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September 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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I Can See Clearly Now ... Underwater

contacts, lens inserts, prescription mask or magnifying glass?

from the September, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When it comes to diving, the only one of the five senses that really matters much is sight. Hearing, smell, touch and taste play secondary roles. So why is it that aging divers too often deny their deteriorating vision and go about their dive seeing blurs and unable to read their gauges? Could it be vanity? We know Undercurrent readers aren't victims to that . . . right?

Take Paul Selden (Portage, MI), for example. After realizing the small numbers on his dive computer were getting too fuzzy to read, he invested in one with text on the screen large enough to read within arm's length. He also realized something important: "This was the first clue that maybe someday I'd need to do something to correct my vision underwater." For Bill Whitmer (Palo Alto, CA), it was "when my arm and the high-pressure hose finally became too short for me to read my tank pressure."

As you get older, you may still be able to see the big fish and barrel sponges, but you may be missing an entire macro world, not to mention the broad range of reef subtleties. Errol Duplessis (Rawlings, VA) used to shrug off impaired vision, saying, "I am near-sighted, so my vision underwater is enhanced, not impaired. So I can see details that I cannot see without glasses at the surface." However, an embarrassing moment with a dive team he was leading made him think otherwise. "We were on the Papoose, out of Beaufort, NC, and there were three or four dive boats anchored when we arrived. By the end of our dive, the number of boats had doubled. When we came to the surface, all the dive boats looked alike to me. It was one big blur. Fortunately, we found a sister boat not far from where we were, and boarded it. I knew the crew, told them the situation, and they pointed out our dive boat, way in the distance. We stayed with them and hitched a ride back to the marina."

Poor vision can make your dives dangerous. During his openwater certification, far-sighted John Spencer (Garland, TX) faced a bad situation. "I could vaguely read my pressure gauge; I didn't know when I was down to 500 psi. The only aspect of my computer I could read was the depth, because it was the largest thing on the face. The compass was a total guess; I don't know how I made it back to square one after three 90-degree turns."

There are a few things, from cheap to costly, you can do to correct your vision. We asked Undercurrent e-mail newsletter subscribers what they do to see clearly underwater.

A few told us they had Lasix surgery to correct their vision, which helped initially, but as they got older, the effect wore off. For some, the solution is simple: a magnifying glass. "I use a little one on a tether," says Susan Titus (Herndon, VA). "A good, but not great, solution for the small things I want to see in detail." Linda Anderson (Phoenix, AZ) switched to bifocals in her dive mask, but she still carries a magnifying glass in her BC pocket for miniscule critters. Ken Paff (Detroit, MI) uses a large glass hand lens as "reading glasses."

Contact Lenses

Many repondents said they wear contact lenses and use regular dive masks underwater. Optometrist W. Lee MacKewiz (Bear, DE) wears contacts with a weak prescription and says he could still function underwater if he lost a lens. "But I would recommend having a supply of disposable contact lenses, because salt and fresh water are not sterile or compatible with contact lenses. And I would replace lenses at the end of each day, or better yet, after each dive." Paula Kamps (Hilbert, WI) wears trifocals, so for underwater dives, she purchased a pair of lenses with the bifocal bottom. "I was willing to purchase prescription lenses if needed, but these cost half the price. It did take a bit of getting used to, but is well worth the effort."

Two well-known dive photographers told us they wear contact lenses, but both are also presbyopic, meaning they're losing their ability to focus on close objects. For Doug Perrine (Kailua-Kona, HI), the problem means that now he needs distance vision, both for seeing the seascape and looking through his viewfinder, and close vision for reading his gauges, computer, camera screen and for finding macro critters. "Many eye doctors will caution you against multi-focal or bifocal contacts, because the distance vision is not that great. They may also suggest monovision, meaning a distance lens in one eye and a close-up lens in the other eye. But monovision makes me nauseous and dizzy. What works well for me is a distance-vision contact in the eye that goes to the viewfinder, and a multifocal contact in the other. The multifocal vision is not stellar, but it's good enough to read gauges, and good enough to see my way around if the distance contact in the other eye gets dislodged."

