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Scuba Diving Vs Snorkeling Which Is Better? Pros And Cons Of Each (Great Barrier Reef Case Study)

The Great Barrier Reef is one of those things you always hear about in nature documentaries or science classes; I didn’t think I would actually have the opportunity to see it for myself. 

When I started planning my Australia trip and realised I would be in Cairns for a few days, I couldn’t help but schedule a day out to the Great Barrier Reef and see it for myself!

The big question was, should I snorkel or scuba dive on the famous GBR? If like me you’re not sure which one to go for, this is the article to help you decide!

I’ve teamed up with other awesome travel bloggers to outline all the advantages and disadvantages of each.

We hope to help you unravel the scuba diving vs snorkelling debate, and make an informed decision of what to do on the Great Barrier Reef.

Some beautiful corals that you can see when scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia - Photo by Kristoffer Trondsen on Scopio

Some beautiful corals that you can see when scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia – Photo by Kristoffer Trondsen on Scopio

What is scuba diving?

Scuba diving is a sport that through the use of air tanks allows you to basically breathe under water.

Humans have always been fascinated with the mysteries of the deep blue and by scuba diving we can explore it and feel like we are a part of it.

Even if you scuba dive in a tropical destination you will usually scuba dive with a wet suit since the temperatures drop as you deeper underwater. You will also be given a belt with weights to help you swim deeper.

Scuba diving has become increasingly popular around the world and is considered one of the few ways to really experience and explore all the deep blue was to offer.

Scuba diving in the Watamu Marine National Park

Scuba diving in the Watamu Marine National Park

Advantages of scuba diving

I love all forms of water sports so when I’ve had the opportunity to scuba dive before, in Kenya and Thailand, I couldn’t say no.

This time with the Great Barrier Reef however I wasn’t so sure about scuba diving and wanted to weigh all the pros and cons before deciding whether to scuba dive or snorkel.

While the scenarios of these suggestions is specific to the GBR, a lot of the points they raise are valid for snorkelling and scuba diving elsewhere around the world too.

You avoid the rough surface waters

“The Great Barrier Reef stretches from just a few kilometers to over 50km off the coast of North Queensland. The more distant parts of the reef, such as Saint Crispin and Agincourt Reefs, are referred to as the outer reef. 

The further you head out from Queensland’s coast, the more untouched the coral reefs are, and rougher the water surface gets.

If you have ever snorkeled in rough water, you will know how unpleasant it is getting a wave of salty water down your breathing pipe.

Scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, photo by The Lost Passport

Scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, photo by The Lost Passport

However, as you dive underwater to a depth of 20 meters or further, the rough water surface conditions have next to no effect.

Scuba diving is more affected by the direction and strength of the water currents, which with a good instructor will be used to your benefit to save oxygen.

For these reasons, scuba diving is definitely the better option for exploring the outer Great Barrier Reef.”

– recommendation by Josh of The Lost Passport

Scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, photo by The Lost Passport

Scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, photo by The Lost Passport

You can experience a live-aboard dive boat

“After visiting the Great Barrier Reef multiple times, both snorkelling and diving, my top recommendation is to head to the Outer Reef and stay on a live-aboard dive boat.

The Outer Reef offers the best reef viewing opportunities, but it usually takes about 90 minutes to get there, meaning you spend a lot of your day on a boat transfer, rather than in the water.

By staying on a live-aboard, you get to spend 2, 3 or more full days out on the reef. Plus you’ll get the chance to do at least one night dive – a not to be missed opportunity! 

While some live-aboard boats accept snorkelling guests, it’s best if you’re a diver, with the locations selected with divers in mind.

And if you’re not yet certified, you can combine your trip with doing your open-water certification.”

– recommendation by Shandos of Travelnuity

Great Barrier Reef, photo by Travelnuity

Great Barrier Reef, photo by Travelnuity

You can go deeper and “see more”

This advantage of diving that all keen scuba divers push is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Supposedly by being able to go deeper you can “see more”.

I’m not sure what you see more of since fish, corals, turtles and dolphins are all visible also near the surface.

However you can’t deny that while scuba diving you are indeed able to swim deeper and for longer as you the surface waves won’t bother you.

Enroute to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns, Australia

Enroute to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns, Australia

Disadvantages of scuba diving

Having listed all the amazing benefits of scuba diving, it’s time to look at the negative aspects of it.

You can’t do it if you’re flying in the next 24 hours

As you might or might not know you shouldn’t scuba dive if you’re catching a flight in the next 24 hours. This because as you increase in altitude (as you would on a plane) it can increase the risk of decompression sickness.

After scuba diving you might have a few tiny air bubbles in your body, which don’t cause any issues at ground level, however if you fly these small bubbles can expand and cause decompression sickness.

This is an easily avoidable disadvantage as you can simply schedule your dives well in advance of your flights.

