For most divers, scuba diving is a highly visual experience – you dive to see what’s under the water. So it comes as no surprise that a top-quality dive mask is an important part of every diver’s gear, or that manufacturers continue to come up with new and more innovative masks practically every year. There is a large selection of features and styles, all of which makes it possible for the diver to pick the most comfortable mask that provides the greatest visibility for their individual needs.
How a Dive Mask Works
Modern-day masks may be among the most distinctively styled and individualistic pieces of equipment that you’ll find in a dive center. Yet, as different as they may appear, all masks (even the old porthole-style “frogman” masks that you see in 1950s movies) do three basic things:
- Masks add an air space between your eyes and the water. This is not only more comfortable; it is physically necessary on order for your eyes to see and focus properly. Your eyes focus naturally in air, so without an airspace in front of your eyes, things will look fuzzy underwater. The airspace provided by a mask restores clarity (and if you normally wear eyeglasses, many dive masks are available with prescription lenses).
- Masks provide a pocket through which you can squeeze your nose shut with your fingers. Why would you want to do that? Because the easiest way to equalize (or “clear”) your ears is to be able to squeeze your nostrils closed and fill the airspace in your ears by gently blowing against the closed nostrils. This “pushes” air from your lungs into airspace in the ears, just like equalizing your ears when you’re driving at altitude or flying. After you’ve been diving for a while, you’ll probably become adept at clearing your ears without even touching your nose. But during the first few dives of the season, or if you’re even the slightest bit congested, you’ll want to be able to squeeze your nose shut, and a flexible nose pocket is necessary to allow you to do that. For that reason, choose a mask design that provides easy access to gently pinching your nose.
- Masks provide a means of equalizing pressure and expelling collected water. Many non-divers assume that the reason a dive mask encloses the nose, as well as the eyes, is to keep water out of your nose and negate any need for a nose clip. Masks designs certainly do this, but that’s not the real reason your nose in contained in your mask – it’s just a handy side benefit. The real reason for having a mask that encloses your nose is so you can exhale through your nose into the mask space, adding air to equalize the air pressure within the mask to match the hydrostatic pressure of the water pushing against the mask from the outside. If you couldn’t do this, the mask would quickly develop “squeeze” and grow uncomfortable as you went deeper. In addition, if water gets in and accumulates in the bottom of your mask, you’ll want to be able to clear it out easily. With most masks, you simply exhale through the nose while tilting the mask slightly so the water gets pushed out past the flexible skirt edge at the bottom of the mask. Some masks incorporate a one-way purge valve in the mask’s bottom; with these, you don’t even need to touch the mask to clear it. You just tilt your head so the purge is at the mask’s lowest point, exhale through your nose, and the water all drains out of the purge valve.
Which One Is Best?
All dive masks today have the potential to do their principle jobs – letting you see, letting you equalize, and clearing easily. But no mask can do any of the three unless it fits your face. Different makes and types of masks fit different facial types better. Your retail dive professional will have the experience with which masks favor, say, a narrow face and which ones are best for people with prominent cheekbones, or broader faces. In addition, some manufacturers offer different sizes of the same basic mask model to better fit individual faces.
The time-honored method for checking fit on a mask is to hold it to your face without using the strap to secure it, inhale just slightly through your nose to create low pressure within the mask, and then hold your breath and see if the mask will cling to your face snugly. A mask that falls off immediately, or in just a few seconds, is a mask that is leaking air at one of its edges, and if a mask leaks air, it will leak water, as well.
Once you find an assortment of masks that will stay on your face, there are a variety of other tests that you can do to see if your mask and your face can form a perfect match. One is to hold the mask gently against your face and exhale through your nose. If the air only leaves the mask in one or two places, those might be areas where the mask seal is not robust enough for your particular face. But if the soft edge of the mask’s skirt flutters more or less equally all the way around, then that’s another indication that you have found a good match.
The most important test, though, is to have someone knowledgeable, such as a staff member at your local dive center, closely inspect the way the mask sits on your face when you are wearing it. He or she will not only be looking for a good seal; a knowledgeable professional will also look for other nuances:
- Are the eyes centered naturally on the lens area? Is the skirt edge crossing your hairline or eyebrows, creating a potential leak point?
- If you’re a guy who wears a moustache, does this particular mask skirt have enough seal area above your moustache to keep you from being troubled by seepage there?
- And is this type of mask going to complement the sort of diving that you will primarily do?
Types of Masks
Visit your local dive shop, and chances are you’ll find an entire wall full of masks for you to choose from and try on. In addition to fit, most people look for a mask that color-coordinates well with the rest of their dive gear, and a mask that looks good on them. But it’s important to know that the various styles of masks also lend themselves better to different sorts of diving.
- Twin-Lens Masks have a separate lens in front of each eye. The advantage of a twin-lens mask is that such designs usually have less interior volume than other designs. As you descend, and the pressure increases, you need to breathe out slightly through your nose to equalize the pressure inside the mask with that of the water around you. A low-volume mask takes less air to equalize, and because of that, these masks tend to be extremely popular with people who free dive as well as scuba dive. Low-volume masks are also very easy to clear of any accumulated water (a single breath usually does it), making this a very easy mask to use.