"Getting optical inserts done professionally is
more expensive than buying generics, but it's
worth it."

Besides contacts, Mike Boom (Oakland, CA) uses a little +2 diopter lens glued to the lower part of his left mask lens. "It allows me to see both near and far - - outside of the lenses - - underwater. I don't need to keep my mask on out of the water to see what I'm doing." The problem with contacts, Boom says, is they're not guaranteed to stay on during dives. "On a giant stride from a particularly high California dive boat, entry knocked my mask off. When I put the mask back on, I couldn't focus well. It took me a few minutes to realize the impact had knocked or washed my contacts out. Fortunately, they're disposable lenses, and it wasn't a problem to replace them back on board. But I didn't see much other than my gauges on the dive."

Mask Inserts

Other readers use "magnifying" mask inserts. "You moisten them and stick them on the inside of the mask lens," says Bernie Urbanik (Plano, TX), who also has presbyopia. "I put them low on the glass so I can see my gauges better, but you cannot carelessly rinse your mask off between dives."

Randall Farleigh (Anchorage, AK) uses small spot lenses. "I apply one to the inside lower portion of the left side of my mask, allowing my normal and distant vision to remain unimpaired. However, by looking down through the one lens with my left eye, I am able to clearly read my computer. I find this method avoids the blurry phenomenon associated with a bifocal lens covering too large a part of the mask."

Michael Lampert (West Palm Beach, FL), who uses a mask with prescription lenses attached inside, says the cost is not much more than the lenses and the mask. His optician makes the lenses, glues them onto this mask "and gets the 'tilt' correct. In addition, he measures pupillary distance and tries to adjust for distance from lenses to my eyes. I could drive with my mask."

Mike Boom has used the standard plastic half-moon lenses by DiveOptx, but had problems. "They don't stick and eventually get washed out." Now he uses the Magni-View 2x Mask Magnifying Lens (available online at Amazon and at dive shops) because "it offers a small optical quality glass lens with optical glue that cures in sunlight. It stays in place and provides clear correction."

Prescription Masks

Other divers spring for the cost of getting a made-to-order prescription mask. That's what Doug Perrine actually uses most of the time, "because it avoids the eye irritation I get with contacts. It involves a lot of head tilting to look at little close objects, and obscures part of the seascape when you are viewing wide, but it works pretty well overall." He says SeaVision ( ) "makes the best prescription bifocal masks I've ever used - - and at a reasonable rate." Bonaire marine naturalists Scott and Patti Chandler also swear by SeaVision. "They custom grind each lens to your exact prescription - - no glue lines, no separation, and they always look clean. Our optometrist looked at the lens quality using one of his instruments and said the quality is phenomenal."

Doug Roberts (Pompano Beach, FL) says his SeaVision mask gives the best fit ever, and is well worth the money. "I was out of pocket about $160, and my vision insurer paid about the same, as I was due for new glasses. SeaVision also tossed in a bottle of really good mask defog." Another bonus: "They make a mask that's designed for folks with facial hair," says Lenore Neigeborn (Highland Park, NJ). "My husband has no leaking trouble because of his beard and mustache."

Prescription Dive Masks ( ) is another mask maker that gets raves. Conrad Blickenstorfer (Sacramento, CA), editor of Scuba Diver Info ( ), loves its prompt service. "With just a week and a half to go before a big dive trip, I sent in my masks, and they were they back with time to spare. The quality was outstanding. Not only did I get much better optics and a larger viewing area than from generic stick-ons, but the company also custom-fitted them to my masks. Getting optical inserts done professionally is more expensive than buying generics, but worth it." John Berschied (Green Oaks, IL) says they have reasonable prices and excellent customer service. "One time I had a lens problem that was no fault of theirs, and they replaced the lens for free."

