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My son has recently discovered snorkeling and diving (by holding his breath, not scuba diving or anything). He can go at least 4m (13 feet) deep to pick up nice shells he sees on the sea floor.

My question is, is there any risk of him diving too deep?

Are there any statistics on snorkeling/diving accidents attributed to dives (ie not to shark attacks and such)?

This is an 8 year old who likes to test himself, and is still too young to be thinking ahead. If he is diving 4m now, it will become 5m soon enough. On the other hand, when coming up the buoyancy of his body is on his side, pushing him to the surface. In my own experience, you always have a little extra air to make it up.

From what I have read, freedivers face real risks of drowning (https://gue.com/blog/is-freediving-safe/) but these people go much deeper. Snorkeling websites only mention risks such as sunburn, getting run over by a boat or drifting too far. These are easily mitigated. He is never alone and we make sure he does not go too far out. He is diving in the Mediterranean so there is no real risk from marine life.

Even when help is near, if he has some accident someone will have to bring him up and to the shore. And even without drowning, (sea) water in lungs can be very dangerous. So I am trying to estimate the risks. I don't want to spoil his fun, when is was young I was allowed to dive as deep as could, but I was never much of a daredevil.

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    If the mask comes off, he will lose some bouyancy and be unable to surface as quickly as expected. Also I remember when I used to dive with or without a snorkel, I would gradually breathe out as I was running out of oxygen, and that too, reduces the bouyancy. Don't overlook too, that poisonous sea urchins, jellyfish, rays and fish live in the Med. Aug 8 at 14:50
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    It's the venom and stings of those creatures that's more of a concern than their poisonousness, I think. Unless he's really going to be eating them. Aug 8 at 16:14
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    @TobySpeight semantics. Lexico has 1.1(of an animal) producing poison as a means of attacking enemies or prey; venomous. Aug 8 at 16:33
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    @ChrisH yes, and slowly exhaling seems to make more of the remaining oxygen available. Aug 9 at 14:13
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    My best friend died at 17 from freediving with a mask and snorkel in 40ft of open blue ocean. He had a dive spotter, but the spotter got to him too late. It's very dangerous and the faster you get your son into SCUBA the less likely he will become one of MANY people who have died this way. Aug 10 at 18:14
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This is not a freediving answer!!! Freediving is not for 8-yr old kids. This is also not a scuba diving answer, this answer is about about casual, low-intensity, snorkeling, mostly on the surface, with shallow dives (I'd encourage him not to go beyond 4m myself).

The list is a little bit more daunting than the actual risks. Don't dive deep, know how to swim in the first place and don't do stupid things mostly covers it. Plenty of people enjoy snorkeling without "advanced training". Still, quite a few people drown while snorkeling each year in Hawaii, for example, so it's not unreasonable to be careful. Residents there are at much less risk than visitors, so a quick basic course in safety could be a good idea for a beginner. Also in the Hawaii data, older people with cardiac conditions are at special risk - please do separate research on this if you are in that category.


There are a number of risks relating to snorkeling and holdng one's breath:

  • As you dive your lungs compress and you lose buoyancy. That starts to really kick in around 5-6 meters, I never really noticed it around 3m. When you turn around and head back up, instead of "floating up" at first, as you did when you dove down from the surface, you find that you don't have any "lift" and you sink instead. You need to actively swim back up. It isn't a pleasant feeling. Once you know to expect and how to correct it, it's easier to manage. As you start heading back up, your lungs re-expand and you regain buoyancy quickly. If the water is the right depth, you could kick off from the bottom, but that could be a risk as well if you rely on this and the bottom is actually too deep and you don't reach it. No, since this is snorkeling rather than scuba, you don't need to worry about decompression.

  • The main thing with holding your breath is slow and steady movements, no excessive effort which burns up your oxygen really quickly. Avoid brusque, high-intensity movements. With regards to loss of buoyancy above, the effect drops off quickly, so just got up slow and easy.

  • Hyperventilation. A number of comments and answers concern hyperventilation. Be aware of the risks of blackout and don't do it. Wish I'd known that, though I never did it much as it never really seemed to be worth it. See comments and other answers.

  • Water inhalation. Any time you panic or run out of air, you risk inhaling water by mistake which is extremely dangerous. Specifically with regards to snorkeling, it is easy to assume your snorkel is out of the water, expel water with a breath of air, inhale and, because the snorkel's tip is still below the water surface, inhale water. When surfacing after a long dive, get your face out and breathe in through your mouth, not via the snorkel. Related: snorkels and choppy waters are not a great mix.

