Early History of Snorkeling

As you head out on an exciting Key West snorkel adventure, it’s intriguing to think back to the days when use of a tube to breathe under water was part of ancient life from battle maneuvering to fishing. From the ancient Greeks to the warrior Phoenicians, the history of man’s desire to explore the world beneath the evolved from the practicality of seeking food to today’s exploding leisure industry of snorkeling and scuba diving.

Earliest Snorkelers

Thought to be the earliest mention of snorkeling, the Greek philosopher Aristotle mentioned the practice in his study “Parts of the Animals”, where he refers to divers as using “instruments for respiration” resembling an elephant’s trunk.

The very earliest snorkelers were thought to be sponge farmers on the Grecian island of Crete some 5,000 years ago who used hollow tubes to allow breathing while they kept their faces in the water to free-dive for sponges. Archeologists studying Assyrian bas-relief paintings from 900 B.C. have identified figures using air-filled animal skins as a crude form of diving tank, allowingn exploration further beneath the sea. Snorkels also found their use in the ancient world’s military action. Around 500 B.C., historian Herodotus tells of Scyllis, a Greek who escaped a Persian ship undetected by using a hollow reed as a snorkel and then proceeded to cut the entire Persian fleet adrift.

Invention of the Diving Bell

Legendary conqueror Alexander the Great made a huge advance in man’s ability to explore the vast uncharged regions beneath the sea with his invention of the diving bell around 300 B.C.. This large apparatus, designed to bring a person to the bottom of the sea while holding sufficient air for breathing on the journey, worked but was too heavy and cumbersome for practical use. Some two thousand years later in 1530, two Greek inventors vastly improved on Alexander’s bell . Much to the amazement of onlookers, a large, air-filled kettle with two divers and a lit candle onboard was lowered to the bottom of Spain’s Tagus River and returned to the surface with dry divers and the candle still lit.

Need for Mobility

Although the diving bell allowed for breathing underwater for extended periods of time, it was far too big and clumsy for the mobility required for undersea exploring. Then, in the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci is credited with the invention of the first modern snorkel, a hollow tube which he fashioned to be attached to the diver’s leather helmet. Da Vinci also created a self-contained diving suit and webbed swimming gloves similar to those worn by SCUBA divers today.

Invention of the Air Pump

Though snorkel tubes were improving, their use often proved impractical for diving more than two feet below the surface, as at this point water pressure made it impossible to take a breath. Undersea explorers needed a way to get deeper into the ocean. In 1771, engineer and inventor John Smeaton came up with the first pressurized air pump. Wearing this device, consisting of pressurized tubes assisted by an air pump, divers were now able to venture deeper beneath the sea for longer periods of time. The pump was the forerunner of the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, or SCUBA.