“My name is Stephen and I’m a Star Wars nerd…fan, I mean fan!” To be more specific I’m a fan of the dark side. And, to be yet more specific I love Darth Vader, so much so that outside of meeting the great man himself I undertook Full Face Mask training many years ago so I could even look more like him underwater, because as all divers know we already sound like him. Ok, so maybe I exaggerate a bit for effect but we can agree that whenever we see a diver gearing up with a Full Face Mask it gains attention.
Until recent years, Full Face Masks were the exclusive domain of a select few. The likes of military, commercially hired divers and research & scientific divers were amongst those lucky enough to use this hardware, almost certainly due to their
complexity, limited availability and expensive price tags. Today however, advances in technology and manufacturing allow these units to be readily available to recreational divers at affordable prices and we’re able to experience the same benefits although we apply it in (often) less harsh environments but for many similar reasons.
So, what is a Full Face Mask? In a conventional set up, divers wear a face mask that covers the eyes and nose which allows for vision and air space equalisation as well as a seperate second stage regulator in the mouth which enables the diver to breathe, a Full Face Mask combines both of these features into a single piece of equipment. With this comes a series of different considerations, some we can consider as ‘pros’ and others as ‘cons’, we will outline some of these in just a few moments.
Choosing a Full Face Mask suitable for you is a matter of knowing which features speak to you, knowing the conditions where you think you will predominantly be using it (as this can also influence features to look out for) for instance if you have frequent surface swims you’ll want to consider a mask with an SAV (Surface Air Valve) so that you can conserve cylinder gas by breathing atmospheric air, and of course your budget will play a part because they can run from as little as $350 to over $1500. Regardless of how your purchase comes together one thing remains the same - be sure to learn your mask and receive proper training because there are procedures and considerations for use that you might not be aware of. A PADI Full Face Mask course will address these and your instructor will help familiarise you with the mask function.
Lets now look at some of the advantages and ‘pros’ of using a Full Face Mask. I will say that my experiences here are based very largely on the OTS (Ocean Technology Systems) Guardian on which I will have over 1000 dives, and to a lesser extent the OTS Spectrum and Scubapro Full Face Masks.
- No spit! A huge benefit from a higher end mask such as the OTS Guardian is the absence of lens fog. These masks use an air flow design that directs cool air over the inside of the lens with every inhilation, thus not allowing enough time for your warm face to heat up the air and condensation to form (this is explained in more depth during your training).
- Field of view. Since the frame of the mask is further away from the eyes/nose this allows for a larger lens and greater visual immersion.
- Jaw fatigue. As the mask and regulator are essentially a single unit when properly attached, there is now no effort to expend gripping a mouth piece.
- Talking. Underwater communications systems allow for divers to talk to eachother. OTS have a unit called the ‘buddy phone’ which is a receiver and microphone that attaches to the mask and works on a PTT (Push To Talk) opeartion. These communicators require line-of-sight to get the full experience and can sometimes be a bit tempromental but when they work it can be a great tool in those instances where talking is of greater value than writing on slates or hand based signals.
- Oronasal breathing. This feature is a strange one for any experienced diver! The ability to inhale through the nose. This holds benefits for anyone involved in adaptive training/experiences by offering more of a normal breathing action especially as it’s combined with the elimination of a regulator being held in the mouth.
- More secure. This is a twofold point. Firstly, the regulator. As it is secured into the mask there is less chance for the diver to loose it or for it to be accidentally knocked out. And secondly, the mask itself. The strap holding it in place is not like a conventional single mask strap, it is more of a harness starp usually with five legs holding it in place acorss the entire head. One strap under each ear, one strap above each ear and one strap centrally across the top of the head. As each strap can be individually adjusted it also allows for a more personalised fit and placement.
As well as these benefits there are also some considerations and ‘cons’ which we’ll take a look at right now.
- Gearing up. Whilst your pre-dive safety check doesn’t change, it will take a little longer to don and fit the mask. You could also be diving with a buddy who is unfamiliar with the equipment so it might be necessary to give them a quick overview in case you need their assistance during the dive.
- Gas management. There are a few factors to think about here. Using a Full Face Mask can mean you use a little more gas over the duration of a dive so more attention to the SPG is not a bad idea. In the event that you need to clear a mask, be-it partially or fully, this will require more gas being purged into the mask (by way of the regulator) than you would expect from a conventional face mask as the volume of a Full Face Mask is obviously greater. In the unlikely event the diver runs out of air then securing your buddy’s alternate air source is a slightly different procedure - remember if you loose your gas then you also loose your mask and vice versa, this is why correct procedure would be to always dive with a conventional mask safely secured and a working secondary breathing apparatus be-it a pony bottle or octopus. Again, recieving correct training will familiarise you with these procedures.
- Care. More care is needed when handling, transporting and setting up a Full Face Mask. If you tear the skirt then you loose the mask & reg, if you shatter the lens then you loose the mask & reg. if you don’t maintain service of the reg then you loose the mask & reg.
A mask like the OTS Guardian is feature laden. With the no-fog air flow system, SAV, comms capable, adjustable nose plug for ease of equalisation and double skirt seal for comfortable fit and suitable for all different face sizes (to name a few), but it does cost a bit more as one would expect from a higher end model.
Some manufacturers have made more affordable ranges at the expense of some features. To use the OTS Spectrum as an example (again because it is one I have experience with), they are on the lower end of the price range and thus very affordable, they are designed to allow the diver to insert their own second stage regulator by simply removing the mouthpiece and inserting it into the mask and re-attaching it on the inside. They are very customisable and you can add accessories as you choose - SAV’s, Gopro mounts, flashlights etc - they are also incredibly comfortable and look amazing!
So you can see there are a variety of considerations to make and many things to expolre further which is why we would always advise recieving the correct training by a qualified Full Face Mask instructor. One thing is for sure, you’ll look like a badass and hopefully enjoy this unique piece of equipment.
If you're looking into getting your own Full Face Mask, consider a visit to the SAGA Web Store and use coupon code FFM10 upon checkout for a 10% discount on Spectrum and Guardian packages.