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Training Fundamentals: Water Up Your Nose

Dealing with water up your nose can be a significant hurdle for divers, both physically and psychologically. How do you deal with it?

Dealing with water up your nose can be a significant problem for some divers. The effect of inhaling small amounts of water, or even the fear of that occurring, can cause some divers to spiral into a cycle of perceptual narrowing and — in some extreme cases — full panic. However, water up your nose needn’t be a monkey on your back and some simple steps will help you deal with the issue.

Why does water go up your nose sometimes?

Humans largely breathe in and out of our noses but learning to dive requires people to un-learn this habit and not breathe in through their noses. Even if a diver begins at the youngest possible age — 8 years old with most major agencies — there is a deeply ingrained default setting for the budding diver to inhale through his or her nose when not concentrating on the task at hand, or if they are task-loaded with a perceived problem.

Most modern diving masks are exceptionally well-designed and feature soft, silicone seals that help keep water outside. However, the human face is not static — smiling, laughing, gritting your teeth, or even having facial hair can cause leaks in the silicone seal and water to trickle in. Additionally, the mask can be incorrectly positioned, or another diver or strong water movement can accidentally dislodge it, causing a sudden ingress of water.

Inevitably, at some point in your diving life, any one of these circumstances will force you to expel water from your nose. Competently dealing with water in your mask and learning how to clear it is therefore crucial for comfort and safety. As with most diving-related issues, there are solutions. And, as with most diving-related skills, practice makes perfect.

The solution for water up your nose

First, practice airway and soft-palate control. Here’s a short test. While exhaling through your mouth, cover your mouth with your hand to prevent air from escaping. Your cheeks should begin to puff out. And, you shouldn’t be exhaling through your nose. That’s soft-palate control. While still trying to exhale, move your hand away. If you immediately exhale through your mouth, you used soft-palate control. If you paused before exhaling through your mouth, that was your epiglottis. This is the basis of mask clearing, which is the fundamental skill in dealing with water up your nose.

Mask clearing is the process of expelling water from inside the artificial airspace of your diving mask out into the surrounding environment, without taking on or ingesting any water.

Some divers feel slightly claustrophobic upon flooding and clearing a mask for the first time during initial training. Some may even stand up in the shallows of a swimming pool at the initial, reflexive shock of some water in their nostrils, but it is easy to master airway and soft-palate control, so water up your nose becomes less intimidating.

How to practice airway control

Practice airway control in a safe environment until you’ve built your confidence. Much like learning to ride a bike, it may take some divers longer than others. Once mastered, however, it will feel like the most natural thing in the world.

First, stand in shallow, confined open water or a swimming pool. Remove your mask and loop it over your left arm. While still upright, and with your head out of the water, put the regulator in your mouth and begin to breathe in through your mouth, out through your nose. If you struggle with this initially, hold your nose closed with your right hand while inhaling through your mouth, then release your nostrils as you exhale through the nose. Find your natural breathing rhythm.

As you find a comfortable pattern, bend at the waist and place your face in the water. Then, like a meditation, focus on your breath. If you feel the urge to breathe in through your nose, hold your nostrils closed with your right hand until you regain your natural breathing pattern again, then release the nostrils gently and continue. Resist the urge to stand and remove your face from the water. Work on resolving the problem with your face in the water. Begin in small increments; perhaps starting at 5- to 10-second intervals of no-mask breathing if you lack confidence, then building up to approximately one minute without holding your nostrils.

When you’ve mastered airway control and the sensation of water in your nose while standing in the shallows, you can begin to practice in shallow water beneath the surface.

Clearing your mask

Find a comfortable position underwater and begin by gently allowing water into your mask. It’s crucial to do this very smoothly, as a sudden rush of water into your mask — especially if the water is chilly — can cause a reflexive urge to inhale through your nose as the water hits your face and nostrils. Breach your mask’s seal from the top, gently and steadily pulling the frame away from your face very slightly. Use a fingertip to break the seal, or gently pinch the top of the silicone skirt together causing a fold.

Now, clear your mask. Firmly press the frame at the top edge of the mask with the palm of your hand. This creates a ‘hinge’ that allows the air pressure to blast water out the bottom of the mask. Don’t lift the bottom edge of the mask.

Inhale slowly and deeply through your mouth. Then, firmly exhale through your nose while maintaining the pressure on the top of the mask’s frame with your hand. The exhalation should be a forceful blow a lasting one or two seconds. If one breath is not sufficient, relax and revert to breathing in through your mouth using airway and soft-palate control. Take a few breaths before repeating the process. Continue until you’ve emptied the water from your mask. With practice, you’ll be able to clear your mask in one breath most of the time.

If water up your nose or a leaking mask is an ongoing problem, finding a mask that fits you well to prevent the issue before it starts is a highly worthwhile investment.

Additionally, if you suffer from pre-dive anxiety about your airway and soft palate control, take some time before each dive to sit with your mask on and practice on land before buddy-checking and entering the water. Confidence and practice are key. Finally, if you have a dive trip coming up, visit your local pool for a refresher, scuba review or reactivate program to improve your comfort level in the water.

With practice, you’ll find that dealing with water up your nose isn’t a drama; it’s a routine part of being a competent and confident diver.