Mask and Snorkel

Your mask and snorkel are two of the items you’ll want to own before you start your scuba training. Most courses require that you own your own, although you might be able to try a range of them during the first few training sessions. In this section we’ll talk about their key features, how to select the right ones for you, and the diving skills related to them.

The Mask

The mask is particularly important, as your eyes can’t focus underwater without an air space in front of them. Having a mask that fits, is comfortable to wear, and doesn’t leak is crucial to being able to enjoy a dive. Dive masks have tempered glass lenses, a sturdy frame, a strap, and a quality silicone skirt including a flexible nose pocket. The frame and skirt can be clear or colored. Note that a mask with all clear parts can be very difficult to find if it’s dropped underwater.

Masks vary in size, of course. There are masks with large teardrop-shaped lenses that give you excellent down-vision, and small spare masks that look almost like swim goggles with a nose pocket attached. Note that dive masks are always called “masks” and never “goggles.” Masks with clear skirts let in more light and can feel less confining. Some masks have small side lenses as well, to increase peripheral vision. You might hear masks referred to as high-volume or low-volume, which is another way of saying that they hold a high or low volume of air against your face. This is a (minor) factor when you need to clear a flooded mask underwater.

Let me say right now that while the thought of your mask flooding underwater might seem like the worst fate possible, every diving student learns to flood and clear the mask with ease. If you can look up in the shower without drowning, you already have the necessary technique–you’ve just never applied it to the task of clearing a mask.

Fitting a Mask

Testing a mask to see whether it fits is simple: run the strap across the front of the lenses so it’s out of the way, then place the mask on your face. Tilt your head back a bit and try to breathe in through your nose. If the skirt seals all around your face, the mask will suck down onto your face as you breathe in, and will stay firmly on your face. When trying on masks, also note whether the bridge of the mask presses on the bridge of your nose, whether the nose pocket is long enough for your nose, and whether you’re comforable with the range of vision the mask allows.

Finding the right mask can be a challenge if you have deep nasolabial folds (the facial creases that run from the nose to the lips). Try holding a scuba regulator mouthpiece in your mouth as you try on masks, and keep your face relaxed. Moustache wearers should look for a mask with a small skirt at the bottom of the nose pocket. This works better than a long skirt over moustache hair.

Other Mask Features

Neoprene mask straps and neoprene mask covers are available, often in bright colors or sporting colorful scenic prints. These not only make getting the mask on and off much easier for those with long hair, they can make your mask much easier to identify in a rinse bin.

Some masks have a purge valve at the bottom of the nose pocket, which is intended to make mask clearing easier. In my experience a purge valve actually makes the process less efficient. And it’s possible for the valve to stick open (just a grain of sand can do it), which leads to a constantly flooded mask.

If you use glasses or contact lenses, you can have corrective lenses put in your mask. These can be off-the-shelf or custom-made, and can include bifocals. One approach completely replaces the mask’s glass with custom lenses. Another approach bonds glass corrective lenses to the mask’s lenses. Of course, contact lens wearers can wear their contacts with the mask if they please. Finally, you’ll learn that the eyes see better underwater through the mask, so if you need only a small distance correction you may be pleased to find you get on well with a non-corrected mask. For those whose near vision is poor, there are “gauge readers” which can be applied to the mask lenses to create a bifocal near-vision area.

Your mask needs to be cleaned before you first use it, because the glass will have a trace coating from the manufacturing process that makes it prone to fogging. Clean the inside of the lenses with toothpaste or a purpose-made dive mask buffer. Don’t worry, you won’t scratch the glass. Buff it aggressively with your fingers until the glass squeaks. Rinse thoroughly and let it dry–defog solutions work best on dry glass.

The Snorkel

While it’s not used underwater, a good snorkel can keep you safe on the surface. And it can allow you to make long surface swims to and from the boat or shore without using up the air in your tank. Some divers will choose not to wear a snorkel on dives, especially dives where surface swims are not likely.

Snorkels are generally all the same length, as there’s no benefit to re-breathing your own exhaled air. But a top vent that incorporates a float or swivel can make the snorkel much safer to use in choppy water. These designs are called “dry” or “semi-dry” and they do a good job of keeping water out of the snorkel tube.

The most comfortable snorkels include a flexible portion at the bottom of the tube, which allows the mouthpiece to sit in your mouth without pulling. Some snorkels use replaceable mouthpieces, which can be important if your mouth size or your bite are not run-of-the-mill. And most snorkels now feature a one-way purge valve at the bottom of the tube, below the mouthpiece, to make clearing the snorkel easier. The possibility of the valve failing is less of a concern than with mask purge valves, though, as you only use the snorkel on the surface.

Finally, your snorkel is mounted on your mask strap. Scuba divers almost always wear the snorkel on their left, with their regulator hoses coming over the right shoulder. The snorkel attaches with a “snorkel keeper” which might be just a neoprene figure eight, or can be a plastic quick-disconnect affair. The key is to have a snorkel keeper which fits the snorkel tube snugly, so the snorkel doesn’t slide up or down on you.

If you’ve never used a snorkel, your first scuba pool session will cover the skills you need: correct placement (so it doesn’t flood as you swim), a smooth breathing rhythm, and how to clear the snorkel efficiently if you’re making breath-hold (snorkeling) dives.