Tips on shopping for dive gear

I’ve been diving for a while, owned a lot of dive gear. Here are some tips on shopping for gear, some learned through painful experience!

General rules for buying gear

  • Try it on before you buy it. Wetsuits, booties, hoodie, you name it.
  • Try on your BCD and weight belt OVER your wetsuit – two layers of 5 millimetre neoprene adds a LOT of waistline!
  • Make sure you understand the returns policy of the shop you’re using.
  • Get acquainted with the Consumer Protection Act (if you’re in South Africa).
  • Shop around! Don’t let sales people sweet talk you. They are more interested (generally) in making a sale than in making you a happy diver.
  • Don’t cut the strap of your dive computer shorter unless you’re VERY sure you’re never going to dive in cold water (wearing lots of wetsuit and gloves to make your wrist thicker).

Second hand gear

  • When purchasing second hand cylinders: get them viz’d first (at the expense of the seller) before agreeing to purchase.
  • Try and get the seller to allow you to “test dive” expensive items such as dive computers before agreeing to purchase them.
  • It’s a good idea to check BCDs for leaks before purchasing, unless you plan to use the BCD only for shallow dives, and even then it’s iffy.

Gear to avoid

  • Don’t purchase based purely on colour (ladies, I know it can be very tempting).
  • Be realistic about what you will use the gear for. (Do you really plan to dive to 100 metres, under ice with that regulator?)
  • Don’t fall for wrap around face masks with 3 glass panels (here’s an example) without trying one first – they give rise to very confusing visual phenomena and distort things hugely as they pass across the join in the panes of glass!
  • Avoid BCDs with inflate/deflate handle handles (example here) – I have never yet seen a beginner diver (and even some divers who have done over 100 dives) using one who was in proper control of their buoyancy.
  • Neoprene covers on mask straps (example here) usually only work without a hoodie. They have a tendency to slip off your head during a backward roll off the boat when worn over a hoodie (although some people swear by them!).
  • Smaller volume masks are usually better for beginner divers than huge five litre models! They are much easier to clear.
  • Do you really need a three foot dive cutlass, as opposed to a small knife?


  • Get a second opinion on extensive repairs.

Christmas gift guide 2011

It’s that time of year again. I trust you are all feeling suitably festive. Here’s our annual (well, second so far) Christmas gift guide. Use it/don’t use it…


For the reader, you could check out our book reviews, arranged by topic:

There are also a couple of children’s books to consider.

Dive gear

Check out What’s in My Dive Bag for some ideas… You can contact Andre for most of these:

Probably not a good idea to get a mask unless the place you buy it will let the person exchange it if it doesn’t fit!


For the person who has everything, or just because you’re feeling grateful:


Don’t forget to add a memory card for the lucky recipient’s camera if you plan to gift any of these!

For those who need (or like) to relax

Magazine subscriptions

Wall art

Clip Clop designs and prints beautiful tide charts for Cape Town and Durban and moon phase charts for the year. You can order online or find them at Exclusive Books.

A very scientific experiment


The idea for this experiment was born after a few dives Tony did last year, wearing his dodgy old wetsuit, in very cold water. He’d emerge from the water almost paralysed, unable to speak, shivering uncontrollably. His muscles would cramp, and he’d struggle to breathe for a time. It’d take him quite a long while afterwards to regain his comfort level.

We wondered just how much a lengthy submersion in cold water affects one’s body temperature when wearing a wetsuit (two 5 millimetre layers, plus a hoodie and gloves). I’ve been trying to remember to take a thermometer with me to dives for months, and finally – on the day of two planned dives in False Bay in early February – managed to remember to pack it into my bag.

Since Tony is now diving in a drysuit on deeper dives, the person whose temperature was to be measured was yours truly. I don’t get as cold as he does – I have more body fat, for one thing, and for another I learned to dive in the Cape and haven’t dived much anywhere else… So cold water is the norm for me. I’m also a hot sleeper, if that counts for anything – my body is quite good at warming itself!

Anyway, I took my temperature before and after both dives. My thermometer isn’t terribly reliable so I took a couple of readings each time and averaged them. Temperatures are in degrees celcius. It was a beautiful, sunny day with a warm breeze. The air temperature was about 26 degrees. Here are the results:

Time Description Temperature
0630 Leaving home for Miller’s Point 36.5
0800 Just before first launch to the SAS Transvaal 36.6
0937 Five minutes after surfacing, dive time 32 minutes, depth 32.4 metres, water temperature 8 degrees celcius 35.0
1040 Second launch to Partridge Point 36.1
1201 Five minutes after surfacing, dive time 38 minutes, depth 21.9 metres, water temperature 8 degrees celcius 34.8

For those of you (like me) who enjoy graphs, here’s one showing the same data.

Graph of body temperature before and after repeated dives
Graph of body temperature before and after repeated dives

We repeated this experiment on two dives of similar duration and similar temperature in the Atlantic ocean, and the results were also a 1.5 degree drop in body temperature which had almost fully reversed itself by an hour after the dive. We’re also going to repeat this experiment on my husband, in his drysuit, to see whether the temperature changes are as extreme. I know they’re not – this time on the boat ride back to the slipway it was me whose teeth were chattering so much I couldn’t eat my Bar One, while Tony displayed a complete lack of sympathy, all snug in his drysuit pyjamas!

Girl stuff: Hair care for divers

On a good weekend I do four dives. This isn’t nearly enough, but it goes a little way to getting me sane through the week. The result, however, is that my hair spends a lot of time submerged in salt water. This isn’t healthy.

