Diving With Less Than 20/20 Vision
By Jessica Vyvyan-Robinson
For those whose eyesight requires corrective measures, the prospect of diving — a primarily visual pastime — can be a little daunting. Proper diver safety also relies on keeping a keen eye on your buddy, your location and your gauges. But a lack of 20/20 vision is by no means a barrier to diving, as there are many options available to facilitate participation despite all manner of sight issues. Many people with mild vision impairment don’t need to take any corrective action, as objects in water are naturally magnified by 33 percent. But if corrective measures are needed, there are several methods of compensating for sight problems underwater, making for safer, more enjoyable dives.
One of the simplest ways to deal with poor eyesight is to wear contact lenses, just as you would on land. Certain precautions should be taken to minimize eye irritation and to prevent losing the contacts, but generally, diving with contacts is a safe and hassle-free solution. The Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) recommends using soft contact lenses for scuba rather than hard or gas-permeable ones, however, because increased pressure may cause hard lenses to suction to the eye, causing pain or discomfort. Hard lenses typically dry wearers’ eyes out more, too, resulting in redness and irritation upon surfacing. Most importantly, soft lenses allow the nitrogen absorbed by the eye while diving to escape; hard lenses do not. Bubbles can form between the hard lens and the eye, causing blurred vision, which effectively negates the purpose of wearing the contacts in the first place.
Wearing contact lenses underwater also means keeping the eyes closed when performing any skills that require the flooding or removal of the mask. If you are enrolling in a scuba course, be sure to tell your instructor if you wear contacts so that he or she will allow you to keep your eyes closed during skills, and to wear a mask during surface water skills or swim tests. Similarly, if you’re using vision-correcting equipment, from contacts to prescription masks, make sure to alert your buddy: if you should lose your mask underwater, they need to know that they’ll need to help you find it. In terms of comfort, even soft contact lens wearers often report some dryness as a result of diving; it’s a good idea to bring lubricating drops with you to the site for use before and after diving. Rinsing lenses in fresh saline solution between dives can also minimize irritation from residual salt water; divers should consider using disposable contacts for live-aboard trips so that they can use fresh ones each day.
There are alternatives to wearing contacts while diving for those who are squeamish about using them or simply prefer not to. Depending on the severity and type of eyesight issues, the lenses of some stock masks can be quickly and easily replaced with pre-made corrective lenses. For those with astigmatism or other, more extreme vision impairment, pre-made lenses may not work sufficiently. Custom-made prescription masks are also an option, wherein a mask is made specifically to your requirements. Those who opt for prescription masks should consider purchasing two customized masks in case of loss or damage to one of them, as it can be exceptionally hard to find a replacement in many of the world’s remote dive destinations.
The most permanent alternative is corrective eye surgery, but it is imperative to consult an ophthalmologist before your first dive, after surgery, in order to respect the healing period. If not properly observed, the effects of pressure and trapped gas on an unhealed incision could be incredibly painful.
The final option, particularly for those who require bifocals, is adhesive magnifying patches, which are applied to a stock mask lens and can be purchased at most large dive equipment stores or an optician’s office.
For most people, however, contact lenses are the simplest choice for correcting eyesight while diving. They are cost-effective, and divers are able to wear them both while kitting up and during the dive. Whatever your preference, there are plentiful corrective options available to ensure that everyone can experience the beauty and wonder of the underwater world.