Last August, four scuba divers set off in pursuit of a manta ray near the coast of Key Largo, Florida. Three of the men were sporting new split-blade fins, while the fourth, a Green Beret and an experienced diver, had decided to stick with the more traditional single-blade fin. As the ray accelerated, the three split-bladers kept pace with the slightest flutter of their ankles. But no matter how vigorously the Green Beret kicked, he lagged woefully behind. "Later, I swapped fins with him," laughs Tim Core, a Navy SEAL dive instructor. "He swam about ten yards, stopped, and started hollering underwater."
His excitement stemmed from an innovation in underwater gear design that will no doubt interest the hordes of divers heading off on trips to the Caribbean this month. In studies conducted by ScubaLab, an independent testing company on Santa Catalina Island, California, split fins increased speed while decreasing air consumption between 20 and 40 percent. Thus, divers are able to stay down longer on a single tank, and snorkelers can explore larger sections of reef before coming up for air.
A patent is held by Pete McCarthy, a former software licenser from Laguna Niguel, California, who spent seven years working on his concept, which he calls Nature's Wing. But Bob Evans, a renowned diver and photographer, claims he was first, since his Santa Barbarabased company, Force Fin, brought a split-blade model to market back in January 1998. About the only thing the two men agree on is that their ideas were inspired by a fish. The fins mimic the biomechanics of the wahoo, a mackerel that can swim at speeds of nearly 70 mph thanks to tail fins that flutter independently of each other, pushing water like a boat's propeller.
While the design-origin issue may be headed for patent court, McCarthy is concentrating on other matters: licensing his technology to as many manufacturers as he can. Which is good news for divers. When Atomic Aquatics, a scuba company in Huntington Beach, California, begins production this month, tens of thousands of pairs will flood into dive shops throughout the country.
Nature's Wing Fins: Apollo: 800-231-0909; ScubaPro: 800-467-2822; Atomic Aquatics: 888-270-8595 Force Fin: 800-346-7946