Scared of Water in Your Diving Mask?

Here's how to overcome your fear

Teenage boy with diving mask in ocean
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Open-water diving courses—the prerequisite for the lowest-level recreational diving certification—require candidates to recover from mask flooding in the open-water course's final in-water test.

Water inevitably leaks into a scuba mask. That said, watching your mask fill with water when you're 60 feet below will turn into a life-threatening crisis if you're not prepared to address the problem calmly and with a practiced hand. Try one or more of five time-tested techniques, under the supervision of a certified dive instructor, to help you gain the confidence to clear a flooded diving mask.

Practice Breathing Without a Mask on the Surface

The first step in overcoming your fear is to prove to yourself that you can breathe without a mask in the first place. This step develops confidence that you won't die underwater without a mask on, and that it is possible to breathe with water surrounding your nose.

Stand, kneel or sit in shallow water. While breathing from a scuba regulator or a snorkel, but without using a mask, lower your face into the water. Practice breathing slowly and calmly. Inhale and exhale with your mouth. If you feel water entering your nose, breathe in your mouth and out your nose.

Breathing in this manner may feel uncomfortable at first, but stick with it. Remember that you are in control, and that you can lift your face out of the water whenever you like. Practice this skill until breathing through a regulator or snorkel with your face submerged feels routine.

Perform Mask-Clearing Drills

After proving to yourself that you won't immediately drown when you breathe with your nose in the water, build confidence in your mask clearing skills. Having water in your mask is less scary when you've mastered how to remove it.

Underwater (under the supervision of an instructor, if this is your first time) practice the breath control required for mask clearing. Hold the upper frame of the mask against your forehead, look up and exhale through your nose with a long, slow stream. Air should bubble out from the lower portion of the mask; the air will displace the water in the upper part of the mask. Ask an instructor or buddy to observe your practice and provide feedback. Practice inhaling with your mouth and exhaling through your nose until you're comfortable with this breathing pattern.

Start With a Small Amount of Water in Your Mask

When training yourself to become comfortable with water in your mask, you should allow only a small amount of water into the mask at first. Pinch the top seal of the mask gently between two fingers and allow a few drops of water to trickle in. Do not fill the mask to eye-level on your first try. Practice emptying the mask of this tiny amount of water. As you become comfortable, fill the mask more and more until you can comfortably clear a fully flooded mask. Only after becoming confident clearing a fully flooded mask should you practice removing the mask and replacing it underwater.

Practice Clearing Your Mask Repetitively in Calm, Shallow Water

Before hitting the ocean (or even the deep end of the pool) practice allowing water into your mask and blowing it out until you are bored with the skill. Practice clearing the mask of water in different positions: swimming, hovering, laying on the floor, etc. The point is to make this simple skill routine and to gain muscle memory. After you can perform the skill mindlessly in a controlled environment you will no longer panic when water enters your mask.

Put Water in Your Mask on Every Dive—On Purpose!

The key to mastering scuba diving skills is repetition and practice. A proficient diver can execute diving skills automatically without fear or hesitation. Of course, many diving skills require a series of steps which must be practiced deliberately at first, but with repeated practice, even a complicated skill becomes automatic.

With this training approach in mind, consider that your work is not done just because a water-logged mask fails to alarm you. Even if you have overcome your fear, you must periodically reinforce your confidence by allowing water into your mask and clearing it. A diver who is nervous about water in his mask should purposefully flood his mask on every dive. Not only does he reinforce the skill but repetition over a long period of time will strengthen his muscle memory and ensure that he reacts properly in an unexpected situation.

Advanced Mask-Clearing Techniques

Divers who cannot shake their fear of a flooded mask tend to not be divers for long. However, even mastering mask-clearing techniques as an open-water diver presents the tip of the training iceberg. As divers obtain additional specialized certifications—like wreck diving, ice diving, night diving or rescue diving—the situations that accompany a flooded mask tend to be more complicated. Not only does the "muscle memory" need to be automatic, but you'll also be addressing other panic-prone situations simultaneously. You'll likely find it valuable to practice mask-flooding or mask-loss drills in more complex diving situations as your overall diving proficiency increases.

After all, it's easy to practice a mask-recovery drill in the shallow end of a YMCA pool. The real question, though, is: will you be ready to recover your mask when it gets knocked off after you take a wrong turn inside a pitch-black wreck at 120 feet, and your flashlight's just gone dead?