  • Never, ever, inhale extra air while diving holding your breath. No air hose, no air balloon, etc. You could rupture your lungs coming back up (mentioned in comments and also answer to another question).

  • You may also want to talk to lifeguards at the beach when you get there for the day. Ask them if there are any particular dangers to worry about, like jellyfish, riptide areas or currents. Conditions vary, you can ask on multiple days, lifeguards don't mind.

  • Alone or not alone. Diving alone is certainly unsafe. What about basic snorkeling at 3-4m? It's up to you as a parent to decide. But if your kid is a much better swimmer than you, your presence may not improve safety all that much if you get yourself into difficulty. On the other hand, by remaining at the surface nearby, you can call for help.

  • People who are drowning may not look like people who are in distress. They may not shout or wave wildly around. Know the signs. People drown as effectively in 2m deep water as they do in 4m deep water.

  • Ear damage. Make sure you know how to clear your ears. Don't dive if you have a cold that is clogging up your sinuses. See comments and other answers. But at 2-3m risk isn't very high either.

  • Powerboats. Nuff said, those props slice nicely. Don't stick your hands into holes where they can get trapped.

  • For the 18+ crowd: mixing alcohol and swimming is dangerous.

  • Obvious: if you can't swim well, snorkeling isn't a really good idea. Learn swimming basics first and always go with a buddy.

My own background? Living in Caribbean from 6 to 13, a good of time was spent snorkeling by myself. I am a fairly competent swimmer, could do 30-40m underwater horizontally, though I never really deep dived, 3-4m was my usual max. I do not consider snorkeling, a low risk, low intensity, activity centered around sightseeing mostly on the surface the same as freediving, a considerably more risky activity which centers on holding your breath. I appreciated swimming alone as a kid but this is not really a recommendation I'd give parents.

p.s. Want to practice holding your breath? You don't even need to be in the water to do it, just walk slowly or briskly on land while holding your breath. That way you're in no danger. Note that the extra exertion makes that much more realistic than the 60-seconds-easy you could achieve by remaining completely still.

YouTube returns a lot of hits about snorkeling safety, however keep in mind being an influencer doesn't automagically make you a snorkeling mentor, be careful who you listen to.

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    I'd add never ever take a bucket with air pocket or similar down with you and try to extend your dive that way. Unless you breathe out on the way up, the air will expand and damage your lungs. I've heard that even 1 m depth can do significant damage from this method. It is the sort of thing that kids think up.
    – bob1
    Aug 8 at 21:49
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    Interesting. I never noticed losing buoyancy while doing stuff like retrieving rings or dummies from 6m depth, but then again I was always strongly pushing off from the bottom.
    – Nobody
    Aug 9 at 0:08
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica there's a difference between someone trained progressively from a young age supervised by an experienced diver, and someone at a young age with non-expert supervision. Pearl diving has always been risky even so, but freediving records go far deeper - with extreme training and rigorous safety precautions to reduce but not eliminate the risk
    – Chris H
    Aug 9 at 13:54
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    @terdon This one I think
    – Chris H
    Aug 9 at 13:56
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    as someone that always lived by the sea and seen many accidents through the years: never ever let someone dive alone; it doesn't matter if it's 4m or 20m, you need to be 2 at least. 4m is not deep so the person that goes with him doesn't need to dive, as long as they're able to in order to assist. The Mediterranean is quick salty so it helps you going up, but don't underestimate the marine life: since the Suez canal got enlarged, there are a lot more jellyfishes and a few nasty ones have arrived by Malta so far.
    – Thomas
    Aug 9 at 16:25
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An existing answer makes a key point, but it's rather hidden: make sure he doesn't hyperventilate before diving.

Hyperventilating reduces CO₂ in the blood, and it's the CO₂ buildup that leads to the urge to breathe. Suppressing that causes passing out (Wikipedia). This is tempting because it increases dive time, but is dangerous. The risks are well documented in the context of freediving, but are an issue even in shallow water (my daughter and I were practising underwater distance in a pool the other day; it's relevant then too)

In addition to this very important point, encouraging him to come up as soon as he needs to breathe will give a little peace of mind. Of course, keep an eye on him, whether by diving with him or watching from the surface.

