Outside magazine, February 1998
These puzzled sorts could discover for themselves the wonders of the deep by simply getting certified and going scuba diving. It isn't so very hard to do. And though you can rent gear at first, if you get hooked in the slightest you'll soon want to own stuff that's tailored for you. The good news is that for most sport diving, the same equipment suits beginners and experts alike, handy for both rummaging through a kelp forest in shallow waters or poking into a shipwreck miles offshore. The current crop of dive gear will see you through with intelligent, versatile features. And you can take comfort in the basic quality of it all, since a scuba ensemble is essentially a sporty life-support system, not something on which manufacturers readily skimp.
To settle on the right features, you still need to know what sort of diving you intend to do. Essentially, more intricate dives require more intricate equipment. Above all, however, focus on fit. Without it, even the best mask leaks, the most powerful fins cause pain, and the trendiest buoyancy compensator constricts movement. It's wise to try the equipment underwater, so take your time and test or rent any prospective purchase. The following roundup is a great place to start: versatile gear for delving into the waters of your home state or a fantasy isle.
You may prefer to rent the other cache of gear you need in various locales, but at minimum you'll want to own a mask, fins, and a snorkel — more personal equipment. With masks, the trend is toward low-volume models that don't require you to exhale as forcefully or as often to equalize the pressure inside. Happily, they're also less likely to scrunch your face as you descend.
Since having a good look around is, above all else, why we dive, you'll appreciate the Tusa Pano Geo's ($77) single, unobstructed front lens and small side lenses. You can keep your eye on the aquatic activity ahead and still keep track of your dive buddy without moving your head. The crystal-clear silicon skirt helps the cause, letting light in to brighten your view. If it's Lichtensteinian colors you treasure, consider SeaVisionUSA's Plano Filter Mask ($100). You see, the sea filters out the light end of the color spectrum the deeper you go, but the lenses of the Plano Filter knock out the blues, increasing the definition of reds, oranges, and yellows lost to depth. It makes underwater flora and fauna seem as vibrant as, in fact, they are. Then there's the Dacor Bandit ($50), essentially oversized swim goggles attached to a face-hugging silicon skirt of the sort found on most modern masks — much better than rubber. It undeniably trades in some peripheral vision, but it's the most comfortably compact, easily equalized mask we've tried.
Fins are your propulsion, so choose how much power you want — and can handle. Robust divers like large, stiff fins to take advantage of leg power, while more diminutive people need just the opposite.
Among the most comfortable fins we tried, the Mares Plana Avanti L ($119) are built with rubber gutters at the sides of the 18-inch blades that channel water out the back rather than over the side, torpedoing you right along. The foot-pocket design means you don't need booties, making them ideal for warm waters like the Florida Keys. If you prefer open-heel fins, Tusa's Cetus ($79) use quick-release buckles rather than metal ones — much handier. The asymmetrical fins apparently mimic the curve of a cetacean's tail. Although it's hard to envision just how this benefits the flutter-kicking human, the 13.5-inch-long blades are lightweight and short, making maneuvering under water a breeze. Sherwood's Magnum ($80) open-heel fins resemble the jet fins of the Sixties — except these feature a stiff fiberglass-reinforced construction with a generous foot pocket and straps similar to Tusa's Cetus fins. The foot-long blades are short enough to keep from tangling in tight quarters, yet stiff enough to power you through strong currents.
The lowly snorkel may seem like a pool toy, but it'll help you face a long kick back to a boat if you're out of air. Besides, great scuba spots often offer great free diving as well. The Dacor Integra's ($45) large-diameter tube supplies plenty of air, even if you happen to be gasping for it. And its unique dry-top — an inverted bell guard over the opening — ensures you'll breathe in only air, not saltwater. Unfortunately, the purge valve is not protected, so handle with care. Tusa takes a different approach to keeping out water with the Imprex II ($42): The air has to flow through an S pattern at the top of the tube, which water can't do. You'll appreciate this snorkel's comfortable mouthpiece. On the Mares Cyberdry ($39), a unique valve assembly with a floating ball above the purge valve clears the snorkel the moment you surface. If you're free diving, tip your head back and puff a bit of air into the tube. The ball prevents it from sneaking out the purge valve, and as you ascend, the air expands and pushes water out the top. VoilÇ!
Buoyancy Compensators and Regulators
Your BC helps you go up, down, or precisely hold your depth — maintain neutral buoyancy, in scuba jargon — with a combination of lead-weight ballast and an inflatable harness.
