Techniques and Tips for Mastering Mask Clearing

From ScubaDiveDestinations.com

Both as a student and as an instructor, I have firsthand experience of the difficulties caused by mask clearing skills. As a student, I experienced a sudden, gripping claustrophobia upon flooding my mask for the first time, which triggered blind panic and caused me to rapidly bolt for the surface. I was fortunate that in that particular instance, bolting for the surface merely consisted of standing up; still, it took a very long time for me personally to achieve mask clearing proficiency. As an instructor, I have seen that same terror on the faces of countless students, as they struggled to master a skill that is perhaps the most unnatural of any required by entry level dive courses.

The feeling of water seeping into a mask and into your nostrils is one that instinctively causes fear- perhaps because it makes us feel as though we are unable to breathe, perhaps because our vulnerability and our reliance on our scuba gear for survival underwater is never more real than when that gear appears to be failing. The PADI Open Water course requires students to perform mask clearing skills in one form or another no less than four times during confined water sessions, and another four times in open water. I have been asked by students over and over again why this skill has to be repeated so many times- and the answer is, as unpleasant as it is for many people, it may one day save your life.

It is a fact, rather than a possibility, that at some point during your time underwater your mask will leak. Whether the leak is a minor one, caused by a hair trapped beneath your mask seal, or whether it is a major one, caused by a broken mask strap, the sudden influx of water and the resulting impairment of vision is likely to cause panic if unprepared. Panic is the number one cause of diver fatality, particularly when it results in a rapid ascent- therefore, learning how prevent it by being able to deal calmly with any unexpected situations may quite literally be the difference between life and death. Less drastically, diving with a mask half-filled with water is irritating and can ruin a dive- that alone should be a good enough motive to want to master mask clearing.

Masks leak or flood underwater for any number of reasons- misplacement, inverted seals, collision with other divers’ hands or fins… the list is endless. Sometimes, you might even choose to flood your mask underwater, particularly in the event that your lenses become fogged up during the dive. Learning how to deal with a flooded mask is a crucial skill, which, though sometimes scary, can like any other skill be mastered with the correct technique and a lot of repetitive practice. Remember, new skills should never be attempted without the supervision of a qualified scuba instructor, and you should only practice on your own after entry level certification.

The first key to successful mask clearing is making sure that you are using the right technique. In water shallow enough to stand in, first make sure that you are sufficiently stabilized by spreading your knees wide and making sure your weights are evenly distributed. Release all of the air from your BCD so that you are negatively buoyant, and not struggling to remain on the bottom whilst performing the skill. Prepare to clear your mask by breathing slowly and deeply in through your mouth and out through your nose, establishing a rhythm that you can focus on and maintain throughout the skill. Visualize the steps taught to you by your instructor before starting, so that you know exactly what you are about to do.

When you are ready, pull the top of your mask frame gently away from your face, breaking the seal and allowing water to trickle into the mask. This should be done slowly- a sudden flow of water into the mask triggers a gasp reflex that causes you to instinctively inhale through the nose, making you choke. When the water reaches just below eye level, take a deep breath in through your mouth, look down and then start to exhale through the nose whilst tilting your head towards the surface and pressing the top frame of your mask tightly against your face. Leave a small gap at the bottom of the mask as you do so, so that the air from your nose can force the water to escape.

Make sure to look down and start exhaling through your nose before looking up- in that way, water won’t run into your nostrils and cause you to feel as though you can’t breathe. It is up to you whether you want to keep your eyes open or close them- if you wear contacts however, you must close your eyes. If you find that a single exhalation is not enough to clear your mask, don’t panic- simply allow the seal to fall back into place and repeat the steps after breathing in once more through your mouth, until all the water is gone. For many people, learning the correct technique is enough to help overcome their fear- once the skill has been performed successfully, they know that it can be done and repetition to create confidence is all that is needed to achieve mastery. For others, different approaches are required before mask clearing becomes easy. If you find that you are experiencing difficulties even with the right technique, the following steps may be helpful.

Practice breathing without a mask on the surface- for some people, the concept of breathing in through the mouth and out through the nose is the real hurdle, and practice in a controlled environment can help to make this feel more natural. Whilst standing, sitting or kneeling in shallow water, try breathing through a regulator or snorkel without using your mask at all. Practice breathing in through your mouth and out through your nose, and use the time to get used to the feeling of water in and around your nostrils. If you need to, hold your nose at first, and gradually practice letting go until you can breathe easily without having to do so at all. Breathe slowly and regularly, focusing on each breath and on staying calm, remembering that you are completely safe- at any time, you can simply lift your head out of the water and be able to breathe normally again. You can do this in the bath with a snorkel- away from the pressures of a classroom environment, you may find it much easier to control your fear.

Once you feel comfortable breathing with your face submerged without a mask, you are ready to try mask clearing again. If you need to, go through the steps and the motions of clearing a mask on dry land- literally talk yourself through breaking the seal, looking down, and starting to exhale through the nose while tilting your head skywards. Once in the water, take it slowly- first, practice tilting your head back and exhaling through the nose without flooding the mask; then, repeat after allowing a very small amount of water to trickle into the mask, incrementally increasing the volume of water until you have worked your way up to a full mask flood and clear. When you’ve got it, don’t stop- practice over and over again until the skill bores you and your actions in response to a flooded mask become instinctive rather than panicked.

Ultimately, a flooded mask is a common occurrence underwater, and dealing with it shouldn’t be perceived as an emergency, but rather as part and parcel of being a competent, confident diver.

Jessica Vyvyan-Robinson

Originally from England, I first learned to dive so that I could go cage diving with great whites off Guadalupe Island, Mexico, in 2008. From that first shark encounter onwards, I have been utterly hooked on the underwater world, and particularly on the issue of shark conservation. Whilst studying for my degree in London, I worked at London Aquarium, before going to Mozambique to research whale sharks off Tofo. I completed my PADI Instructor’s course while living in South Africa, and spent nine months teaching and guiding on Aliwal Shoal, where I set up a tiger shark ID project and began writing for the conservation organisation Shark Angels. In September last year, I set off on a thirteen month journey around South East Asia, Fiji and New Zealand, and am currently instructing in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo.

Jessica now writes for several scuba diving publications including Scuba Dive Tourism and Marketing and ScubaDiveDestinations.com