'Scuba diver meets astronaut': What to know about the snorkel-inspired Narwall Mask

Erin Donnelly
·5 min read
The Narwall Mask is inspired by snorkeling gear. (Photo: Narwall)
The Narwall Mask is inspired by snorkeling gear. (Photo: Narwall)

When it comes to masking up during the coronavirus pandemic, there are quite a few options: N95, neck gaiter ... Narwall?

Launched this week — and selling quickly, so don’t count on getting one in time for Thanksgiving — the Narwall Mask is a snorkel-inspired covering that acts as an integrated face shield and mask in one, boasting a one-way airflow system that sees air coming in via the inhale filter up top and out the exhale filter in front. The aesthetic, described as “scuba diver meets astronaut” in an informational video, also brings to mind the 1980s Hanna-Barbera cartoon Snorks — and while founder Alex Rattray, 28, is too young to remember the show, he laughed in recognition after finally watching an episode and acknowledging that his design is the “spitting image.” Still, its name takes inspiration from another underwater creature.

“We love narwhals — the unicorns of the ocean,” the Narwall website says of the whales known for their protruding, horn-like tooth. “We liked the reference to an aquatic hero with something sticking out of its head, equipped to fend off assailants, and tweaked the spelling a bit in a nod to the barrier (err, wall) the product provides.”

It’s a fitting name for a product that was initially inspired by the former software engineer’s recent interest in swimming, he tells Yahoo Life. About a year ago, well before the pandemic struck, he took up open-water swimming and lap swimming in pools, where he’d notice others doing laps while wearing snorkels “so that they could breathe really comfortably while they focused on their swimming strokes.”

Narwall Mask founder Alex Rattray models his full-face creation, which he says offers a 99.5 percent filtration efficiency rating. (Photo: Narwall)
Narwall Mask founder Alex Rattray models his full-face creation, which he says offers a 99.5 percent filtration efficiency rating. (Photo: Narwall)

At the start of the pandemic this spring, Rattray, then living in California, admits “naively” thinking that swimming pools would remain open, and that he and his college-student sister, who would be joining him in quarantine, could fill their days with some aquatic exercise. Full-face snorkels remained top of mind not as a COVID-19 precaution but as a product that his sister, who worried she’d struggle to swim so much, could use to breathe comfortably.

“That’s actually what put it on my mind,” explains Rattray, who now lives in Baltimore and works full time on the Narwall brand. “And then we started needing to go out to get supplies, get groceries, and feeling really, really uncomfortable doing that. … With a cloth mask there’s a risk of air leaking around the sides of your face, so you’re always worrying about that. You’re not sure what’s going on with this sort of hot, moist environment right in front of your face, and that was concerning. And so the snorkel mask was fresh on my mind and I was like, wow, this is solid plastic, hard protection. If you just put a really high-grade filter in your inhale and your exhale, you’d be so much better protected, everyone would be so much better protected.”

After trying out a few different masks, Rattray began collaborating with a snorkel mask manufacturer as well as an industrial engineer to “kind of hone in on some of those finer points” on protecting from COVID-19.

“It was really difficult to have a one-way airflow that still gave you fully filtered exhale, and that was absolutely critical to me — that not only are you protecting yourself, you’re also protecting others,” he says. “And that took some tricky engineering to get right. That one-way airflow means that the air you’re breathing in is coming from above your head, it’s coming in filtered from a very safe place. It helps ensure that there’s no fogging in the front of your mouth, because any moisture will get kind of flushed out anytime you breathe in, and the moisture and heat of your exhale just goes right out the front of your mouth ... and it actually makes for much cooler, fresher breathing. You get a lot less of your own coffee breath with this design.”

Other key features touted by the Narwall website and its extensive FAQ include an airtight seal, a durable polycarbonate face shield that offers eye protection while warding off contact with the face, and U.S.-made filters “with material tested to >99.50% 0.1-micron particle filtration efficiency,” compared with the >95% 0.3-micron filtration efficiency standard of the N95 mask.

Less crucial, but no doubt tempting to anyone contemplating its $85 price tag: It’s dishwasher-safe.

The mask is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration but has not been tested or approved by the agency, as the FDA considers it to be a low-risk product and doesn’t require further examination. Rattray says he subjected the Narwall to a qualitative fit test — “with a variety of face shapes and body types and ethnicities and so on,” he notes — to ensure that there are no leaks or other flaws. They all passed, though the Narwall FAQ notes that the mask works best with shorter beards and with contact lenses rather than glasses. Children and those shorter than 5 feet, meanwhile, may find it too large.

While Rattray himself expects to spend the Thanksgiving holiday shipping out new orders and working on building inventory to meet demand, many customers have used their Narwall Masks for air travel and visits with loved ones, as well as for doctor’s appointments.

Reads one customer testimonial online: “I feel like I’m in a space suit when I’m wearing Narwall, but at the same time, when I put it on, I feel like there’s nothing else I need to think about.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

Read more from Yahoo Life:

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.