Even while under water, ample padding makes carrying a load more comfortable, which is why the Dacor Flyt Pak ($449) rates well. Like most BCs, the Flyt Pak's horseshoe-shaped bladder inflates around the tank so it doesn't squeeze your chest or encumber arm movement. The SeaQuest Libra ($488), designed for women, features a svelte air chamber, power inflator, and smaller weight-pull handles — all of which work smoothly, according to my female dive buddy. She appreciated the swiveling chest buckles, which help to fit a variety of women. Bonus: The smallish BC can easily be stuffed in a dive bag making it ideal for travel. At the other extreme, the Mares Syncro Tech ($549) represents a move toward technical diving, which might include exploring wrecks or caverns. Four valves allow you to dump air (to control your buoyancy) from any position. The Syncro Tech also features four generous storage pouches and a sizeable collection of huge D-rings for clipping on extra gear. Of course, with the additional capabilities comes additional size.
The regulator's task is to reduce the tank's air pressure from about 3,000 psi to something your lungs can actually handle. Look for one with a mouthpiece that's easy to hold and that lets you breathe without too much effort regardless of surrounding water pressure.
Dacor's Extreme Plus regulator ($485) features swiveling hose outlets on the first stage (near the tank), which makes it easy to position the pressure gauge and power inflator precisely where you want them. You can adjust how much effort it takes to breathe into the mouthpiece, but there's one drawback: The tiny air-control knob is hard to work with gloves. Scubapro claims its MK 20/G 500 regulator combo ($600) has the lightest mouthpiece around, and, indeed, holding it in your mouth won't make your jaw cramp on long dives. Like the Dacor regulator, the 20/G 500 adjusts for breathing initiation and resistance, but both knobs are amply sized and logically positioned. To combat that cotton-mouth sensation you get from breathing bottled air, Sherwood created the Oasis ($350). Two thin metal strips inside the mouth tube capture condensation when you exhale, which moistens air from the tank when you draw your next breath. Toward the end of your air supply, you'll notice a refreshing difference.
Being humans, we can't just wallow in the nitrogen that comes along with compressed air and expect to survive. The easiest way to avoid the bends is to use a computer with the Navy's dive tables built right in and the capability of calculating more than just remaining dive time.
The Dacor Extreme Access ($975) monitors the air pressure of your tank with a radio frequency transmitter, which means no extra hose to get snagged. Strap the fairly sizeable unit to your wrist or BC, and in addition to the usual features, you can read your air consumption rate and program the plan for your dive ahead of time — essential for deep or technical dives. The one downside is that the radio transmitter adds to the traveling diver's array of battery-powered devices. Scubapro's E.D.I. (Essential Diver's Information) computer ($399) is a more traditional air-integrated unit with a hose running to your regulator's first stage. It monitors dive time, depth, air supply, and remaining bottom time. In addition to an endearing compactness, the E.D.I. can be calibrated for high altitude, a very welcome feature for anyone who enjoys diving in, say, the lakes of the Sierras. Of course, if you want to scuba the old-fashioned way, a depth gauge and a watch is all you need. Citizen's Titanium Aqualand Duplex watch ($595) includes both features — and then some. In addition to the standard offerings, this substantial timepiece keeps a dive log, displays water temperature, and has alarms for depth and bottom time. Its usefulness goes well beyond the rotating bezel, now more of a fashion detail than the mark of a good diving watch.
Water saps heat from your body some 25 times faster than air, which is why wetsuits are a good idea even in tropical waters. Also, covering your skin helps guard against scrapes and stings.
If you dive mostly in the tropics, O'Neill's Neo/Isoflex spring suit ($120) is the thing. Diving's equivalent of cutoffs and a T-shirt, this short-limbed suit, constructed of two-millimeter neoprene, offers just the sort of freedom of movement you'll desire in an island setting. Henderson's Signature Series fleece fullsuit ($259) works for the relatively warmer waters of, say, Florida's coast. Primarily suited for diving and not other water sports, such fleece-lined Lycra wetsuits retain warmth by wicking water away from your skin. They weigh significantly less and pack much smaller than neoprene, but obviously don't offer the same buoyancy. For exploring the cool autumn waters off California's coast, the Scubapro 7mm Hi Tech Steamer fullsuit ($311) is ideal. The thick neoprene keeps you plenty warm in water down to about 56 degrees, and the one-piece design actually makes it easier to wriggle around down there than a bulkier two-piece design. It wouldn't be as much fun to wrestle the Steamer into a duffel bag as these other suits, but that's OK. If you're traveling to scuba, wouldn't you rather your destination be the tropics?
John L. Stein, a writer living in Santa Barbara, has been diving for 18 years.
Photographs by Clay Ellis