- Single-Lens Masks are just what they sound like: there is only one transparent pane in front of your eyes when you wear one of these. Many people like this design because there’s nothing in the center of mask – no frame, for instance – that you might pick up with your peripheral vision. In addition, underwater models favor single-lens masks because they allow more light to land on the eyes in a picture, and the eyes and face appear more natural and recognizable when wearing this sort of mask. And this doesn’t just apply to professionals – if your dive buddy shoots still pictures or video underwater, then chances are you’re an underwater model! In recent years, manufacturers have made great strides in producing single-lens masks that are as low in interior volume as many twin-lens masks, so many modern single-lens masks equalize and clear just as easily as their twin-lens cousins.
- Side Pane Masks have an additional viewing pane to either side, eliminating the “blinder” effect of conventional mask design. People who use them often say they like the more “open” feel. This sort of mask is especially effective for night diving, in which you might be using your peripheral vision to pick up the lights from other divers in your party so you can keep track of where everybody is.
- Masks with black or dark-colored skirts, rather than the clear silicone skirts found on most dive masks, look more “classic” than the clear designs, and are popular with underwater photographers or videographers because the dark skirt acts like the dark sheets that old-time photographers used to put over their heads – they keep stray light from entering, and make the image through a viewfinder appear clear and bright.
- Masks with angled lenses and/or inverted “teardrop” shapes allow better downward and peripheral vision, rivaling even those masks with side panes. This sort of mask is great if you keep your instrument console clipped to your chest and you read it by glancing down, of if you are taking notes on a dive slate during your dive. Better downward vision also helps when you are walking with your fins on aboard a boat, or when you are climbing a boarding ladder.
- Masks with neoprene strap backs are also referred to as “comfort” masks because their users often find them more comfortable than silicone straps. In addition, the neoprene strap backs are less likely to get tangled with long hair.
These are the basic groups, but you should be aware that many masks combine the traits of these basic masks, and there are also a variety of specialty masks beyond what’s described above. There are, for instance: folding masks that you can carry in a BC pocket; frameless masks that have no inflexible parts other than their lenses; masks with straps that attach to the skirt rather than the frame; and masks with colored lenses that restore the colors lost as sunlight travels down through seawater. There is a panoramic mask with a curved lens that allows a close-to-topside field of vision and even masks in which all the pertinent dive data – depth, elapsed time, dive time remaining, tank pressure and so on – are displayed in a “heads-up” display inside the mask.
And yes – if looks are important to you (and let’s admit it; they’re important to everyone), rest assured that your local dive center can help you choose a mask that not only coordinates well with the rest of your gear, but looks great on your face.
When to Buy
When you take a class, most dive professionals will want you to report to the first pool session with your own mask, so a mask is one of the things you’ll want to buy when you sign up for lessons, or shortly thereafter. In addition, as you try various dive specialties, you’ll probably find that certain types of masks work great with your new activities, so it’s not unheard of to own two or more dive masks. In fact, even weight- and space-conscious dive travelers will often travel with two masks in their gear bags. That provides a spare in the event that you lose one, and assures you will always have a mask available that fits your face perfectly. And masks are affordable enough that you can do this without breaking your budget; an extremely high-quality, name-brand dive mask typically costs less than a high-quality, name-brand pair of sunglasses.
How to Buy
Even more so than shoes, dive masks are items you want to try on before you buy. So plan a trip to a dive center if you need a new mask. Even within the same name brands, there will be a wide variety of skirt designs and sizes – this is intentional, because mask designers want to offer a choice, so you can find a mask that fits well.
For every style of mask described, be certain that you are purchasing a mask made from quality materials that will remain soft and comfortable, and, with proper care, will last for years. Masks made with silicone skirt material, with tempered lenses are essential for scuba diving. Your professional dive retailer will have a variety of masks made from these materials, but beware that masks sold at some sporting goods retailers may not be made from these quality materials. It is common for masks to also be made from poly vinyl material, which is less flexible and likely to deteriorate more quickly than silicone.
Most dive masks will come with a mask case, and you’ll want to keep and use this. It helps prevent breakage. Also, a mask can deform if it is left scrunched against other items in your gear bag. And clear silicone masks parts left in contact with latex rubber items can discolor over time. So, even though you are trying to conserve space in that gear bag, allow space for the mask case; it’s necessary.
Before first using a mask, it’s a good idea to rub a little traditional (non-gel) toothpaste on the inside of the mask lenses and then rinse it clean. This not only leaves the mask smelling minty-fresh – it also removes traces of matter that can deposit on the mask during manufacturing, and makes the mask much less prone to fogging during use. This is also a good idea for any mask that has been sitting unused during the off season.
Just before diving, apply a drop or two of defogging compound (available at dive centers) to the inside of each lens, rub it in, and then rinse it (with fresh water if possible). This will help prevent fogging during the dive. If defog is not available at your destination, an acceptable substitute (although not nearly as long-lasting) is baby shampoo.