For the record, I have nothing against snorkels. Hell, I even use one…every single time I go snorkeling. I also make sure that, when diving in the ocean — or any body of water sufficiently large that I might find myself stuck on the surface some distance from the boat or shore — I have my trusty folding snorkel with me. At the very bottom of my thigh pocket. Below the safety tube, signal mirror, pocket mask and whistle (items I’m more likely to actually need under these circumstances). But to stick one on my mask? While scuba diving? Do I really look that stupid?
Nevertheless, according to the Giant Association of Scuba Professionals (GASP), if you dare to so much as set a toe in the water without one of these oversized adult toys strapped to your mask, you’ll most likely fall over dead within seconds. And let’s face it: These guys know what they’re talking about; some of them actually dive. A few even used to teach scuba.
There is just one catch: Why is it you almost never see dive boat captains or crew, or the instructors and divemasters who work in resorts, wearing what many have come to refer to as “dorkels?’ Let’s face; these guys are gals are diving every day. Their real-world diving experience vastly eclipses that of the typical training agency executive. You’d think that if dorkels were so damned essential, these would be the first people to wear them.
The big lie
Pick up almost any diving textbook. You’ll find a detailed explanation of why it is divers “need” a dorkel.
- Dorkels let you breathe on the surface without using air from your tank.
- They allow you to conserve air from your tank during long surface swims.
- If you surface after running out of air, or have to abandon your scuba unit at the surface, a dorkel may be essential for your survival.
That seems to make sense, doesn’t it? And it would, except for one little thing: As Penn and Teller would say, it’s all Bullshit.
So where did this notion come from, anyway?
To better understand the history of the dorkel and scuba diving, it helps to be a real dinosaur like me — someone who was diving back in the days before modern BCs (and when many divers didn’t even have BCs).
- Prior to 1980, the predominant BC was the horse collar. Patterned after an inflatable life jacket, it was basically a doughnut you stuck your head through. Unlike modern BCs, which function primarily as a tank harness and attachment point for weight system and other components, horse collar BCs could only be used for surface floatation or offsetting suit compression under water. Except that they did not do a particularly good job of doing either.
- The problem with horse collars is that, even fully inflated, they could never seem to get your head far enough out of the water to breathe comfortably. Nor would they allow you to breathe comfortably while swimming on your back. This pretty much limited you to swimming face down at the surface and made snorkels essential.
- In 1972, Watergill introduced the At-Pac, the first modern back-inflation BC. In 1977, Scubapro introduced the Stabilizing Jacket. In 1980, Seatec (remember them?) introduced the Bluefin, the first jacket-style BC that effectively got around Scubapro’s patent.
- After 1980, manufacturers couldn’t give away horse collar BCs. All people wanted were jackets (back-inflation BCs would not become as popular as they are now until 1995, with the advent of tech diving).
Once divers began using these more modern BCs, they quickly discovered that dorkels were no longer necessary. They could now easily float with their heads completely out of the water. This made it easy to breathe through their noses and mouths, instead of through a restricted airway that could easily double dead air space and increase CO2 buildup. They could now carry on conversations with their buddies and swim on their backs.
By eliminating a lot of the stress associated with being on the surface, modern BCs have done a lot to help make diving safer.
So why spend time at the surface anyway?
It’s no secret that diver training traces its roots to Southern California. At one time, three of the four major training agencies were based there. If you look at early diver training materials, you’ll see there is an implied assumption that all divers enter from a beach, crash through breaking surf, then make an extended surface swim out to the kelp beds.
These days, however, the vast majority of diving either takes place from boats, or from the shores of lakes, quarries or springs. For the most part, the type of long surface swims common in California just aren’t necessary. Despite this, diver training evolved in a way that implies spending considerable time resting or swimming a the surface is a normal part of diving.
