How To Replace & Clear Your Mask
Text by Vandit Kalia,  Video by Vikas Nairi

One of the most essential skills in diving is learning to how to clear your mask.     Water entering the mask is a fairly common occurrence and learning to  clear this efficiently can make the difference between continuing to have an enjoyable diving versus one where you get stressed, with potentially dangerous consequences.   If you are nervous about clearing your mask, practice till that nervousness goes away.    You only need a couple of things to click – and once they do, they’ll remain with you forever.   Spend the time needed to nail this skill, because it really is fundamental to diving safety.


Target level of mastery:

 You should be comfortable enough with this skill so that if someone were to reach over and take your mask off without any warning and hand it back to you, you should remain calm and be able to replace your mask without getting stressed.   Experienced divers should be able to do this in the middle of the water column, without losing their buoyancy.

Steps to the skill:

1.  Focus on breathing normally – in and out from the mouth
2.  Brush your hair off your forehead and, holding the strap behind the mask, place it carefully on your face, making sure that the skirt sits properly on your face and your nose is fully inside the nose pocket.   Make sure the skirt isnt folded, your hair isnt trapped between your mask and your face, and the mask is properly aligned
3.  Swivel the strap over your head and make sure the mask is in place
4.  Push down the top of the mask against your face – remember to push IN, not UP.   If you push up, the mask may slide up on your face and expose your nose
5.  Blow forcefully from your nose into the mask while continuing to push the top down (and if you want, you can look upwards once you start to blow out).    This will force the water out of the bottom of your mask.    Then breathe in from the mouth.
6.  Repeat Step 5 once or twice more if required
Obviously, if you just need to clear your mask (ie, it is still on your face), you would do just steps 4-6.

Variants of the Drill

a) Some people like to clear the mask first (steps 4 and 5), before replacing the strap (step 3).   I prefer the sequence I described above, as there is less risk of accidentally dropping your mask, but this works as well and has the benefit of getting water out of your mask earlier – just make sure you dont move the mask too much.

b)  In step 4, instead of pushing the top of the mask down, some people like to lift the bottom of the mask from against the face a little when trying to clear it.   This also works – and actually, this is what I do myself.    However, you need to get a sense of how much to lift the mask (just a crack) and when to replace it (a fraction before you stop blowing out from the nose).   I have seen students lifting the mask way too much and/or not replacing it back in time – resulting in a small amount of residual water in the mask that they simply cannot purge.   The main method described above avoids that.

Common Errors and How to Fix Them: 

a) Breathing in from the nose:  Many people never develop the habit of breathing in entirely from the mouth, but also inhale a little from the nose.    If you try this when your mask is full of water, you will inhale salt water.    Not fun.    Make sure you breathe in only from the mouth.   A good drill to try is to immerse your head in a bathtub with just a snorkel in your mouth (no mask) and practice breathing in from the mouth and out from the nose.     Swimmers who do the crawl properly (with their face in the water) learn to do this automatically as well.
b) Breathing out from the mouth:   I see this regularly.  The student has replaced the mask properly, doing all the steps properly, but in Step 5, they blow forcefully… from the mouth.   Needless to say, the mask doesn’t get cleared.    Remember to breathe out from the nose.   Focus on the act of breathing and not anything else (this is also why I prefer my sequence of replacing the strap first – at this point, the diver doesn’t need to worry about  holding the mask in place either).
c) Mixing up the sequence of breathing:  many people get it right all the way to end of step 5.   In from the mouth. strong exhale through the nose.. and then habit kicks in and they breathe in from the nose again, much to their extreme discomfort.    Same solution as point (a) above
d) Getting stressed:  the nervous diver often responds to an unexpected mask flood (or dislodging) by getting stressed, starting to respond reflexively and getting very herky-jerky in their movements.   That’s a recipe for screw-ups.   As those who have done a buoyancy class with me know, I strongly feel that diving safety and buoyancy can be reduced to one simple thing:  the exhale.    Inhaling is easy – control your exhale and everything falls into place.    Which is why I started the skills with an obvious one:  breathe normally.   Deep inhales & long slow exhales.   You have the reg in your mouth.   You are good.   If you are still nervous, pinch your nose till you calm down (you can also use this technique as a fall-back to ascent safely, if you simply are unable to clear the mask)


Really, there is no way to completely prevent water entering the mask.      Even the best of masks can leak sometimes, for a bunch of reasons – or sometimes, you may even deliberately let water in, in order to get rid of fogging.   However, you can avoid most cases by ensuring that you have a mask that is a good fit.  And the only way to ensure this on a consistent basis is by having your own mask.   This doesn’t just mean significantly reduced chances of water coming in – it also means greater comfort (an ill-fitting mask can pinch against the bottom of your nose, the bridge of your nose or even your brow) and reduced chances of fogging (once you de-fog it properly).   Masks are cheap enough (eg, we have masks starting at under Rs 2000) that this is a fairly small investment to make towards increased safety and comfort.

When Technique Simply Isnt Enough

Many many years ago, I was teaching a class to 6 divers.   I had a slight case of sniffles earlier, but it was very minor and I could still pop my ears and since we were only doing a confined water class, I thought I’d be good.   We get in the water, I got the students comfy and we did the initial skills, including regulator recovery.   Then it came time to clear the mask,   With 6 pairs of expectant eyes looking at me, I slowly and in perfect demonstration form, lifted the bottom of my mask to let some water in and showed the half-full mask to everyone,     Now, again with slow and deliberate movements, I put my hand on my forehead, pushing the mask in (step 4) and exhaled forcefully.   Or tried to, because nothing happened.   My nose had, unbeknownst to me, gotten completely blocked in the 15-20 minutes I had been in the water.
The students were still looking at me expectantly.    So I give it another go.   Still nothing.   Now I can start to see some quizzical expressions on their faces as if to say “is something supposed to happen?   The water is still there”.    Damn.    This was starting to getting embarrassing.   So I breathed in and did the mightiest, most forceful exhale of my life – and promptly replaced the water in the mask with the snot from my (very large) nose.    Since that was not exactly the visual I wanted to imprint on the students, I reflexively turned around, ripped the mask off my face and scrubbed the snot off – before realizing how it must have appeared to the students:  the instructor unable to clear his mask, turning around and ripping it off. Not one of my high points as an instructor.  Thankfully, that forceful expulsion cleared my sinuses for good and I was able to teach the rest of the class without incident.   However, there is an important takeaway here – pushing the limits of standard diving protocols can have unexpected and unwelcome consequences.    Everyone knows not to dive when you are unwell – and yet, it is fairly common to see that happening, especially among dive professionals.     But just because you can get away with a bunch of times doesn’t mean you can get away with always.   That’s the principle of Normalization of Deviation – and something to be very wary of.

Note:   This article is meant to provide a review of the proper way to replace and clear a mask.   It does not replace proper scuba training under a qualified instructor.   For certified divers who may be rusty or unsure about their skills, this does not replace a proper skills review either.    Remember:  you do not learn diving skills by reading about them.   You learn them by practising them in the water, and this article is merely meant to supplement that.   Not replace it.    Relying too much on this article, or using it to replace in-water training increases your chances of getting hurt.