Greg White (Carbondale, IL) swears by his HydroOptix mask ( ). "It uses bubble-shaped lenses and the water's refraction to correct the wearer's vision. It's perfect for people like me who are very nearsighted. A big advantage is that it makes things look more natural underwater, and gives one a much wider field of vision than regular masks. A disadvantage is that any water that leaks in will pool in the center of the bubble-shaped lenses, exactly where I want to look a lot of the time. Otherwise, I've been happy, and the mask is a good conversation starter when people ask me about it - - as long as I don't mind looking like a giant bug." But a downside of the HydroOptix is that people who aren't near-sighted may have problems seeing clearly. "I had to wear contacts to use it," says Don McCoy (Portland, OR). "They made it difficult to see above the water, so I gave up on that."

Whether you should get a prescription dive mask from your local dive shop is up for debate. Judy Halas (Key Largo, FL) went to Divers Direct and "I could purchase lenses from level 1 through 8 (the strongest, and which turned out to be my prescription), which were formed to fit two popular dive masks and could replace the clear lenses. I had my new mask within 15 minutes, and my vision was perfect underwater. The lenses cost about $25 each, and the mask was around $50." However, Tim Corwin (Southampton, NY) had issues with a custom prescription mask that his dive shop talked him into for $300. "The main lens was for farsightedness, and there were two lower magnifier lenses that the dive shop replaced itself for near vision. While the main lens worked fine, the lower lenses weren't strong enough to make a difference, though the dive shop claimed that they were the strongest available."

Dianne Morris (Delafield, WI) recommends going to a vision center that will grind the prescription glass for your mask. "For several years, I used a mask from a dive shop that it provided through its local supplier, but it stopped being effective. Initially, I was told I had to use a mask with two separate lenses. I have since learned that is not true - - a mask with a single piece of glass works, although two separate prescription pieces will be inserted. For my first few masks, the dive shop staff had me put on the mask, then marked the location of my pupils. More recently, they stopped marking the mask, and told me their supplier said it was not necessary. So now, I go directly to a vision center where they mark the lens and grind the glass themselves. I'm not sure a 'discount' eye center will do dive masks or provide the personal assistance you need. I found a family-owned business that actually provides lenses to dive shops. Thus, they were familiar with the issues of vision, diving and masks. They do not perform the eye exam, but do use the prescription I bring in. The final cost for a tri-focal prescription mask through the vision center was still less than the cost of a bifocal through the dive shop."

While it may be pricey to get two prescription masks, it's worth the price, as mask loss and breakage can happen, especially when you're on an overseas dive trip. "I put my very expensive dive mask in my checked baggage, and it was lost enroute to a Utila Aggressor trip," says Edie Craddock (Richmond Hill, ON). "A borrowed regular mask allowed me to dive, but I could not see gauges or the camera viewfinder, so I could not see pictures until I was in the ship's lounge two hours later. Moral to the story: Put your dive mask in your carry-on." George Felt (Moultonborough, NH) had his prescription dive mask crushed in transport, which killed his dive trip. "Now I keep two masks ready to go at all times, and put them in plastic boxes that are not easily crushed. "

One downside of aging vision is cataract formation in the lens. Routine divers should be especially aware, as frequent sun exposure often leads to cataracts. The upside is you can correct your vision and keep on diving. "Cataract surgery is a simple procedure, but best done by a board-certified ophthalmologist specializing in cataract surgery," says Larry Schnabel (Templeton, CA), who got implantation of a replacement artificial lens in place of his clouded one. "In my case, surgery gave me 20/20 vision in the eye sporting the implanted lens."

Spotting things underwater is hard enough as it is for a diver with perfect vision. Being able to see perfectly is important from a safety perspective, from doing minor tasks like being able to read your console gauges to seeing the expressions and hand signals of your dive buddy or instructor. Good vision can make the world of a difference in an emergency situation. If you haven't been to the opthamologist for an eye exam recently, it's definitely time to go before doing your next dive.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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