Snorkeling is a recreational activity that allows us to explore the wonders of marine life in its natural state. A predecessor of modern scuba diving, snorkeling can be traced back to (at least) the Ancient Greeks. The first mention of snorkeling is a written account of Aristotle, who supposedly had the idea when he witnessed an elephant using its trunk to breathe when submerged in water.
Enjoyed by many, it is a fun activity in its own right but can also be part of another activity such as spearfishing, scuba diving, and other underwater sports. However, many people are unable to use a snorkel properly and may find it difficult to control their breath this way.
Although it is possible to snorkel in any type of water, it is more likely that people will snorkel if there is something near the surface that is worth exploring. Snorkeling locations are usually no deeper than 13 feet. Locations that require the swimmer to hold their breath to dive and explore are considered more difficult and demand a higher fitness level from snorkelers.
Recently, some crowdfunded companies designed a small air tank, much like the one used for scuba diving. The idea is that it would help snorkelers in breathing underwater while being lightweight enough for swimming close to the surface. Much controversy surrounds these “mini air tanks”, but are they good or bad?
What Are Mini Air Tanks?
They are exactly as described, a smaller air tank that can be used for snorkeling to provide breathable air to swimmers while underwater. They are more lightweight than a traditional air tank used in scuba diving. Their intended use is to help people snorkel for a longer period of time without tiring or running out of breath.
Of course, as with any novel idea, there are some benefits, but the products need to develop more to comply with safety standards and be considered for regular use. The diving community has generally condemned the use of these products, many voicing their disapproval and the many safety concerns.
Benefits Of Using Mini Air Tanks
Before we list the various problems and safety precautions that are associated with using these devices, let’s play devil’s advocate and check out the benefits of their use. They are an innovative solution that came from people’s love for snorkeling, so there must be something to them.
● Longer Snorkeling Time
This one’s an apparent advantage of using a mini air tank. Users can easily stay with their heads underwater for longer periods of time. In theory, a snorkeler with a mini air tank needs only to bob their head out when the air runs out of the tank.
● No Need For Training
Scuba diving courses are costly and difficult for some people. There is no need to attend a scuba diving course with a mini air tank because they are meant to be used by the general public and supposedly have a user-friendly design.
As the name suggests, these air tanks are small enough to carry in a travel bag. This makes them ideal for travelers who love to snorkel in different locations around the world. Because they can carry it in their luggage, there is no need to rent an air tank, making them cost-effective as well.
Currently, there are only two models of mini air tanks that are commercially available. Both these startup companies were funded and backed by crowdfunding on websites such as Kickstarter. The amount of money raised shows the existing demand for these products in the market.
The first truly crowdfunded mini air tank, this model popularized the idea for a mini air tank. Money raised through Kickstarter reached a total of 1.3 Australian Dollars, much higher than their initial budget of 70,000 Australian Dollars.
It works much like a scuba system, only on a smaller scale. It boasts many features, most notably that it can be refilled easily. Using a scuba tank, a quick 30 seconds is enough to refill the Snorkel. Otherwise, the kit comes with a manual pump that takes around 15 minutes to pump air into the tank and fill it up. This enables snorkelers to increase their snorkeling time further because if they run out of water, they can simply refill the tank and continue.
Two sizes are offered, one holding about 17 ounces of air and a larger option that can handle 20 ounces. Due to its lighter weight, the tank can be carried entirely by the mouthpiece. It has a regulator in the mouthpiece that is always blowing air, unlike a scuba regulator that can be turned on and off.
Instructions from the manufacturer state that although diving down to depths of 20 meters is possible, it is recommended to stay within the 10-meter range for maximum efficiency and safety. This is not a very big improvement for the average snorkeler because it is almost similar to the depths that an average person can handle without the use of an air tank. The difference is, using the Snorkel, people can stay for slightly longer periods at the surface of the water, with their head submerged.
Although the crowdfunding for this product was much lower than that for the Snorkel, it did raise a large amount (twice the budget). Reports show that they were able to raise 60,000 GBP to fund the project through crowdfunding websites.
This mini air tank allows for snorkeling around for around 10 minutes, but instead of being carried by the mouthpiece, it is hung from the neck and supported by a chest harness. The design might not be sleek, but it is easier to carry around and harder to lose when you’re swimming.
MiniDive Pro is also refillable, offering four separate mechanisms for filling them. The manual pump gives high-pressure air, and the tank can also be filled by an electric compressor, scuba diving compressor, or directly from a scuba tank (using an adaptor).
