There is one skill that can strike fear into the hearts of many, and not just for new student divers. I have even heard of divers on their instructor exams panicking and shooting to the surface. It is of course, Mask Clearing.
Why do I have to clear my mask?
Mask clearing is one of the most important skills you need to master to become a competent SCUBA diver. Even if you have the best mask in the world and it never leaks you still need to be able to comfortably clear a mask whilst underwater. What happens if someone accidentally knocks it off when you are down there? Do you shoot up to the surface? Absolutely not!!
Even if you never flood your mask even a little hair between your face and the silicone is enough to create a leak, or if you smile for a picture a crack will appear and the mask will begin to fill. Or if you have even been diving with a new mask you will know that they fog up all the time, however just adding a little water and swirling it around can wash the fog away, It’s not worth ruining a dive by not being able to see just because you don’t like having water around your nose now is it?!
How do I clear a diving mask?
The skill itself is very basic, you simply add water to your mask, and then apply pressure to the top of the mask, look up and exhale out of your nose. When you exhale you add air to the mask, it naturally wants to escape from the top but as you are applying pressure to the top, it finds the path of least resistance (around the nose) and goes out that way, pushing the water out with it. Sounds simple right? Try telling that to around 1 in 10 new divers!
Why can’t I clear my mask?
There might be many reasons for having difficulty with this skill, I remember when I was learning to dive and I found it very difficult to exhale out of my nose with water around it. Although it never made me feel panic I remember trying for over a minute before I managed to get most of the water out. For most people it isn’t the adding of water that causes panic, it is after they exhale through their nose, their instinct tells them to breathe back through their nose (not a great idea if there is still water in there!). I hear many students tell me when they finally manage to beat the mask clearing problem that it took a great amount of mental power to stop themselves re inhaling through their nose.
How can I beat this?
There are several tips you can do to improve your ability to clear a mask successfully and most importantly, stress free.
1) Take baby steps!
First of all head into the shallow end of a pool or just of the beach, make sure it is shallow enough to stand up in so if you do panic you can stand straight up. First you want to try without any water, just apply pressure to the top of the mask and then gently exhale out of your nose whilst looking up. When you are sure the air is coming out of your nose (not your mouth) you can then try to add a little water. Below eye level is perfect so you can maintain contact with your instructor. When the water is in, you need to get used to the feeling of breathing past the water, so do not attempt to clear the mask until you have got a normal breathing pattern. Breathe in, look up and exhale gently through your nose. If there is still water there then stop, breathe deeply and get comfortable and try again.
One of the main reasons people find this skill so difficult is because they rush it, and when it doesn’t clear first time they lose their breath, panic and stand up. The key with this is taking your time and keep thinking that you can breathe, just make sure it is through your mouth, make sure you are comfortable clearing a partially flooded mask, keep repeating the skill and then when it gives you no feelings of discomfort try it a few more times. When it feels like second nature then move on the fully flooding the mask and keep repeating this until it feels normal.
Then the big step is taking it off. For this, you should flood the mask first, never take it straight off as the mask creates a vacuum seal, ripping it off will just suck water up your nose and most likely make even the most experienced diver panic. Once it is flooded and you are used to the water being there you can take it off, pull the strap off first and then slowly pull the mask off your face. If you don’t like bubbles going up your nose then lean to one side and the bubbles will come out of one side of the exhaust valve, and go nowhere near your face. When it comes to putting it back on, first put the mask on your face and then replace the strap, before attempting to clear the mask you need to make sure it is on properly, so take your fingers and run them around the silicone frame of the mask. If it is on properly then you can go ahead with the clearing, and remember take your time!
2) Get used to breathing with water around your nose.
If it is breathing with water around your nose that is causing the problem, then you need to practice without a mask. In the Open Water Course one of the skills is breathing for no less than 1 minute without a mask on. But if you are having difficulty with breathing have your BCD fully inflated, hold onto the side of the pool and slowly lower your face into the water. If this still presents a problem start by pinching your nose while you start the skill and then when you are feeling comfortable remove your fingers and then keep breathing. Practice this until you feel comfortable submerging your face without pinching your nose and can comfortably breathe for at least 2 minutes.
3) Practice Practice Practice!
Now you have tried it lots in confined water make sure you keep trying on Open Water dives too, just every now and then add a little water too your mask and try to clear it. Try it at the end of a dive first so it doesn’t cause distress during the dive but then start doing it constantly throughout the dive. Remember in the pool would most likely have been chlorinated water, which creates a stinging sensation, in open water you will either be is salt water or fresh water. Both of which do not produce that stinging feeling.
I still find it difficult, is there anything I can do to make it easier?
There are ways you can make this skill easier for yourself, you should still learn how to do it properly however.
- Get a mask with a purge valve. Many masks are available with a purge valve under the nose pocket, these are one way valves that when you exhale out of your nose the air is easily pushed out, however water cannot re-enter the valve. The problem with these is that over time the valve will deteriorate and eventually start letting water in, not getting rid of it!
- Lift up the bottom of the mask when attempting to clear. Some people find that they don’t have enough power to push the water out with the mask on, so if you feel difficulty exhaling try to lift the bottom of the mask a little. It only needs to be a mm or two. Anymore and water will re-enter the mask after you have stopped exhaling.
- Look down when you have no mask on, this can help trap air inside your nostrils and prevent water from entering them, but remember to clear the mask you will need to look up whilst exhaling.
- Try both exhaling through your nose and your mouth without a mask on, some people prefer exhaling through their regulator and find it is easier to breathe only through the mouth so not to disturb the water around the nose, where some people prefer to exhale through their nose as it is more natural for most people to breathe this way
Make sure that you always practice under the supervision of an instructor or Divemaster (only if you are a certified diver). They have been trained to find where you may be having difficulties and how to respond appropriately. Your buddy may be a great diver but they haven’t been trained in demonstrating skills and helping students overcome any learning difficulties.
Remember that this is a major issue for a lot of divers, and you are not the first person to have difficulty with this skill, and that you defiantly won’t be the last! Your instructor may easily have been someone who found this to be an issue and have pushed through it to have what most people would consider as a dream job!!
The best way to conquer any problem is just hit it head on and keep going until you beat it, you don’t want to miss out on possibly one of the most amazing experiences you will ever have just because of a little water in your mask do you?
‘Tips for Mask Clearing’ was written by Mike