I have always had problems with snorting water up my nose during mask clearing drills - it happened 12 year ago when I had my first taste of diving with a PADI open water course of some sort while on holiday, and it happened again when I started diving "for realsies" with ScotSAC two years ago. It's even happening now that I've been out of diving for a few months due to lockdown - and like these times before I'll get around it.
I decided to take a few moments to post here because I am not the only one with this exactly same problem and I thought it might be worthwhile explaining to other newbies experiencing this problem what's happening and several ways to approach it - and of course, to explain to people not experiencing this problem what's causing it.
Be warned - this is a long post; many of you won't find it terribly relevant, but I figured I would put it up anyway as I couldn't find much on the forums about it already.
Understanding the problem
For most, breathing through the mouth is second nature. It doesn't matter whether there's a mask covering your nose or not. For this majority of people, the hardest part of mask clearing is the psychological barrier of having water on your face but continuing to breathe normally. For this group, mask clearing is a little unplesant, but it's still pretty easy.
There are, however, a small number of people who don't find it as easy. When they breathe in through their regulator... they suck water in through their nose. For this group of people, it is not merely unpleasant - sure they can "get it" eventually but it takes a long time, and its beyond unpleasant. Like me, many of them will revert to the water-snorting behaviour if they dont practice regularly, and at that point it is not meraly unpleasant; it is outright dangerous...
Wait, you suck water up your nose?
Yup, when I breathe in through my mouth, I suck water up my nose. When I exhale through my mouth, air comes out my nose too... In fact, if I'm using a sensitive regulator and I take the mask off, the regulator will often gently freeflow into my mouth and out my nose, while I breathe normally from the airstream. The result is a constant stream of bubbles coming out your nose even when I am inhaling. Weird, right!?3
The first group often find this difficult to understand: for them, they just... don't suck water through their noses when they breathe through their mouth. They just do it - and when you explain that when you inhale through your mouth, you also suck air in through your nose, they try to do it themselves, and get even more confused! I've even been told to "just don't suck water up my nose".
They didn't mean it facetiously, of course!1Unfortunately, this advise is a lot like telling a child to "just not fall over" when they are learning to walk. For somebody already well-versed in walking, it just happens - there's no thought involved - but for a child, muscles need to move in ways they've never moved before - automatic systems for balancing and correcting irregularities in gait need to work alongside coordination and motor skills. "Just not falling over" is an admirable goal, but it's easier said than done!2
This particular pattern of not breathing through the mouth and nose simultaneously is a very similar problem - for people already well-versed in not-snorting-water, it just happens without any thought... but for us mouth+nose breathers, it takes deliberate thought that needs to be converted into an automatic response!
1At least, I sincerely hope they weren't being facetious about it!
2For those curious, the analogy between learning to walk and learning not-to-drown-through-your-nose is imperfect:learning to walk has a bunch of instincts that make you naturally move in the sort-of-right way, and then you develop around that foundation; while soft palate control doesn't neccesarily have that instinctive foundation.
3No, you cannot use this to "cheat" at mask clearing! Its unreliable because the reg can stop freeflowing at a moment's notice... leaving you snorting water up your nose again... And that's before we even get to how much air you are wasting without ever breathing it!
So what causes this problem?
To make a long story much shorter, the people suffering from this problem of mouth-and-nose breathing have weak "soft palate control" - so their nose and mouth are both "open" during normal mouth-breathing. People who don't have this problem have stronger soft palate control, so when they breathe through their mouth, they naturally tend to isolate the nose from the breathing pathway.
You can picture the problem as a branch in a pipe, with a flap acting as a valve to isolate one branch from the other. Normally, the flap-valve closes fully, so you can only use one branch at a time. For people with weak soft palate control, the valve doesn't close all the way - allowing both branches to be used.
Am I abnormal?
Nah, you're alright!
Humans naturally breathe through their mouth-and-nose when they want lots of air. Everyone does this during the yawning reflex, or when they are breathing hard. The difference is that people with this problem (as it relates to mask clearing) have either weaker muscles in the soft palate, or less control over those muscles. Don't worry though - both can be remedied!
