Modern snorkeling can trace its roots back over 5,000 years of history. As technologies advanced through the ages, so too did efforts to explore the ocean’s depths.
Evidence from 3000 B.C. point to some of the earliest known free divers; sponge farmers in Crete. In a forerunner to the modern snorkel, ancient divers used hollow reeds to allow them to breathe while submerged in water.
Later efforts to pierce the ocean’s surface used more complicated equipment. An ancient bas-relief dating back to 900 B.C. shows Assyrian divers using animal skins filled with air, which they carried with them to increase the length of their dives. In 333 B.C. Alexander the Great encouraged the development of the first diving bell, a massive contraption designed to trap a pocket of air when it was lowered into the water. The bell allowed divers to take breaths without returning all the way to the surface of the water. By 1538, diving bell technology had advanced enough that two Greeks in Toledo, Spain, performed a demonstration in the Tagus river, using a large kettle to descend to the bottom of the river bed, and then surprising their audience by returning to the surface with dry clothes and a candle still burning.
Although the diving bell was useful for allowing people to remain below the surface for extended periods, it was rather limited in terms of mobility. Instead, attempts were made to allow the diver to breathe from the surface air. Aristotle mentions divers taking air from a tube connected to the surface, which he likened to the trunk of an elephant. Leonardo da Vinci included among his inventions several designs for diving apparatuses, from simple tubes leading to floats at the surface of the water to an almost completely self-contained diving suit. He even had a sketch for webbed swimming gloves, a forerunner of the modern fins.
Unfortunately, as people soon found out, tubes connecting a diver with the surface were of limited use. Water pressure below one or two feet quickly became too high for even the strongest pair of lungs to take a breath. In 1771, however, the invention of the air pump by British engineer John Smeaton opened up a whole new world of diving. By moving air through pressurized tubes, divers were soon able to descend to depths far greater than those previously possible. Soon, designs for pressurized suits and chambers were again feasible. This eventually led to the invention of the SCUBA system was invented, the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.
Modern technology has not only allowed for more complex and technical snorkeling equipment, it has also led to improvements in the most basic diving tools. Rubbers and plastics made possible snug fitting masks and goggles, while treated glass improved the diver’s safety. Materials were developed which could better withstand the corrosive ocean atmosphere and which allowed divers to better view the underwater arena. More efficient and easy to use snorkeling fins were developed to allow divers of all types to navigate the waters. Ultimately, these improvements in technology and equipment have made it that much easier to explore the ocean through snorkeling and free diving.