There are countless different types of masks to try and much of your selection will be down to the shape of your face and your personal preferences. Regardless of these, you should always go for a quality dive mask that has a 100% surgical grade silicone seal. Many manufacturers do not mark on the packaging or the mask that the seal is 100% silicone so you will have to do some research here or rely on the honesty of the shop assistant. A trained eye will be able to tell the difference between a 100% silicone mask and an inferior rubber substitute, beware however, as many manufacturers do not use 100% silicone in their seals (names such as Silitex should be avoided as they are not 100% silicone.) Masks that are not 100% silicone will tend to harden, crack, split and warp over time, meaning that even if they were a perfect fit for you initially, after a while they will leak. The added benefit of silicone is that it is a very hygienic material.
Fitting a mask
Once you have found a good selection of 100% silicone masks, try them for fit by performing the following steps:
(i) Place the mask on your face without pulling the mask strap over your head. Gently push on the front of the mask with 2 fingers and breathe in through your nose. A good fitting mask will seal with no leaks. If the mask does not seal properly first time, check that you have no hair in the mask or that the strap is not caught. Once checked, if the mask still does not seal properly, put the mask back, you never want to see it again!
(ii) All good quality masks should have an inner seal (“the second seal”). Once you have found a mask that seals, get your buddy to check that the second seal also seals the face all around. The second seal should not cut across eye sockets and should be sealed flat to you face the whole way around.
(iii) Now place the strap over your head and adjust for comfort. Have a look around, up, down, side to side to check out the field of vision. As a general rule, low volume masks offer an extra wide field of vision than larger masks available but may not be suitable due to face shape. Various options to increase range of vision in masks exist including single screen lens, side windows and low cut lens.
(iv) With your mask secured, pinch the nose pocket with the thumb and forefinger to simulate equalisation techniques. If you normally dive with gloves, try this whilst wearing gloves. In my experience, the nose pocket on some masks is not easily accessible and this is therefore a useful test.
(v) By now you should have narrowed down your options based on fit, comfort, vision and personal preferences. Now the fun bit of selecting colour! There can be many choices of frame colour based on the latest trends, manufacturer and mask model. Usually however, there is a choice of seal colour of just two, black silicone or clear (although this is slowly starting to change.) Clear silicone skirts on masks allow more light into the mask to allow a more open feeling. Divers with clear masks also make better photo subjects, allowing the additional light to highlight the eyes of the model. However, over time, clear silicone tends to discolour going more opaque in nature and often yellow. Black silicone skirts look cool and have the added benefit of not discolouring. The black silicone eliminates light allowing the diver to focus on a subject, this is particularly useful for underwater photographers. However, you may find the lack of light a little claustrophobic.
Corrective vision options
In terms of corrective vision, if you suffer from only mild near or farsightedness, you will probably find that you may not require any correction. Refraction of light in water passing through your mask glass and into the mask air space naturally results in items becoming magnified. In general, objects appear 25% closer and 33% larger under water than in air. If your vision is less than mildly imperfect, you should consider your corrective options to ensure that you get the most from your underwater experiences and are able to read key data such as air pressure on your SPG!
Many divers wear contact lens whilst diving and this is perfectly safe assuming that the lens are gas permeable and that your optometrist has not advised otherwise. Be prepared however, that if you flood your mask, you risk losing a lens, so carrying a spare set of lens when diving is advisable.
Many dive shops will carry a range of corrective lens in both plus and minus prescriptions in 0.5 dioptre increments. These lenses are pre-cut for a particular mask model that will usually have a split screen option to allow for different prescriptions to be fitted independently for each eye. An experienced sales assistant will be able to fit such lens in a matter of minutes. Given that the number of masks that pre-cut prescriptive lens can be fitted to however, you will need to be satisfied that the particular mask is a good fit for you and meets your requirements.
If you are not able to wear contact lens or find a suitably fitting mask that accommodates pre-cut prescriptive lens, you will need to have your prescription put into your mask by an optician bonding lenses into your mask. This method is the most costly option for correction, however, is a good option for people with astigmatism or significant far sightedness. For more information on poor eyesight and diving, click here.
Adjusting your mask
Like any new equipment, diving with a new mask may require a couple of dives to ensure optimal fit and adjustment. In my experience, the first seal that you get on a mask is always the best – ask any Open Water student about how their mask performed after they had flooded their mask! With this in mind, it is worth spending time prior to initial descent on ensuring that the mask is properly adjusted and in place. Many divers make the mistake of wearing the mask strap too low (the strap should be reasonably high on the back of your head), or the actual mask too high, in some cases with nostrils sticking out of the bottom of the mask! Some masks have side adjust straps that you can lock into a tilted position that best suits your face shape so this will require some refinement to determine what suits you best. Do not make the mistake of wearing the strap too tight. Over tightening of mask straps can result in your face shape being changed and ultimately ensuring that the mask that fit you, no longer fits. Also spend some time ensuring that there are minimal smile lines under the seal, you may need to straighten these out to avoid leakage. Remember however, that any joking underwater resulting in smiling will result in mask leakage no matter how good your mask fits.
If you have facial hair, no matter how good your mask fits you, you will probably always suffer from mask leakage, as a good seal is hard to achieve with hair. If this is the case, a smear of petroleum jelly on the seal of your mask should help. Without this, you will no doubt discover that the mask will leak up to where you have hair. Clean-shaven is clearly the best way to be as a diver if you want to avoid problems with your mask!
Strap tamers – the essential add-on
Finally, I recommend purchasing a mask tamer strap (or “slap strap”) to fit to your mask. Mask tamers are simply neoprene sleeves that fit onto your mask strap and help protect your hair from getting caught in your strap. Even if you have little or no hair, a strap with a tamer is much more comfortable and ensures easy strap placement. Choose one that is brightly coloured so that your buddy can easily recognise you. It is a good idea to write your name on the inside of your mask tamer with a permanent marker so that you can readily identify your equipment especially when many divers have similar equipment. A mask with a tamer has the added advantage that it will float if dropped (or sink very slowly with a snorkel attached) to help prevent equipment loss.
Caring for your mask
After use, rinse your mask in freshwater. Warm freshwater has the added benefit of more readily dissolving any salt particles from your equipment. A small amount of detergent may be added if desired such as dish washing liquid. Milton solution (normally used for sterilising babies bottles!) is excellent for rescuing clear silicone masks which can often turn discoloured over time. Once washed, allow to dry thoroughly and store in a cool dry location out of direct sunlight. Whilst silicone is virtually indestructible, in tropical locations, cockroaches love to eat silicone so beware!
With proper care, your mask will last you for many years to come. I still have my original dive mask from 15 years ago and only changed it because I wanted a different colour!
Other useful articles on choosing dive gear:
» Investing in dive gear - what to buy & when