- One of my favorite places to teach is Haigh Quarry in Kankakee, Illinois. A key feature of the quarry is the fact you can easily wade into waist-deep water along a wide entry road. After donning your fins, you just stick your head under water, drop over the side of the road and follow a steep bank down to a training platform at 20 feet. From there, you can follow any of a number of guidelines leading to dozens of underwater attractions. This make surface swimming unnecessary.
- Despite this, I’ve seen countless instructors at Haigh surface swim with their students up to 150 feet or more to a distant buoy before descending. There is no logical reason for this, other than that it imitates what instructors are forced to do when diving off California beaches. As a consequence, students end up thinking that being on the surface is “normal,” rather than something to be avoided.
In 2004, I was sitting at the bar at Cap’n Don’s in Bonaire. We were watching as two divers surfaced at the edge of the wall, some 200 feet from the end of the dock. Now here is what you need to know about Cap’n Don’s:
- Tied to the end of the dock is a big, thick rope, starting in about ten feet of water. The rope extends to the edge of the wall, sloping gradually to a depth of around 35 feet.
- At the wall, the line continues downward to the base of the wall, some 140 feet below.
- The line serves primarily as a navigational reference. You can swim up or down the wall, in either direction, and at any depth you choose. When it is time to come back, you can turn around and swim back either at the same depth or a shallower one; it doesn’t matter. When you hit the rope, you know it’s time to come up.
- The great thing about the rope is that, not only does it provide a visual reference, you can also pull yourself along using it. This requires a fraction of the energy that swimming with fins does.
- Smart divers will not only use the rope as something to hang on to during safety stops, but also as something with which to pull themselves back to the dock. Doing so not only requires less effort, it extends their safety stop time and helps keep divers away from boats passing over head. These longer safety stops and the lower exertion are both important things to do following deeper dives.
The divers we watched apparently did not get the memo about the rope. They surfaced as soon as the hit the top of the wall, then proceded to huff and puff as they struggled back to the dock, right through the middle of all the boat traffic. Now why would any diver do something that increases the risk of both being struck by a passing vessel and suffering DCS following a deep dive? That’s easy: This is how they were taught.
Implicit in the notion that you should always have a bulbous, tubular monstrosity dangling from your mask strap is the idea that long surface swims are a regular part of diving. In reality, other than diving some place like Southern California’s beaches, surface swims are something to avoided, and you should plan your dives so that you seldom, if ever, have to do them.
But isn’t it better to have a dorkel and not need it, than to need one and not have it?
This question assumes there is no down side in wearing a dorkel while scuba diving. In reality, there are many, many problems inherent in doing so — problems the major training agencies blithely ignore.
- Many new divers, when purchasing mask, dorkel and fins, allow themselves to be talked in the buying way more dorkel than they actually need. Then, when sticker shock sets in, they try to economize by purchasing cheaper, harder-to-kick fins. Duh! Fins are something you use 100 percent of the time. It makes sense to get the most efficient and, thus, easiest-to-kick ones you can afford. In contrast, a dorkel is something divers quickly discover they seldom — if ever — use. Spending any more on it than is absolutely necessary is foolish.
- Distraction is a contributing factor in many diving accidents, and there are few things more distracting than having an oversized adult toy constantly tugging and pulling on your mask. This is bad enough during normal dives; try it in the Gulf Stream and see what happens.
- One of the best ways to prevent mask loss is to wear your mask strap tucked under your hood. This has the added benefit of reducing the risk of getting the mask skirt caught on the lip of the hood, causing leaks. Unfortunately, you can only do this if you are not wearing a dorkel. Thus, wearing a dorkel increases the likelihood of mask leaks and mask loss.
- Having something sticking up above your head where you can’t see it increases the risk of entanglement in fishing net, monofilament and guidelines. In fact, the risk of entanglement is so great, dorkels are banned in cavern, cave and technical diving. Limiting yourself to recreational diving in open water does little to reduce this risk.
