As a PADI Pro, you get to witness anticipation turned into passion and fear changed into courage! Helping novice divers conquer tricky skills can be extremely rewarding and is one of the reasons why I love being a dive instructor. Let’s dive into a skill that is tough to master for many student divers: teaching mask clearing. In two decades of diving instruction, I’ve seen it all – from quick learners to those who need a lot more TLC, but I can honestly say I never had a student who could not master this skill in the end.

 

Spotting potential challenges

First things first, did you know you can spot potential mask-clearing stumblebums even before they put their head underwater? Sure! You can spot on the surface if someone’s nose-breathing with their mask on.

For sure, underwater you can clearly see if they are exhaling through their nose. The bubbles should be coming from the regulator, not from the mask. Trust me, it’s a telltale sign of mask-clearing challenges to come.

It’s a brain thing – distinguishing between nose and mouth can be confusing. The strange thing is that when these students HAVE to exhale from their nose they will most likely blow out through their mouth and regulator. Don’t ask me why. I guess our brain works in a funny way.

Obviously, they will not get the water out this way and at one point they’ll INHALE through their nose. That usually ends with a noseful of H2O and a trip to the surface. There’s a good chance they’ll spit out their regulator in a reflex, so be ready for that.

PADI IDC Mask clearing

Teaching mask clearing: Your game plan

So, what’s the game plan if that happens? Luckily, we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeves that we’ve learned in the IDC. Right? Check your IDC slates. What does it say about the debriefing? Positive reinforcement, Problem, Solution. The things you’ve learned actually make sense for any skill including teaching mask clearing.

First of all, we want to keep the student motivated so, we use positive reinforcement. Telling them what they’ve done right is just as important as what they’ve done wrong (or not right yet).

It takes some experience to pinpoint the exact problem but let’s say in this case you noticed the bubbles coming from their regulator. Your student is probably not aware of that so you need to tell them what the ‘problem’ is.

And of course, you need to offer a solution. Your Course Director probably taught you that learning happens in small steps, so in this case, a possible solution is to make the steps smaller. You can ask a student to do the skill without letting water in their mask. Just practice the movement of breathing in through their mouth and out through their nose. You can even start by doing this above the water.

Letting the student breathe underwater with a little water in their mask can also help to reduce the tendency to inhale through their nose. They can pinch their nose first if they feel uncomfortable.
You want to make sure that your students show ‘mastery’ before moving to the next step.

PADI diver with mask

Spotting the problem

Like I said, it takes some experience to pinpoint the problem. Here are a few other things that I have seen with my students.

Sometimes the students seem to do the movement correctly. They’re exhaling nicely from their nose but the water is just not coming out. Obviously, if the student is lifting the mask up too high, the water will run in, just as fast as they blow it out. That’s easy enough. Tell them to press on the top of the mask, not lift it.

If you are not sure what is going wrong, look where the bubbles come from. If they are coming from the side or even from the top of the mask, the hand positioning is probably not correct or the mask may be too large.

If you see the bubbles coming from the bottom of the mask but the water is not running out, then probably the student is wearing their mask too ‘high’ up against their nose and is blowing straight into the water instead of in their mask. Tell the student to pull the mask down so that the lower skirt makes a seal against their lips. Reposition the mask strap so that it is above the ears and don’t pull it too tight.

Most students pull their mask strap way too tight anyway! This may cause the mask to leak more and make it more difficult to clear. I sometimes like to show my students that it’s possible to wear my mask without the strap. The water pressure keeps it pushed on your face. Try it!

 

One sided champions

Sometimes one side of the mask clears and the other one doesn’t. The bridge in the middle is pushed against the face and basically divides the mask into two halves. They’re only blowing air in one side. Loosening the mask strap and repositioning the mask often helps. If it doesn’t, try a different mask.

Seasoned instructors reading this will have probably seen this all before and have their own bag of tricks for teaching mask clearing. I’m just trying to share some experiences with beginning instructors here. In my IDC it’s the same thing. I don’t teach candidates how to pass the IE but I try to make them confident instructors by sharing my experiences.

Teaching skills takes patience. Being able to recognize the problems and knowing what solution to offer makes it easier so I hope this helps. Have fun teaching!