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    BTW, and not wanting to dilute the important point in my answer, I've had a jellyfish sting in the western Med that made my arm numb enough that (surface) swimming was suddenly harder, but there were 3 parallel lines of sting wrapped right round my bicep going by the rash, so a lot of contact. I can't be certain, not having seen what did it, but I'd guess compass jellyfish from the symptoms (including the group of 3 tentacles)
    – Chris H
    Aug 9 at 14:09
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    Another aside: starting with a snorkel slightly complicates things. I haven't done much snorkelling and often swim underwater, so find it easiest to dive without the snorkel in my mouth. I can clear it after a dive, but it feels far more natural to lose it before diving, then surfacing is as I'm used to from normal swimming. Even a kid who's very used to snorkelling may see it differently to me
    – Chris H
    Aug 12 at 10:52
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I am a spearfisher who dives regularly beyond 20m. I lost a friend who blacked out freediving (40m) alone and am fairly educated on the matter.

As mentioned previously, hyperventilation is the main cause for underwater blackouts. I am writing "blackout", because one does not drown directly. Drowning is a consequence of blacking out. Under sustained oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) the brain forces the body to breathe (reflex) and this results in drowning.

Hyperventilation is not the only reason for blackouts though. Fatigue comes into play, as does experience, stress (depth panic) and several other factors (pressure changes when diving deep, alcool etc...).

Generally speaking, one should NEVER EVER freedive alone. A lot of VERY experienced and inexperienced freedivers have died this way, be it in the ocean, in swimming pools or baths.

I also realise this is easier said than done. It is hard to have a personal rescue diver 100% of the time. And it is not enough to have someone "around" in the area. When someone blackouts, you must maintain his head above water immediately.

It is therefore particularly important that you educate your son about these risks. There is a lot of information on the web about freediving, ranging from breathing techniques to blackouts, and many testimonies to read from.

You could also have him participate in a freediving course. It would enable him to chase his performance desire in a safe and controlled environment.

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  • I did a lot of spearfishing as well, sometimes to chase a wounded fish I remained underwater close to the limit and I know by experience that before blacking out you have a lot of warning signals even if you hyperventilate. Don't confuse what might do a child with someone doing extreme freediving.
    – FluidCode
    Aug 10 at 12:26
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    @FluidCode I beg to differ. I read a Reddit post a few days ago from the father of a teen almost drowning in a swimming pool (blackout, taken out by passer bys). As with warning signals, these are subject to normalization of deviance and form. You might be able to rely on them, but some other times you really shouldn't. Aug 11 at 14:11
  • When you are challenged you can fight those signals, if you want to show off and swim the entire length of the swimming pool underwater you can get to the point of blacking out, it might happen. But you know what is happening. A child just diving by himself as described in the question would not go to that point. P.S. OT your nick is a bit difficult to reply to.
    – FluidCode
    Aug 11 at 14:54
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Make sure he's educated about equalisation and gas expansion/contraction under pressure.

He should equalise ("pop") his ears several times while diving to such depths. He is probably already doing this, but perhaps you could introduce him to gentler or more reliable techniques. Not equalising is very painful and will damage the ears, he should be aware of that and also know not to force himself deeper in the case of pain. I've been recommended to equalise my ears at least once every meter of descent, and to stop descending, equalise first (or even ascend a little to make it easier to equalise), in the case of any hints of pain or an inability to equalise. There are many techniques to equalise the ears, some safer or more comfortable per person than others.

Gas in his lungs and his scuba mask will compress as he goes deeper, because of the increasing pressure from the surrounding water. This will make him less buoyant at greater depths. He may feel pain from his mask pressing on his face, which is why you should always wear a mask that also covers the nose: blow out a little through the nose to equalise the mask too. As you ascend, the gas expands, making you more buoyant. Because scuba divers fill their lungs up with pressurised air underwater, when they ascend they have to breathe out to let expanding air out of their lungs, otherwise their lungs will be forcefully expanded and damaged by the air trying to expand inside of them. Snorkellers and freedivers dive on only one breath and don't have to worry about this.

Also it could be fun to teach him how to clear his mask of water, while underwater, by blowing out through the nose and tipping his head back.

