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Aquatic Tactics: Myth-Busting Edition

Action films and cartoons share a common idea, well, many ideas, but I will call your attention to this familiar situation.

Our hero, be he Bugs Bunny evading Elmer Fudd or a warrior on the run, encounters a river. To thwart pursuers, he plucks a reed from the surrounding vegetation and submerges himself with only the reed protruding above the surface. He remains stealthily submerged until the pursuers have passed.

There are also more than a few accounts in legend of various feats of escape that utilized this same breathing-though-a-reed trick.

Our surface interpretation of this feat is that it is plausible, after all, the reed is operating as a snorkel and snorkels do a fine job of allowing one to breath while submerged.

But, let’s look at the bare-bones physics behind this.


The deeper we submerge, the pressure change prohibits us from being able to breathe non-pressurized air—scuba tanks contain pressurized air. When we use a reed, we are attempting to draw directly from the atmosphere, a non-pressurized source. The external pressure on the chest makes it harder to draw (produce the suction) for a substantial breath.

At a depth of a mere one meter it is no longer physically possible to take that reed breath. And this holds for strong-lunged individuals and weak-lunged individuals alike. Most people find drawing a breath at even half that depth is quite difficult.


The air in the reed must be exchanged. As we increase the length of the reed we increase the difficulty of gas-exchange. We add to this the accompanying friction for every bit of length gain increasing our difficulty of draw which is already compounded by the external depth pressure.


Reed diameter. Compare the experience of breathing through a narrow aperture such as a drinking straw and that of breathing through a snorkel. The snorkel’s aperture is far easier on the draw.

But… there’s the snorkel idea again.

Is not a snorkel essentially an artificial reed?

Only in appearance.

Snorkel design takes in the above physical deficits.

  1. They have wide apertures for ease of draw.
  2. The have short length to ease gas exchange.
  3. The short length is also to compensate for the known pressure problem. Snorkels are designed to be used while you are face-down in water, essentially skimming along the surface not actually submerged. We see no extra-long snorkels because the designers know of the physical limitations (both biological and mechanical limitations) that would render the product dangerous.

With the above in mind, we can enjoy our cartoons and if ever evading pursuers in water skip the reed. It is wiser to work your combat breath-holding, your “splashless” swimming tactics, and the whole inventory of aquatic stealth.

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29 thoughts on “Aquatic Tactics: Myth-Busting Edition”

  1. Agree with the science of course but reads grow in groups no reason you could use 2 reads one to exhale other inhale also no reason couldn’t just use multiple reeds to make up for smaller diameter.

    My biggest problem is in the examples be it bugs or whomever are just under service (lots of times with a kitty pad over head to peek out) maybe 6″ to 1′ under water and it shallow water that there squatting in or laying in so again depth wouldn’t be a issue.

    I agree pratice other techniques and master them to but push come shove and a ponds there with reeds and I’m in life or death i take my chances with reeds as long as waters either 1′-2′ so can lay 4′ so can sit and 7′ standing (all of which only has me breathing a foot or less below surface) I take my chance and advise the same use 2 or 3 reeds and should have no issue clearing them for next breath (time permitting crack them 5 inches above water line so don’t have clear top foot sticking out of the water.)

  2. This is hilarious! Had a high school “virgin romeo” claim he had a girl w both of them 6 feet under w hoses. I called him on it. Said Id stand on his arms in 2 feet of water to back up his “claim”. Almost drowned the dumb bastard before panic gave him the strength to get free & come up for air. And THAT was on the deep end of the kiddie pool. Top of his chest was only 18 inches underwater. Big 3/4 inch diameter 2 ft length hose too. Shut THAT fool up for the rest of the year.

  3. While the facts you presented about snorkels are pretty accurate, there is One Variation that works to a depth of about 30 feet. A device came out commercially over 50 years ago that used a rubber diaphragm bottle stepped to one’s chest and we used our legs to operate the “bellows”.
    It sucked air from the surface, then allowed the diver to breath the slightly compresssd air out of the external “lung” .