Its distinguishing feature is that new tanks can easily be screwed on, so in theory, you can buy several air tanks and simply switch them according to your convenience. This can also be a way of controlling the air quality by already having the tanks full of clean compressed air from a scuba diving shop.
Drawbacks Of Using A Mini Air Tank
Assuming that all safety precautions are taken, there are still a few drawbacks of using small air tanks for snorkeling. The first disadvantage being that swimmers are restricted to the surface more or less. The air tank is buoyant, and diving to even shallow depths can be difficult for many.
The air quality used in mini air-tanks cannot always be controlled, especially when using a manual or electric pump. Compared to compressed air used by scuba divers, there are much lower standards set here, which can be discomforting for some people.
They may be lightweight, but models that are carried using a mouthpiece can get very tiring very quickly. Even if they are hung from the chest, swimming with them attached to the front of the body can be uncomfortable (as opposed to a scuba tank that usually goes on the back of a diver, out of their way.)
Snorkeling is not the same as scuba diving, as the latter requires a lot more knowledge and safety precautions. Around the world, scuba divers are required to get a certification stating the depth they are capable of diving in. The certification course includes both a theoretical exam and a practical course.
Because small air tanks like these are mimicking scuba diving, it is dangerous to allow people to use it without prior knowledge of safety measures. The diving community has posed their thoughts on the mini air tanks for snorkeling, and in general, none of them approves.
The safety instructions provided by the manufacturers of both models are not sufficient, and there is a risk that many users may not bother reading. Because the potential dangers of using them are similar to scuba diving, snorkeling and diving experts have already said that they would prefer it if there was a course or certification required for their use. The following are only some of the dangers that small air tank users are risking:
● Running Out Of Air In Deep Water
Because their capacity is so small, there is a risk of running out of air while in deep waters. Granted, snorkeling is usually practiced in shallow waters, but if someone were to wander too deep, they wouldn’t last long. Also, there is no way of gauging the amount of air left because the device doesn’t come with an integrated pressure or capacity gauge.
The manufacturers recommend using these tanks a maximum of 6 meters, but both models do not provide a depth gauge, making it virtually impossible to stick to the recommended guidelines.
Most people who have no experience in scuba diving aren’t familiar with the way air pressure works in an air tank. They may not be aware of the fact that as you go deeper, the air capacity of the tank decreases. This only means that inexperienced users will not be able to judge or calculate the air capacity of their mini air tank when using it. Of course, such a small miscalculation can have devastating results.
● Risk of Loss
Another major concern is that they can easily be lost, especially the Snorkel. A strong wave could easily dislodge it and leave the swimmer with no air. If they are already in a deep area or very far from the shore, this has the potential to become a very dangerous situation, possibly fatal (by drowning).
● Barotrauma – Pulmonary Or Ear
Two conditions well-known among scuba divers, barotrauma refers to bursting of the lungs or ears due to rapid fluctuations in air pressure. Scuba divers are taught never to hold their breath when diving, which is especially important during ascent. Also, they know not to ascend too fast and learn how to pace their ascent from water. They learn these as precautionary measures to avoid pulmonary barotrauma. To avoid ear barotrauma, scuba divers learn to equalize their ear pressure with the surrounding water.
Both pulmonary and ear barotrauma are dangerous conditions that can lead to death. Note that these conditions have been documented in waters even 2 meters deep, and barotrauma from improper ascent is possible at depth. Mini air tank manufacturers are irresponsible by not addressing these conditions with sufficient precautions.
While the manufacturer’s recommendations mention safety precautions related to barotrauma, they are further in the instructions manual than expected. Add to that the fact that many people might not bother reading them, and there is an increased likelihood of injury.
Although the idea of a small air tank for snorkeling is new and creative, there remains much to improve for the existing models. The diving community does not approve of these devices, and for good reasons. Snorkelers who choose to use these devices should exercise extreme precaution and read the instruction manuals provided thoroughly. Only experienced swimmers that are fairly fit should attempt to use small air tanks.
Swimming in shallow water is just as dangerous as deep waters, but many people do not think of it that way. Small air tanks make it seem like there are no safety concerns associated with their use and can easily lead users to believe that there is no need to worry. Unless and until their use is taken seriously, they should be taken off the market as a way to protect consumers from improper usage.
Snorkeling is an activity that is enjoyed by many and requires a little fitness but not a lot of technical knowledge. Those who wish to explore underwater for prolonged periods of time should consider taking a scuba diving course instead of trying to scuba dive while snorkeling. Small air tanks for snorkeling should not be so irresponsibly offered to the general public with no certification requirements. Otherwise, these companies may soon see some major lawsuits coming their way.