The History Of Snorkeling

History of Snorkeling

As the popularity of snorkeling grows, so does our curiosity of where the activity originated.

Who must we pay homage to for our epic underwater experiences? Because if it weren’t for the gear we use to explore the big blue playground, we wouldn't be able to obtain these experiences at all.

So I must know, who were the first pioneers to see clearly below the surface, what drove them to brave the big blue, and how did it progress into the activity it is today? Well after diving into some research I’ve found some answers.

What came first, the snorkel or the mask?

Alright let’s go back 3000 years before Christ.  The first case of people using an instrument to aid them with air while underwater were the sponge farmers from the island of Crete.  They created the first snorkel by hollowing out reeds to help them collect natural sponges for trade.   So the snorkel was first designed as a tool for harvesting, and was seen again circa 500 BC by the Greeks in times of warfare.  During the Persian war, Greeks would use their reed snorkels to remain unobserved while obstructing the Persian army’s naval fleet by cutting their enemy ships moorings.  Fast forward to 320 AD and you begin seeing the Chinese use of animal horns as snorkels. These horns were a more accommodating design for the participant as there was a curve to the horn which helped the snorkeler keep their head horizontal in the water.  We don’t see improvements made to the snorkel until 14th century when Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches are observed. His designs show flexible snorkels with bends to them. As we make our way up the timeline to the 1930’s, spearfishing becomes a popular sport in France and so did the demand for aluminum curved snorkels.  Which led us to the three types of snorkels you can aquire today, the classic snorkel, semi dry and dry snorkels.  

Now the Greek’s hollowed out reeds didn’t come equipped with a snorkel keeper and a dive mask like the snorkels at your local dive shop.  The first documentation of a dive mask doesn’t come until after many prototypes of the swim goggles.  The first to come up with goggles were the Persians. During the 14th century, Persians used layers of polished tortoise shells to construct the first pairs of swim goggles in order to dive for pearls.  It is also written by Da Vinci that they were using breathing tubes made of leather with rings so that the water would not close them up. Then in 18th century, Polynesians developed wooden frames with glass set inside them in order to see more clearly.  Although these goggles did not prevent water from seeping in, they still provided a clearer visual underwater. We are getting even closer to a more practical swim goggle with the use of motorcycle goggles by Tom Burgesses. In 1912 he swam the English Channel using them, but they were not sealed tight against his face and the water.  In 1926 Gertrude Ederle also swam the English Channel but her sister added parafin to motorcycle goggles in order to seal out the water from getting into her eyes. When goggling (same as snorkeling but with goggles versus snorkel mask) became more popular during the 1930’s, swim goggles were not a practical design anymore as water would enter the participants nose while engaging in the sport.  This led to the invention of the oval mask.  It wasn’t until the Cousetea era that you begin seeing masks with neoprene nosepockets like the divemasks we use for snorkeling today.

Were not FINished

Now that we know where masks and snorkels emerged from, it’s time to see how swim fins came to be apart of the snorkel package.  Well when it comes to great inventors in American history what are some popular names you can think of, does Benjamin Franklin come to mind?   At age 11 he tied two oval paddles to his hands and began to use them for swimming. Yet his wrists would get tired so he decided to put them on his feet.  He wrote about this expeirence in 1773, “When a youth, I made two oval pallets, each about ten inches long, and six broad, with a hole for the thumb, in order to retain it fast in the palm of my hand. They much resembled a painter's pallets. In swimming I pushed the edges of these forward, and I struck the water with their flat surfaces as I drew them back. I remember I swam faster by means of these pallets, but they fatigued my wrists. I also fitted to the soles of my feet a kind of sandals, but I was not satisfied with them, because I observed that the stroke is partly given by the inside of the feet and the ankles, and not entirely with the soles of the feet..”  Leonardo Da Vinci also mentions use of paddles for the hands but not the feet.  It wasn’t until aquatic military training in France circa 1900 we hear about Louis de Corlieu’s “propulseurs de natation et de sauvetage” (swimming and rescue propulsion device).  While trying to gain popularity in marketing of his swim fins, Louis liscense his design to Owen Churchill to begin producing his fins in the states during 1939. The Chruchill fins design are so efficient they still remain unchanged and can be purchased today.

Snorkeling in Clear Water
Churchill Swimfin

Snorkel Package

It is interesting to see how the snorkel, dive mask and swim fins all came together.  These inventions were developed in times of warfare and the need for hunting and gathering.  Recreational snorkeling doesn’t truly show up until the 1960’s. When diving becomes advertised as an activity for almost anyone.  Now we see people snorkeling mostly for observing their natural world as a means for eco tourism.  The world of snorkeling has come a long way.  I know that I snorkel to photograph the beauty of our underwater world and observe all the biodiversity it beholds.  The question is, are you ready to make snorkeling apart of your history?

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