A blue starfish I was while snorkelling on the GBR

A blue starfish I was while snorkelling on the GBR

You can’t do it if you have asthma or other medical problems

One of my friends I visited the GBR with had pre-booked a scuba diving tour beforehand and then wasn’t allowed to dive on the day when they found out he had asthma.

He ended up only snorkelling despite having paid the premium for scuba diving. If you have asthma or other medical issues you should check before booking a scuba diving tour.

Often if you book it online or at a tourist stand they might not have all the information, and you will only find out once you are on the boat and the diving instructors don’t let you in the water.

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Let’s be real, the compressed air tastes shit

Every time I’ve been scuba diving I leave with a foul taste in my mouth and a rather sore throat.

The air you breathe from the tanks obviously isn’t the same as normal air, it’s compressed air that has been filtered and dehumidified.

This isn’t really a big disadvantage as it doesn’t have side effects on you other than the unpleasant taste it leaves behind, it’s just something to bear in mind if you’re never been diving and do 2+ dives in the same day.

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

What is snorkelling?

Snorkelling is swimming with a mask and tube (called a snorkel) that you put in your mouth, which allows you to breathe through your mouth as you swim near the surface of the water.

You won’t be able to go as deep as when you scuba dive but it’s much easier and anybody can do it.

Snorkelling in the Malindi Marine National Park

Snorkelling in the Malindi Marine National Park

Advantages of snorkelling

Now that we’ve looked at the pros and cons of scuba diving, it’s time to look at its competitor; snorkelling.

During my Australia East Coast road trip I only snorkelled on the GBR, as I was put off scuba diving by my last dive.

Even if I didn’t go as deep I still had a great experience, here are the advantages of snorkelling in my opinion.

Anybody can do it

Regardless of your fitness level, as long as you can float and more or less know how to swim, you can snorkel. You just need a mask and snorkel and you’re good to go.

There is no risk of decompression sickness and you’re not entrusting your life to an oxygen tank strapped to your back. If you’re not a big sea lover it’s definitely the easier option to choose.

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Disadvantages of snorkelling

Similarly to scuba diving, snorkelling has advantages but also disadvantages. In my opinion the only things that actually penalise snorkelling relative to scuba diving are the following.

You can’t go as deep

Personally I don’t think this is a big disadvantage of snorkelling. If you’re new to scuba diving on your first dive you won’t be allowed to go deeper than 10 metres.

On all my previous dives I found that what you can see at 10 metres isn’t massively different from what you can see on the surface.

Animals like turtles and dolphins need to come up to the surface to breath anyway, so if anything you have a better chance to see them more while snorkelling than scuba diving.

Obviously this doesn’t apply if you’re a qualified diver that can go beyond 10 metres, as in that case the marine flora and fauna does vary from the surface.

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Scuba Diving vs. Snorkelling: Which is better?

So you’ve read all the pros and cons of both snorkelling and scuba diving and now you’re probably wondering, which is better? The answer to that is that only you can know and decide for yourself.

I personally prefer snorkelling, as I dislike the feeling of breathing compressed air and as I’m not a certified diver I can’t go as deep.

On all my previous dives I never saw anything at 10 metres that I wouldn’t have been able to see while snorkelling.

On the other hand I have friends that absolutely love diving and would never pick snorkelling over it. You need to weigh the pros and cons of each and make an informed decision for yourself.

Looking fabulous while snorkelling on the GBR in my stinger suit

Looking fabulous while snorkelling on the GBR in my stinger suit

Final thoughts on scuba diving vs snorkelling

Have you visited the Great Barrier Reef before? How did you find it? Did you snorkel or scuba dive? Let me know in the comments below!

Regardless of whether you decide to snorkel or scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef is a stunning natural beauty and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I definitely recommend paying it a visit!

If you need help planning your Great Barrier Reef trip, check out these guides about the best places to dive on the GBR and how to pick the best Great Barrier Reef tour.

Looking for more Australia travel tips? Check out these guides:

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Photo collage of a person scuba diving and one snorkelling with text overlay saying "scuba diving vs snorkeling on the GBR"

Photo of a person scuba diving with text overlay saying "snorkel vs scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef"

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Donney Bibb

Saturday 3rd of July 2021

Unpleasant taste of compressed air? Maybe you got a bad air fill. The air is dry so the inside of the tank won't corrode, but it doesn't taste bad.

Many or most snorkeling operations require you to wear a vest, so you are basically limited to snorkeling in the surface. You definitely see much more with scuba.

A doctor can evaluate whether individuals who had asthma should dive.

Individuals that want to dive should get certified before their trip.

Susanna

Thursday 1st of July 2021

Very silly article. If you're not certified then of course it's better to snorkel. The whole point of scuba is to go deep. Also if your air tasted bad then there is potentially a serious/dangerous problem where exhaust or something may have contaminated the air.

Ian

Wednesday 16th of June 2021

That was a terrible article. You really don't know much about scuba diving at all and clearly haven't done much diving g or even snorkelling before.