- The location, shape and size of many dorkels make them easy to confuse with a BC’s airway. I’ve witnessed a number of divers, plunging out of control, all the while trying desperately to inflate…their dorkel.
Incurring these risks might be one thing if they were offset by the benefits of always wearing a dorkel. Unfortunately, there are no benefits, except in the narrowest of circumstances.
C’mon! My training agency wouldn’t require these things if they weren’t essential for safety
And we know this to be true…why? Wait! I know. It’s because the people who work at the major training agencies are such knowledgeable and experienced divers…right?
Well, a few of them actually are. But, for the most part? Consider this:
- The head of one major training agency isn’t even a certified diver.
- Another large agency’s headquarters is located more than seven hours by car from the closest, year-round diving. And what that diving is isn’t anything at all like what most divers encounter.
- One of the largest agencies not only fails to require its key decision makers to actively dive and teach, it reportedly forbids them from teaching at all.
If you are not going to play the game, don’t be making the rules. As we said earlier, if you are looking for role-model guidance, don’t look to the major training organizations. Look instead, to the hard-working men and women who crew dive boats and staff dive resorts. They do this every day (and they leave their dorkels at home).
A true story
Once upon a time, there was This Guy. We’ll call him “Henry.” Henry was an experienced dive boat captain and instructor who happened to have a knack for writing and, especially, illustration. This got Henry a gig running the art department at…well, we’ll just call them the Giant Association of Scuba Professionals (GASP).
In those days, GASP was buying most of its photos from well-known photographers such as Stephen Frink, Jack McKinney and Rick Frehsee. Like most photographers, these gentlemen went to great lengths to recruit the most attractive underwater models they could find. And, having done so, the last thing they were going to do was ruin a model’s appearance by attaching a big, ugly dorkel to her mask.
Shortly after starting at GASP, Henry was standing in the hallway outside the door to the art department, having a conversation with his boss. At this point, another manager came up and said, “Hey! have you guys seen this?”
What “this” turned out to be was a letter from a rather myopic dive store owner which said, in essence, “How do you guys expect me to sell dildos — I mean dorkels — if you don’t show people wearing them?” (Gee, I don’t know…could it be the same way we expect you to sell dry suits to cold-water divers, despite the fact we don’t show people in the Caribbean using them?)
Clearly, this guy was an idiot. I mean, a snorkel has got to be one of the easiest sales ever. Yet this moron was claiming that, without his training agency showing everyone using one, he couldn’t sell them. Imbecile.
Nevertheless, The Boss turned to Henry and said, “From this point forward, we will not show any diver who is not wearing a dorkel.” And thus began GASP’s thirty-year-old obsession with shoving dorkels down our collective throats.
Note that, at no point during this discussion did the issue of diver safety ever come up. It was all about one retailer’s seeming inability to make a simple equipment sale.
“And now,” as Paul Harvey would say, “you know the rest of the story.”
Not all bad
As I said going in, I really don’t have anything against snorkels. After all, it’s tough to go snorkeling or freediving without one. Okay, I may not take one when diving in springs or other small bodies of water. Nevertheless, if I’m in a situation where I could be stuck on the surface for several hours, you can bet I’ll have one with me — along with even more essential items such as my SMB, whistle, signal mirror and pocket mask.
It’s worth noting, at this point, exactly why I would want a snorkel with me under those circumstances. It is not, as some might expect, so that I can continue breathing in the event of BC failure or the need to abandon my scuba unit. The only way I could end up in that position is if I was dumb enough not to wear a wet suit.
Wet suits are among the most overlooked pieces of safety equipment out there. I won’t dive without one, even if it’s just a one-piece 3 mm jumpsuit. There are several reasons for this:
- Unless the water is warmer than 88° F (which it almost never is), your body will be losing heat if wearing little more than a rash guard or skin. Water in the mid-80s may not seem cold enough to justify wearing a wet suit…until you’ve been stuck in it for several hours. Then it may become a matter of survival.