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    I also assume that he spends a lot of time swimming at sea or in a swimming pool. Ear drums must be trained to sustain the pressure at a depth of four meters even with equalisation. So one more point to add is that he should learn that he can go this deep as long as he is used to swim. The first dives after a winter pause should be a little bit more careful.
    – FluidCode
    Aug 9 at 14:28
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    This, THIS is the biggest danger here: unless he learns to do this seamlessly, it will accumulate over time and cause damage to some sensitive tissues, like lungs, ears and joints. Aug 11 at 12:36
  • @theonlygusti air usually gets trapped in tissue pockes gets compressed when you dive, and then expands when you resurface. But there isn't enough room, so your soft tissues that shouldn't get squeezed get squeezed and thus microdamage is done. In case of ears, if you do not equalize pressure and it hurts, its not that micro. It is frequent among divers to have noticeably higher hearing loss in later stages of life than their peers. This is more palpable than the occasional diving blackout etc. Aug 11 at 15:54
  • @theonlygusti and in case of lungs, which consists of a tiny bubbles that don't regenerate much, it simply damages that accumulates over time. This means that you are losing your lung capacity long-term. Aug 11 at 16:02
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    After years of cavalier spear fishing/free diving, my father is effectively deaf in one ear due to inconsistently equalizing his ears. He didn't stop until he noticed bubbles streaming from his ear canal while diving.
    – Mike G
    Aug 11 at 20:30
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Speaking as a parent of a child with whom I went swimming very often in that same age bracket:

I did an ABC course and am very comfortable diving in regular indoor and outdoor pools/swimming lanes, and in shallow ocean. I was into underwater hockey mainly, and diving for distance, not depth.

My kid did not do an ABC course; I did give her the opportunity to try this stuff out, to see if she's interested (i.e., I got her a well-fitting snorkeling set and showed her the very basics, not going deep at all). Turned out that she was not interested at all, so we gave the set away again. But what was interesting to me, and maybe applicable for you, that it was really hard for me to talk with her about equalization.

This is really important. Not doing it correctly or at all can cause Diver's Ear, which can range from unpleasantness to permanent ear damage. You absolutely want to make sure your son gets good instructions (send him to an ABC snorkeling school with good reviews). Also, really watch him. My girl would always tell me that she did everything right, but watching her behavior after she came up it was clear that she had not equalized properly (quickly touching the ear etc.). Obviously, I was, although I can do it pretty well myself, not capable to explain it to her in an age-appropriate way.

The second risk is definitely blacking out. This can happen anytime, no matter the depth. People diving for distance do so in very shallow water (basically, just swimming up and down a regular swimming lane in a pool). Blackouts do happen, and it is highly ill advised to do this kind of activity alone.

I would also suggest for you to take an ABC course as well; this will make it possible for you to watch for common mistakes (one example: if underwater for any significant amount of time at all, he should not be holding the snorkel in his mouth - because if he becomes unconscious, the natural reflex of closing the mouth obviously does not work if he has the snorkel between his teeth, leading to the lung filling up quite quickly). Even if you do not then regularly snorkel or dive yourself, you can at least watch him and decide if all is well, and are aware of dangerous situations.

Also, there are techniques to for example be able to recover your snorkeling gear if it falls into the water; not a live-threatening situation if in a pool, but you'll be the greatest hero if you can recover his stuff where it's just a little too deep for him...

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To build upon a previous answer, I suggest you and your son get Skin Diving certification from a diver course. This would give you training to answer your own question!

For example NAUI offers a course that is described as:

Imagine floating on a clear sea of liquid watching fishes, crustaceans, corals - everything from dolphins to dugongs face-to-face. If this sounds like something you would love to do, then the NAUI Skin Diver or Junior Skin Diver course is for you! Once you’ve completed your training and two open water dives, you will have the skills you need to be a comfortable and safe skin diver. Your NAUI Instructor will coach you through the process of snorkeling and breath-hold diving and your fun will grow as your skills increase!

And PADI offers a course that teaches similar skills.

Also, do not worry about the diving agency (e.g., PADI vs NAUI vs SSI), just find a local dive shop you like ask them about their skin diver course. I was a NAUI Dive Instructor, but the local dive shop is more important than the agency. Any agency is only as good as its worst instructor.

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The depth is not an issue. As a SCUBA diver, I have gone far deeper and stayed far longer than he will ever be able to do with his breath. The human body can handle it. If he manages to stay below 10m for 3 hours, he will have to deal with decompression to avid the bends. If your son manages this, or anything remotely close to this, there will be some scientists interested in how he does it!