    It worked. But required some coordination and constantly remembering how to use it! It WAS exciting! I did not really like it. Trust? Nope!

  4. The real problem is, are there any reeds where one may need to hide in the near-by water.

    I drowned with a snorkel in Mexico once. If you would have time and would want to read the story, I’d write it for you to read. And Free.

    Richard Sharp

  5. To quote a line from an old movie, “Don’t tell me your problems. I am looking for results.”
    There are large diameter drinking straws for specialty drinks, but to carry one around all the time is not very practical, since it may never be required.
    There are many ball-point pens that have a large internal diameter, which may well be useful, but you need to unscrew the narrow ends.
    If someone were to design one from scratch, perhaps the float valve could be incorporated. Call it tactical pen Mk2.
    To hide just below the surface is not easy as you alternatively float and sink when breathing. Practice is needed if you want to take the matter seriously.

  6. I have scuba dived and found it comfortable after practice. I see some people diving with a hose attached to a Hooka but wonder if that is somehow compressed.

  7. Thanks for the facts on this. It always has seemed unrealistic to me. And then there is the issue of keeping water out of one’s nose when breathing through a tube. I doubt it can be done without a LOT of practice.

  8. Can you breath in through the mouth and exhale through the nose to nullify the exchange problem with a longer reed?

  9. We (the ones who think) know that getting flattened and then blow on the thumb to re-inflate ourselves doesn’t work but is fun to watch.

  10. Yes the movies mislead us with the thru th Reed thing.Snorkels are an inch in diameter. Minimum for a reason. Also navy seals and competitive swimmers have the training to do it. IF Joe blow tried it I doubt anyone would get past 15 sec. Not to mention the staying submerged part, try it , unless your really lean you float like a cork.Brad

  11. While this technique is not possible, there may be a better way of escape for about two minutes if you know enough of freediving tecniques.

    1. Take along slow intake and not enough to fully expand your lungs (because most people I know will want to exhale to quickly)

    2. While underwater, do not, and I repeat DO NOT hold your breath, but rather slowly exhale by letting a small trickle of air out though your nasal cavities. Maybe even just a few bubbles…

    I haven’t been freediving in a very long time, but I used to be able to do this at a depth of 25-30 feet for about three minutes… and watch divers go down to the boil in Blue Springs Florida …

    Still, at the age of 64, I can go from one end of an Olimpic sized pool to the other end without coming up for air and no problems at all …

    Good luck all and give it some practice… the trick is not to hold your breath…

  12. Well, there goes that idea! Like most people, I thought you could breathe through a reed. Now I know better, and won’t try it. Thanks for an informative article!

  13. Don’t forget the important part! When breathing through a snorkel, you *inhale* through the snorkel but exhale into the water via your nose. That way, CO2 doesn’t pile up in the snorkel and cut off the O2 flow.

  14. Found out as a kid I was unable to breathe through a garden hose at the bottom of the pool!
    What about the “James Bond ” style compressed air in a co2 sized cartridge with tiny regulator and mouthpiece? Has it been done? Could it work? For how long?

  15. Was very good. Reinforced what I already new. But the explanation was great. I still learned a few things I did not know. I really liked it.

  16. One of the best articles I have seen on this sight. Even trained as a underwater swimmer in the U.S.Navy I could go no deeper than 4 feet without using SCUBA gear, but it would save your life in murky water with the enemy around.

  17. That’s preposterous! Gilligan breathed for extended periods through a long reed at the bottom of the lagoon and 007 placed a tiny pen-sized doohickey between his teeth and breathed in a salt tank as Emilio Largo’s sharks passed right by him, LOL!

  18. I use to stay under water in my swimming pool to vacuum is out for 15 minutes at a time by using a regulated air compressor and taking the hose underwater with me. I had a blower nozzle and would just squeeze the trigger when I needed to breath in some air then exhale into the water. Worked great.