Your First Dive Gear: Masks and Snorkels
The most important thing about a dive mask is the fit. Everything else, however important you think it is, is secondary. A poorly-fitting mask will leak. Leaks lead to annoyance, snotty noses, foggy masks, stinging eyes, and, in some cases, sheer, uncontrollable panic.
Your mask may be sleek in design, have rose tinted lenses and the most dynamic of colour schemes for its frame, but you’re never going to look any better with fogged up lenses and snot streaming out of the nose pocket, and you’ll be super annoyed if you don’t see the whale shark that cruises by as a result.
If it doesn’t fit, it’s no good.
Firstly – a warning. Do not plump for the cheap mask-and-snorkel sets that you can find at any ramshackle beach-front hut. Go to a dedicated dive shop, buy a mask made for scuba diving!
The classic test to check the fit is to apply the mask to your face without using the strap, and inhale through your nose. Be prepared to catch it. If it falls off your face then it’s not a good fit and you should not purchase it. If it falls onto the floor and smashes into pieces, then it’s not a good fit but you will have to purchase it anyway.
If the fit is good, then it should stick to your face when you inhale through your nose and there should be no leaks. If you can still breathe, it doesn’t fit.
Once a mask passes the 'no strap' test, apply the strap and tighten it so that it’s comfortable, but not restrictive. If the strap is too tight, it will force the skirt outwards, which will cause it to leak, plus you get that 'I’ve just been diving' panda-style indentation around your face when you take it off. A correctly adjusted mask should pop away from your face by around a centimeter when you pull it outwards.
Nose shapes vary, of course, and the nose pocket is the main point of failure of most masks, and not just because you’ve got a big hooter. Once it’s comfortably adjusted, wiggle your face around while breathing in through your nose - move your cheeks and open and close your mouth. If possible, see how it works while you have a regulator or snorkel in your mouth.
Try as many different varieties as you can, and find the one that fits you best, and then you can move on from there.
Remember – facial hair can prevent the mask from sealing correctly against your face. Clearly this applies to men (mostly), so if you’re regularly clean shaven then it’s a good idea to clear away that weekend stubble before you go to the dive shop to try on masks, but if you are the magnificently mustachioed-type and are unwilling to remove it then you may wish to consider smoothing it down with an appropriate wax – Vaseline works well at a push. This is not a jest – I have met plenty of bearded gentlemen who remove their masterpiece for dive holidays.
The secondary considerations are functional as well as cosmetic and everybody has different preferences which may not be wholly apparent until you get in the water but I put them broadly into three further categories: black or clear skirts, single or double lens, and low profile.
Black skirted-masks with solid black frames (sometimes just referred to simply as black masks) are a bit like Marmite – you either love them or hate them. Some people like them because they reduce glare – which is especially handy for photographers – but others feel as if their vision is restricted and makes them feel a little claustrophobic. I’m very firmly in the second camp, but I’m not a photographer and that’s my personal preference. Many divers swear by them.
For single or double lenses – price might be a factor, as is personal preference, and overall comfort. Because of the shape of my nose and brow I find the plastic bit of the frame in the middle of some (not all) double-lensed masks tends to push into the bridge of my nose and I find this very uncomfortable so I tend to go for the single lens, which I also like for the enhanced field of vision. The disadvantage is that single lens masks tend to have a slightly higher interior volume which therefore means they take a little more effort to clear. For the more experienced diver this is not an issue – it shouldn’t really be an issue for any diver, but it will not help if a person already has some difficulty clearing the mask.
Low-profile masks are designed to reduce the interior volume and make it easier to clear. Some of them are so easy to clear you won’t even have to think about it, but again, they’re not for everybody. I had a bizarre problem where my eyelashes kept batting against the lens every time I blinked which became super-annoying (and no, I wasn’t wearing mascara!). However, any issues with comfort such as this would hopefully be apparent when you try it on in the shop.
Love them or hate them, snorkels are often very useful; sometimes essential. The most important thing is that they are easy to clear, and the best snorkels are those that have the simple dump valve in the mouthpiece, and a shield at the top to help prevent splashes getting into the tube. There are some gimmicky devices which are supposed to prevent water entry, but my personal opinion is that they’re mostly unnecessary, especially if they significantly increase the price. The clip that attaches the snorkel to the mask, however, can be more or a problem than the snorkel itself. If I had to recommend an attachment, it would be of a type that fastens securely but is easy to unclip and remove the snorkel if necessary, without having to remove the mask in order to do so. Functional, not fancy, is the way to go.
COMING UP NEXT: FINS – AND SEE MARK'S INTRO TO THIS SERIES OF ARTICLES