If you’re reading this, you probably made up your mind about getting your own dive gear. We will start this series with the most basic, but also one of the most important pieces of equipment: the mask.
A mask can make or break a dive. The mask you don’t think about during a dive is the one that is comfortable, fits well, and gives you great vision. On the other hand, a mask that doesn’t fit your face well, pushes against your nose, fogs up, and constantly fills up with water will certainly ruin your dive. Constantly having to fiddle with your mask will distract you from the work you’re doing, and frequently purging your mask will only increase your air consumption. The first and most important consideration when it comes to a dive mask is therefore a proper and comfortable fit. Luckily, there are hundreds of different types of masks out there, for every type of face. Masks range in price from as little as $15 to well over $200; look for the best fitting mask without looking at price. A cheap but uncomfortable mask is a waste of money.
Besides mask shape, there are a few other features that affect how a mask fits. First is the mask skirt. Some manufacturers, such as Tusa, have added skirts of varying thickness to their masks, whereby the end of the skirt is much thinner than the base (where it attaches to the frame. This makes these masks very comfortable to wear as the skirt wraps more precisely around your face. Some masks also feature a swivel buckle where the strap attaches. This allows for a bit more flexibility when donning.
After fit, the next thing you want to consider is whether to get a mask with dark or a clear skirt. If your eyes are sensitive to sunlight, or you plan on snorkeling a lot or diving in shallow water with a bright sandy bottom, you’ll probably want a dark skirt which shades your eyes and reduces glare. A clear skirt, on the other hand, provides a bit of a wider view and a more open feel. Moreover, a clear skirt is usually preferred by photographers when a model is used in a picture. On archaeological projects, divers are often used as models in field photos to show how research is being carried out or to provide a sense of scale or perspective to an object or site. A clear skirt will show more of the diver’s face in the image. Take a look at the pictures on this website to see how many divers have clear vs dark mask skirts. Whatever you choose, the skirt of your mask should be made of hypoallergenic silicone. The cheaper alternatives are natural rubber and PVC, which are prone to hardening, cracking, and sun damage over time.
On to the lens, which comes in numerous shapes and sizes. Some people prefer the wide, open feel of a single lens, while others prefer double lenses. Single lens masks usually have a larger internal volume, which makes purging water from the mask a little more difficult. Some single lens frameless masks, however, have a fairly low internal volume. An example is the Apeks VX1, which is one of our favorite masks. Some single lens masks even feature small side lenses, such as the Scubapro CrystalVu. The single lens vs double lens decision depends largely on personal preference and shape of one’s face. What is important though is that you choose a mask with tempered lenses, which shatter into blunt granules instead of sharp splinters and shards. Lenses of cheap masks are usually not tempered. A final consideration is getting a mask featuring lenses with UV protection and anti-reflective treatments.
Last is the mask strap. When you buy a mask, make sure to buy a spare strap for it as well, and bring it whenever you’re diving. Straps can and will break unexpectedly, usually when it is inconvenient. While most masks come with a silicone strap, you can choose to replace it with a neoprene version. These don’t break as easily, and have the added benefit that they float, meaning you won’t lose your mask when it falls overboard (we’ve seen this happen several times). Neoprene straps are not as flexible as silicone ones, but have a different, more rigid fit which some people don’t like.
People often ask us about full face masks. While they can be easier to breathe from, prevent jaw fatigue, and don’t restrict vision as much, they are expensive, very bulky and require additional practice to use properly. One of the main advantages of a full face mask is the option to talk to one another. While at first glance, this seems to be an important feature for underwater archaeologists, during all our underwater research and field schools we’ve never felt this was actually needed. What is most important in underwater research is that the dives are carefully planned, whereby everyone knows their roles, and everyone knows what to do in case plans change. If a dive is well planned and everyone is on the same page, a few hand signals or a few words written down on a slate will suffice in most situations. For underwater archaeologists, full face masks therefore usually create more problems than they solve.
As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider when buying a mask. Try a variety of masks to see which ones you like, or look back in your log books to see if you took any notes on rental masks. Many models come in a wide variety of colors, so you can often find one that matches the rest of your gear. Whichever mask you choose, above all, make sure it’s comfortable!