ABOUT FACE MASKS
Our Advice: wide black skirt, double lenses, frameless, silicon mask strap with simple but robust connection. Aim for good seal, wide field of view and low volume.
You cannot use swimming goggles for diving. It is essential that the mask covers your nose to allow equalisation of the airspace, otherwise it will become painfully tight as you descend.
Most of the choice between face masks is between the shape and width of the skirt. This is the part you must ensure fits comfortably to your face. The frame and lenses are secondary considerations.
Matching skirt shape to face shape is largely commonsense: If you have a horizontally narrow face (long or oval) you will need a horizontally narrow mask skirt, if you have a wide face (round, heart, or square) you will need a wide mask skirt. If you have a vertically long face (long or oval) you might be more comfortable with a vertically long mask skirt, if you have a short face (round, heart, or square) you might be more comfortable with a short mask.
Skirt width (the width of the flat silicon band actually in contact with your face) is also important. Wider skirt widths allow for more potential contact area to form a seal, and so accommodate more facial features. For example, smile lines and wrinkles can break contact with a thin skirt letting water into the mask, but are likely to be fine with a wide skirt. Moustaches require a wide skirt.
As a practical test, put the mask to your face without putting on the mask strap. Make sure you have no hair under the mask skirt. Inhale through your nose and hold a slight negative pressure inside the mask. If the mask maintains the negative pressure (sucks slightly against your face) and remains stuck to your face, then it fits properly. If air comes into the mask from around the mask skirt, and the mask falls off your face, then it does not fit properly.
Transparent vs black skirt
There is no peripheral vision advantage to transparent skirts, both transparent and black skirts obstruct your vision equally, however your brain finds it harder to trick you into not seeing the black border around your vision.
Transparent masks can be better for photography allowing a less interrupted view of the model’s face. However, care must be taken lest everyone see the water and snot pooling in your transparent nose piece. Black masks look cooler.
Frame vs frameless masks
Frameless designs are newer, and were made possible by improved manufacturing processes. In a frameless design the lens is held in place by an extension of the silicon skirt, and will sit closer to your eyes. The result is a smaller airspace (ideal for CCR and freediving), and a wider field of vision. They also fit easier in a pocket as a backup mask.
The older style where the lens is held in place by a rigid frame is still preferred by some divers for comfort reasons, such as where the shape of their face makes a frameless mask rub against the forehead.
Single lens vs double lenses
This is very much a point of personal preference. The single lens offers an uninterrupted forward view but creates a larger air space. Double lenses do not need to make space for the bridge of the nose so can sit closer to your eyes for smaller air space and wider field of view.
Tempered glass is essential for safety when the glass is right in front of your eyes. Plastics scratch easily and quickly become cloudy. Avoid cheap masks, there is no point being underwater if you cannot see anything.
Some spearfishing masks come with reflective lenses. For scuba diving this is a communication and safety problem – your buddy must be able to see your eyes (e.g. to identify panic or hypoxia).
First pay attention to the connection between the strap and the skirt or frame. Is it well built out of reliable materials or is it a flimsy rubber connection likely to be the point of failure? A simple strap holding mechanism is essential. Avoid plastic buckles and complicated button arrangements as these will break first.
The mask strap should be comfortable and include retainers for the excess length. A silicon strap broken into top and bottom halves for stability is comfortable over the ears but may catch long hair. Neoprene and Velcro straps are good for long hair and when wearing a hood, but may rub against the top of the ear when worn on a bear head.
Unless knocked, your mask should stay on your face without needing the strap. The strap is largely for adjustments for comfort, security against accidental knocks, and retaining the mask during clearing or accidental nose exhalation. Your mask strap should be comfortable – too loose might let your mask come off, but too tight will be uncomfortable and interfere with the skirt’s seal and cause your mask to leak.
Extras such as purge valves and side-view lenses are expensive gimmicks best avoided. Under no circumstances should you ever be seen wearing a snorkel mask.
Preparing a facemask for use
Masks are treated by manufacturers with a light coating of silicon for storage. This coating must be cleaned off before use otherwise your mask will instantly and hopelessly fog up underwater. There are two methods for cleaning:
1. Rub oven cleaner, toothpaste, or other light abrasive liquid against the inside lens surface, or
2. Burn the silicon off by the gentle application of heat with a cigarette lighter.
With both methods you can quickly remove the worst of the silicon coating from the center of the lens to the edges. Doing the job properly requires removing the lenses from the frame or skirt and cleaning all the way to the edge of the glass.
Check the effectiveness of your cleaning by puffing on the glass and watching how quickly it fogs up and if the fog lingers.
ABOUT DIVE FINS
Our Advice: open heel, stainless steel springs, foot pocked upper edge to be shaped or softened, wide side panels, negatively buoyant.
Open heel vs closed heel
Open heel fins work with boots, the fin strap wraps around the heel of the boot to hold the fin on. Boots may be necessary with a wetsuit for rocky entry conditions or cooler water temperatures, and are integrated as part of a drysuit.
If the top edge of open heel fins is too straight or rigid, it can cause a sore spot on the top of your foot and wear against boots, so the better designs will use shaped foot pockets and heat softened upper edges.
Closed heel fins hold your foot inside a rubber pocket, usually with an open toe for a more general size fit. They are only suitable for boat dives and easy sand entry shore dives in tropical water. It is more comfortable to walk around in boots than barefoot over rock and coral entries while carrying lots of weight.
Blade materials and buoyancy
Over-engineered fins with alternating panels of rigid plastics and soft rubber will suffer a mixture of cracks and tears. The best designs are single piece moulded rubber, which is simple and unbreakable.
Different materials give positive, negative, and neutral buoyancy options. Negative buoyancy fins help even out the high centre of mass on a twinset and counter the buoyancy of drysuit boots.
Side panels and raised ridges
Side panels and raised ridges (along the length of the fin) direct water along the blade instead of slipping over the side and wasting part of the kicking movement, increasing the efficiency of movement.
Tall side panels running along the edges of the blade are an essential surface area for advanced finning techniques such as back-kicking (which uses the outside edge of the fin for propulsion not the blade).
Blade vs split fins
Where the blade design works like a paddle, split fins generate propulsion by forcing water through the split.
Split fins are a useful tool for specific purposes. Namely, they are good in calm open water, without current or silt, and because there is less water resistance to each kick, they are suitable for divers with weaker or injured legs. They do not provide enough power for current, and they do not adequately focus and limit water movements to avoid stirring up silt or damaging the environment.
Springs vs straps and buckles
Stainless steel springs do not require fiddling about with buckles and length adjustments in the water and do not break.
Straps and buckles are the most common equipment failure that could keep you on the boat. If your fins do use straps and buckles, make sure to have a spare of each with you.
Particularly on technical trips everyone's fins look the same so readily identifiable markings are a good idea. Make sure your markings will look good in the photos though.