This of course assumes you don't have underlying medical problems affecting the soft palate, or muscle control: if you do have problems at this sort of level, then you will know about them already - I won't be touching on them here as this is a matter for yourself, your instructor, and if required, medical professionals - I'm only covering the "boring" soft palate control problems here
Can I test my soft palate control to see if I have this problem?
You sure can!
To do so - sit upright and breathe through your mouth. Do this three times - and on the third breath, cover your mouth as you exhale. If you suddenly find there's air coming out your nose without any pause, then chances are you have a weak palate. Try again, but this time, cover it while inhaling - you should find your breathing doesn't pause as air automatically gets sucked up your nose.
Next you can try this with a mask - stick a mask to your face and inhale through your nose to suck it on there - just as if you were testing the fit of a mask. As long as you suck, it should stay on there... if you have good soft palate control, it will continue to stay on there as you breathe through your mouth - but if you have weak palate control, then it will fall right off during the exhale.
So I have poor palate control... what can I do about it?
The very first thing you should do is inform your instructor. Hopefully they'll be understanding. If you aren't comfortable telling your instructor, or they aren't understanding, then I strongly suggest finding a new instructor (if they won't listen to your concerns, how are you going to address them together?)
With any luck, they'll have encountered students with mask-clearing problems before - and they may even know the root cause as discussed here - but if not, as long as they are understanding that you have a problem then you can solve it together! Heck, if they don't know the root cause, they can even learn a thing or two themselves!
Just be open and confident in discussing things like this with your instructor - it's what they're there for!
Now that you know a few keywords, you can hopefully find lots of info on how to resolve your problems. If you try something and it doesn't work, try something else. Practice, practice, practice on your part - empathy and udnerstanding on your instructors part - and you have all the tools you need to resolve this...
There are a few different exercises we can do to help strengthen our soft palate control: but I can't tell you what will work in your case. Only you can discover that!
The best I can do is to tell you what works for me, and provide some resources so you can look into it as well. The most important thing, however, is having an instructor you can trust and who is patient and understanding enough to help you through your troubles, and help you learn how to become the best diver you can.
So what is working for me?
In my case I practiced a number of "dry" exercises whenever I could, and "wet" exercises that consisted of of filling my sink with cold water and sticking my face in it with a snorkel, and later, with a regulator.
The dry exercises (Eric Fattah, 2001)4
- Close your mouth
- Inhale through your nose
- Exhale through your nose
- Inhale through your nose
- Open your mouth
- Exhale through ONLY your nose; NO AIR should come out of your mouth
- Inhale through ONLY your nose, NO AIR should flow into your mouth
- Keep breathing through your nose only, while keeping your mouth open
- Now, breathe through JUST your mouth, without any air flowing through your nose. Once you are sure you can breathe through either your nose or mouth (keeping mouth open), proceed to the next step.
- Inhale deeply
- Open your mouth wide, and keep it wide open
- Begin exhaling SLOWLY through your MOUTH ONLY.
- Still exhaling, keeping your mouth WIDE OPEN, exhale through your NOSE ONLY
- Still exhaling, switch again, continuing to exhale through your MOUTH ONLY.
- Keep exhaling slowly, switching back and forth between nose and mouth as fast as possible.
- Try the same thing when inhaling – keep the mouth wide open, switch back and forth rapidly between inhaling through the mouth and nose
- As you switch back and forth, you will feel something soft and fleshy at the upper back of your throat moving. That is the soft palate. You raise the soft palate to breathe through your mouth, you lower the soft palate to breathe only through your nose.
- Keep repeating the above exercises until you can ‘raise’ or ‘lower’ the soft palate at will.
- When you exhale through BOTH your mouth and your nose, the soft palate is in the NEUTRAL position (neither up nor down).
4For those well-versed with the Freznal Manouever, all of these exercises will be familiar to you!
The wet exercises (Scubadiverlife.com, 2012)
Once I was confident in the dry exercises (which I do regularly even while sitting at my desk), I decided to practice in a watery situation.