- Even the thinnest of wet suits provide a variety of benefits beyond warmth. They help protect against stings and abrasions. Full-length suits help keep your feet off the bottom. Out of the water, they help protect agains sunburn.
- Perhaps the greatest benefit of wearing a wet suit, from a survival-at-sea standpoint, is that it provides reserve buoyancy that can’t be punctured, deflated or lost.
With my 3 mm suit on, I can easily float in salt water without having to resort to a snorkel to breathe. Which begs the question, “If you don’t need a snorkel in order to breathe, why bother to bring one?” That’s easy. A snorkel allows me to look down periodically to see what sort of toothy friends may have come by to join me.
And that, folks, is the real reason I won’t go in the ocean without my trusty snorkel. I just won’t stick it on my mask unless I’m actually going to be breathing from it.
The folding wonder
“This is my snorkel. There are many like it, but this one is mine.”
As any United States Marine knows, I’m paraphrasing the Rifleman’s Creed here…but this particular one is my snorkel. I’ve owned many snorkels over the past four decades, but this one is, by far, the best. Among its features:
- Smaller-than-average to start with, it folds into an even more compact package that fits easily into the bottom of my emergency pocket.
- It’s simple. There are no purge valves, baffles, bulges or sharp bends. Not surprisingly, it breathes easier than many, more complex snorkels.
- It’s an excellent freediving snorkel. Unlike most snorkels, which have a drain valve at the bottom, you can actually do an effective displacement clear with this one.
- Finally, this snorkel did not set me back nearly $70. I paid less than half that much at my local, full-service dive center. If I was a new diver, that’s money I could put toward a better-quality pair of fins — something I might actually use.
Based on my experience as a dive boat captain, the only people who would benefit from larger, more complex (and vastly more expensive) snorkels are people whose sole in-water activity is snorkeling. They may genuinely appreciate the self-drains, dry valves and corrugated lower sections.
However, unless you are among those exceedingly rare scuba divers who lives in an area where long surface swims are common — and you prefer to do so face down — you are better off sticking with something simpler that will fit in your pocket.
Put the money you’ll save toward a decent pair of fins. That’s an investment you won’t regret.
What should you do?
At this point, you may be thinking that this is all well and good, but:
- “I was taught that good divers always wear a dorkel.”
- “My training agency makes me wear a dorkel.”
- “One of our local dive boat captains insists on people having dorkels.”
Let’s address these issues one at a time.
- The fact it’s in a textbook, or your instructor said (or was forced to say) it, doesn’t make it right. Trust me; I’ve written enough diver training materials to know. For a more accurate indication of reality, just look at what your dive guides and other experienced divers do. Odds are, unless they are teaching and bound by archaic training agency standards, they will not be wearing dorkels.
- If you read your training standards closely, you will most likely discover they say that students and instructors must have dorkels, not that they must dangle from masks straps. Get a folding snorkel, stick it in your pocket and forget about what people like the certified nondivers at GASP say.
- Fortunately, dive boat crews who hold unrealistic attitudes toward dorkels are rare (in fact, experienced divers like these are the ones most likely to go without dorkels.). Still, you occasionally run into one of the few remaining dinosaurs — like the one who gave a Facebook buddy of mine a hard time, even though he was carrying a closed-circuit rebreather, two OC bailout bottles and a deco cylinder. Lets face it: If you are diving from a boat, you really should have a snorkel…folded up and in your pocket with your other emergency gear. However, in the unlikely event someone insisted on you actually wearing it, it’s time to get off the boat. These people are so out of touch as to be dangerous.
Hopefully, this admittedly lengthy discussion of dorkels has either helped open your eyes or reinforced what you’ve already seen everyone else is doing. At the very least, it should make you think.
Feel free to leave a comment below so that I can either praise your good judgment or ridicule your pigheadedness in front of others (after all, it’s my blog).