The risk is not the depth. Its the ability to get into situations that he cannot get out of. As you say, 8 year olds have a limited ability to think about what comes ahead. The "need to breathe" is quite coarse and obvious. its hard to miss. However, if one does miss it (such as by hyperventilating before the dive), the actual passing out is quite subtle.

If you are truly worried, encourage him to pick up free diving. A human can drown in 2cm of water in the worst possible situations. A human can safely dive 100m if they are aware of the risks and plan accordingly. By the nature of free diving, any decent free-diving mentor will be able to provide ways for your son to understand the limits of his body safely. The sport exists because there is a way to teach people how to understand the limits of their body.

How willing are you to take to the ocean? I am not a freediver myself, but I have been watching a friend's exploration of the sport for a while. The number one safety feature is to have a spotter -- someone who, for that dive, is not pushing their limits, but is instead putting themself into the correct place to provide assistance if anything goes wrong. That person could be you!

As an anecdote, to be taken with a grain of salt, my friend proudly announced that he had managed to hold his breath for 5 minutes. I asked how you know how long is safe before you pass out. His answer was that you hold until you pass out on land, count the number of contractions of the diaphragm, and then never get near that on an actual dive. I found this story interesting because it would be hard for an 8 year old boy to come up with the idea of holding his breath until he passes out on land, but with the tutelage of a skilled free diver, these sorts of life-saving exercises can be passed down from one generation to the next!

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    "As a scuba diver???" I wonder where you got your training. If he manages to stay below 10m for 3 hours, he will have to deal with decompression to avid the bends The decompression tables start at 3 meters/60 minutes or 10 meters/five minutes, for a reason! Not to mention the warnings that children should not dive like adults, e.g. never deeper than 9 meters. Together with you repeating the anecdote about the freediver friend, without further proof, this answer does not sound very sound (details excepted).
    – user21680
    Aug 9 at 6:50
  • "The risk is not the depth." what I'm worried about is him running out of breath 1m below the surface and pulling water in his lungs as a result. Or indeed of passing out before hitting the surface.
    – Ivana
    Aug 9 at 7:14
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    It's very unlikely that you would ever pass out from holding your breath without doing specific exercises beforehand. While some free divers do such things (and have been known to drown in swimming pools) we're very much in extreme sports at that point. (Also while it's just a thought exercise, you cannot get the bends without having external breathable air at depth, so even if someone could hold their breath for an hour under water they could go up without problems)
    – Voo
    Aug 9 at 8:47
  • @Jan There are lots of different deco tables, but none that I know starts at 3 meters. The deco2000 which is the most common one for sport divers (at least in Europe) requires the first deco stop after 84 minutes at 15m meter and is incredibly conservative (you could use the high altitude tables, but even that won't get you anywhere close). I assume you're confusing where the stops should be made to when you have to do some.
    – Voo
    Aug 9 at 12:26
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    -1 this is question about casual snorkellng, not about scuba diving and deep diving. with an added dollop about freediving which is a pretty high risk sport and not suitable for a kid diving with his family who doesnt freedive themselves. Aug 9 at 16:20
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Generally speaking, it's not dangerous, I would however be worried about two main things

  1. Compression of the lungs at depth is an issue, you wouldn't like your son tearing his lung tissue. At 4m, this is not really a problem as it's still more of snorkeling than diving, yet the general recommendation is to not go freediving with children under 12. Furthermore, the deeper he goes, the more bouyancy he loses (also mentioned here in previous answers).
  2. My main worry is that if he overdoes himself and blacks out, you won't necessarily be able to rescue him. I think this is the main point - there are many videos on YouTube which discuss rescuing a blacked out freediver. Just go through them and make sure you can go a bit deeper than he does without putting yourself in danger.

The point about hyperventelating is also extremely important and should be taken seriously.

To be honest, I think it's a great thing that your son is having fun underwater. It's also good that you're worried, but instead of working against it, why not supporting it? You could look for a freediving instructor in your area and ask them for guidance. A good instructor would know how to keep him motivated until he's 12 and if he still wants, he could then take a proper level 1 course (many organisation offer these in a child-friendly version). Until then your son could learn from said instructor some useful tips and you could learn a thing or two about safety.

Enjoy :) freediving is an amazing type of sports

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