In order to capture the "argh there's water on my face!" feeling, I filled a sink with cold water and stuck my face in it while breathing through a snorkel. I discovered that if I opened my eyes in this situation, the presence of the relatively featureless bottom-of-the-sink an inch in front of me made me feel claustrophobic, but it still built my confidence in being able to breathe with water on my face.
I would suggest that you shove your whole face into the water when doing this exercise - when I first started doing it I tried to build confidence by inching my face into the cold water - but all it did was make me overthink things!
I finally tried doing this with a regulator (which I had to wear upside down due to the angle of my sink forcing me to have the reg coming in from the left rather than the right). The regulator has more resistance than the snorkel - which is why it was important for me to practice with it; and sure enough the first few times I tried it, my muscles weren't strong enough and I snorted water...
Concurrent to this, I also done more passive exercises: I wore my mask in the shower at various levels of flooding. At first I started with some water in the nosecone - then I half-filled them with water, then I fully filled it with water. The idea behind this was getting me used to having my eyes open and having water on my face - as might occur if I lost my mask underwater.
In my case I decided to start with warm water because I suspected I was going to be ripping the mask off if I snorted water up my nose.. and I'm glad I did - because that's exactly what happened. After I was confident with not snorting water all up in there, I moved over to cold water. It's not terribly pleasant, but for something I can do while showering, it's not a bad exercise - and it's certainly built my self confidence in mask clearing.
So now what?
Now it's time to try it in "real life" - if you can get to a nice warm pool, I can certainly advise it! Again, speak to your instructor and assess your own confidence. Some people are more confident than others - I'm of the "less confident" variety - so my pool exercises will consist of breathing through the reg above water and looking for the mask getting sucked onto my face. Then, I'll flood the mask as if I were in the shower, and just sit and breathe like that for a bit. A quick mask-clearing beneath the surface while holding the side builds confidence, and then I'm good to go.
I found it beneficial to practice some snorkelling-with-a-scuba-cylinder, and floating along just benath the surface with no mask on - but that was becuase I was being a scaredy cat and the thought of having water above me an being unable to go to the surface with ease was getting to me... so I then said "well if I can do this..." and descended to the bottom of the pool and swam around for a bit with no mask on, and finally, I added the mask back into the mix and cleared it. I repeated the exercise again and again - both to build confidence and to reinforce soft palate control.
Do I need to keep practicing?
I am of the opinion that everything diving related should be practiced regularly. How regularly? Well that depends on who you are!
From speaking with a few others with the same problem I have, some of them have simply learned it so strongly that they have been able to clear confidently forevermore; while others "forget" how to do it if they don't practice regularly.
In my case, I have lost confidence in my soft palate control and I am in the midst of re-learning everything. Part of it is psychological: "what if I can't do it anymore? What if something goes wrong? What if---" and it goes on like that. The other part is physiological, even though I know I can do it, I seem to have reverted to mouth+nose breathing through simple lack of practice over the last six months of quarantine!
Only you can assess how confident you are with mask clearing and with breathing udnerwater through the regulator only. Both are essential skills that can easily save your life; you can't just learn it enough to pass the practical and then never need to do it again... so if you suspect you need to practice, check - and if you need more practice, do it. Diving is a dangerous sport - it's your duty to yourself to reduce the risk as much as you can...
Tips and advice
- Discuss your issue with your instructor
- If you aren't comfortable with your instructor, don't worry about it - they won't offended and its better for everyone if you can find an instructor you are comfortable with.
- If you are starting to panic, pinching your nose can help give you some time until you regain control.
- Don't keep your problems a secret. There is no point pretending it's not a problem until something goes wrong!
- If you aren't confident in mask clearing, don't worry - you aren't alone and your instructors are there to help.
- If your confidence is slipping, give it a practice run the next time you're in the shower and assess your competence in the skill from there.
- Don't worry about it - you can learn to overcome this little hurdle!
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Fattah, E. (2001). The Frenzel Technique, Step-by-Step. [online] www.ericfattah.com/equalizing.html. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20010710...qualizing.html [Accessed 28 Jul. 2020].
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