment—consisting of face mask, fins, and snorkel—was in common use by the mid-1930s. The snorkel is a curved tube hollow tube that when placed in the mouth allows a swimmer to breath while facedown in the water. True scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) was developed in 1943 by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan. They designed the Aqua Lung by piecing together a demand-valve regulator, hoses, a mouthpiece, and a pair of portable tanks filled with compressed air. This development opened the door for recreational, or sport, diving.

Scuba diving began to gain popularity as a recreational activity in the United States in the 1950s. The Web site for the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) reports that in the early years of scuba diving, the Aqua Lung was sold to anyone who could afford it. Often the extent of training was a warning "not to hold your breath." There were few formal training opportunities available to recreational divers. Books such as The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau, and the television series Sea Hunt, added to the popularity of scuba diving. As participation increased, concerns grew over safety. NAUI was formed in 1960, and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) was formed in 1966, both with the purpose of training and certifying recreational divers.

Advances in equipment, such as buoyancy-control devices and dive computers, have made diving much safer, and its popularity continues to grow. The Sports Business Research Network Web site reports an estimated 500,000 new divers are certified in the United States each year, with about 2 million people participating in diving each year. Divers are primarily between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five, and male divers outnumber females by about two to one. The proliferation of dive magazines, dive computers, dive vacations, and dive equipment has created a multibillion dollar industry.

Snorkeling is enjoyed by people of all ages because it provides a glimpse of the underwater world without requiring participants to undergo training or purchase expensive equipment. Over 5 million people engage in snorkeling each year. As with scuba diving, snorkeling is most popular with individuals aged twenty-five to fortyfive, however, male participants only slightly outnumber females.

What Is Recreational Diving?

Recreational diving is defined as diving that uses only compressed air as the breathing mixture, is never done solo, does not exceed a depth of 130 feet, has a depth-time profile not requiring decompression, and does not require training beyond the basic open-water courses. However, increasing numbers of recreational divers are engaging in what has been defined as technical diving: in caves, under ice, at depths greater than 130 feet, using various gas mixtures (for example, nitrox), wreck diving, and so on. As a result, the distinction between recreational diving and technical diving is blurring.

Where People Dive and Snorkel

Scuba divers may be found in almost any place where there is water. Saltwater divers explore shipwrecks, caves, fish life, and reefs; spearfish, catch lobster, and take underwater photographs all along the coastline of the United States from Maine to the Florida Keys, throughout the Gulf of Mexico, from Baja California to Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska. These environments differ greatly in water temperature, visibility, currents, marine life, and objects of interest. Freshwater divers can be found in lakes, rivers, flooded quarries and mines, grottos, and springs, from Florida to Alaska, in the Great Lakes, and in the Dakotas. As with saltwater diving, environmental conditions vary greatly from setting to setting. Divers in salt and fresh waters encounter water temperatures from just above freezing to over eighty degrees Fahrenheit, and visibility from a few inches to over one hundred feet. In contrast, snorkelers tend to gravitate to clear warm waters with marine life to be seen at depths of less than thirty feet. Although Florida and Hawaii attract the greatest numbers of snorkelers, they may also be found in a variety of aquatic settings.

Environmental Issues

Protection of underwater areas Until the 1970s, there was little awareness of the damage divers and snorkelers were doing to coral by touching it and removing pieces as mementos. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida, established in 1960, was the first under-water park in the United States. The park was established to protect a portion of the coral reef in the Florida Keys. Snorkelers and divers, who were collecting excessive amounts of coral, conch, and tropical fish, were damaging the natural conditions. The purpose of Coral Reef State Park is to provide public outdoor recreation. Park managers seek to maintain a balance between preserving natural conditions and providing recreation opportunities.

In 1975, the first National Marine Sanctuary was established to protect marine areas. Some sanctuary activities are regulated or controlled, however, multiple uses, including recreation, are encouraged. Since 1975, twelve other sites have been designated as marine sanctuaries.

Numerous underwater parks, at state and national levels, have been established to preserve and protect reefs and other marine life. Efforts are resulting in the resurgence of some species, better-educated divers, and less removal of marine life and artifacts from shipwrecks and other sites.

Dive clubs often team with agencies such as the National Park Service for the underwater cleanup of lakes, rivers, and other underwater sites. These efforts benefit the agency and environment while offering divers a different diving experience, sometimes providing access to areas that are usually off limits.

Artificial reefs Artificial reefs, which are made of concrete, rock, obsolete military aircraft, oil rigs, cars, and other hard surface materials, are being created along coastlines to provide habitat for marine life. They have been criticized as being little more than ocean landfills, as there are no established guidelines for what constitutes an artificial reef. Many artificial reefs are unstable and may be pushed by storms onto living reefs or beaches. Sport fishers and divers support the development of artificial reefs because they attract fish. Environmentalists have not been convinced that the reefs actually increase fish populations rather than relocating them from other sites. However, recent research indicates that properly constructed reefs comprised of concrete do increase fish populations, according to Vernon Minton, director of the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Placement of concrete artificial reefs can create dive sites in areas where none now exist.

See also: Beaches, Swimming, Tourism


Bailey, Ronald. "Reef Madness: How Alabama Fishermen Are Repopulating the Sea." Reason (October 2001): 42–45.

Cousteau, Jacques Yves. The Silent World. New York: Harper 1953.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Available from

Martin, Lawrence. Scuba Diving Explained: Questions and Answers on Physiology and Medical Aspects. Flagstaff, Ariz.: Best Publishing Company, 1997.

National Association of Underwater Instructors. "A Short History of NAUI." Available from

National Marine Sanctuary. Available from

"Scuba History." Available from

Kim L. Siegenthaler