There are a couple of ways to make this less of an issue, and ensure that my hair stays at least reasonably healthy. I really am the last person you should take grooming advice from, since my idea of a hairstyle is a folded-over ponytail using a hairband I found in the bottom of my gym bag and all the make up I own I got as hand me downs from my mother, but here goes…

Soft hair accessories

Use fabric hairbands instead of elastic ones. Elastics can tear and break the hairs, especially if you put them in and pull them out when your hair is wet.

Wet your hair

Wet hair doesn’t absorb water. Wetting your hair with fresh water before going in the sea prevents it from getting too salty. It also helps with putting your hoodie on – no fly-away strands!

Leave-in conditioners

Philip Kingsley Swimcap
Philip Kingsley Swimcap

My favourite solution is to use a leave-in conditioner designed especially for swimmers, called Swimcap. It’s manufactured by British hair care guru Philip Kingsley, and it used to be available at Woolworths for about R400 a tube. One tube lasts about six months, or longer if you don’t dive so often.

To apply Swimcap, wet your hair in the shower and towel dry it slightly. You can either comb the product through with a wide-toothed comb, or work it through with your fingers. (Your hair will probably look a bit funny after that.)

When I rinse out my hair after a day of diving, it feels soft rather than totally crusty, and an application of Swimcap lasts all day if I don’t shower and rub my hair between dives.

You do need to wash it out of your hair after diving, and then shampoo as per normal – preferably using one of the shampoos below…

Clarifying shampoos

Clarifying Shampoo Three
Clarifying Shampoo Three
GHD Purifying Shampoo
GHD Purifying Shampoo

Use a shampoo that’s specifically designed to remove salt, product build-up and chlorine residue from your hair. These shampoos deep cleanse the hair without stripping it of its natural oils.

My favourites include GHD Purifying Shampoo (which seems to have been discontinued) and Paul Mitchell’s clarifying Shampoo Three. Both of these leave hair feeling squeaky clean but not dry.

You can follow these shampoos with another shampoo for moisture, otherwise conditioning on top of either of these works really well.

Happy hair! Happy diving!

Wetsuits and drysuits

Having done most of my diving in warm water I arrived in Cape Town armed with a 5 millimetre thick one piece wetsuit and a shorty to go over that, also in 5mm. This wetsuit had served me well and had done well over 700 dives. Being a custom-made suit it fits like a glove. The hoodie is attached to the shorty. I wanted it like that as I find a hood attached to the wetsuit makes my head feel spring loaded, and when turning your head it always feels like it wants to spring back.

It now has now done its time, has a few leaky holes and is fast becoming scruffy, as this photo Clare took on a dive we did on the BOS 400 demonstrates.

Glue on my knees in the Atlantic
Glue on my knees in the Atlantic

Neoprene also breaks down eventually, it becomes waterlogged and looses its density and insulation properties. It now feels like a 3mm wetsuit and I get cold.

So what next, a new wetsuit, or a dry suit? (Or both?!)


The idea of a drysuit is very appealing, aptly named, it keeps you dry and you could go for a dive dressed in your Sunday best. The right thing to wear under a drysuit is an undergarment designed for the job.

The drysuit undergarment
The drysuit undergarment

These garments are most often fleece-lined and keep you warm.

Inside the drysuit undergarment
Inside the drysuit undergarment

Neoprene or silicone rubber neck and wrist seals ensure no water enters the suit in these places and the boots are attached and part of the suit. A large watertight zipper opening allows you to step into the suit.

Full drysuit
Full drysuit

Drysuits have a few more tricks, an inflator on the chest (most often) allows you to trim your buoyancy by putting air into the suit. This also prevents the suit from squeezing you at depth.

Drysuit showing neck seal and air vents
Drysuit showing neck seal and air vents

An adjustable deflate button, sometimes several, allow you to vent air or, set correctly, will vent automatically. An extra hose is required for your first stage and a good idea is to do a course on drysuit diving before you head off to the ocean. Most drysuit suppliers will give you an orientation dive with the purchase.

We dived in the Atlantic the first time I tried a drysuit in Cape Town, a windy day with a long boat ride, 6 degrees celcius on the bottom and I was warm as toast.

Drysuit diving in the Atlantic
Drysuit diving in the Atlantic


A decent wetsuit is also very good at keeping you warm and does not have the added buoyancy concerns of drysuits, nor does a small leak turn your dive into a freezing disaster.

Mares Flexa 8-6-5
Mares Flexa 8-6-5

Mares, a brand of dive gear, exceptional quality, not the cheapest, but most definitely one of the best, make this wetsuit. Called a Flexa 8-6-5 it has 8mm on the torso and on the upper legs and arms, 6mm on all the body joints, so your knees and elbows bend easily, and 5 mm on the rest. It has a built in back pad that give you extra padding where your BCD back plate sits against your body and very snug neck, wrist and ankle seals. I do like the front zip, but I don’t like the stiff velcro attachment on the neck and may have this removed.

Mares Flexa 8-6-5 showing neck seal
Mares Flexa 8-6-5 showing neck seal

The water on the first day I tested the suit was 14 degrees celcius and I did two dives back to back, spending just under an hour and a half in the water, without feeling cold at all. The subsequent dives I have done in it have been a pleasure.

Mares Flexa 8-6-5
Mares Flexa 8-6-5

I know there are a lot of very good wetsuits available and both Reef and Coral will custom make a suit perfectly, but personally I rate this suit as one of the best.

Solo diving

There has raged a heated debate for a long time on the merits and dangers of solo diving. Solo diving is the as the title suggests, diving alone, no buddy, no surface support (if boat diving) and most likely no one waiting on the beach.

Off on my own in Sodwana (don't worry - my Clare took this before she caught up with me!)
Off on my own in Sodwana (don't worry - my Clare took this before she caught up with me!)

Very little solo diving takes place in a resort environment, primarily because they want a full boat before they launch. It’s not a common practice, most resort environments have heavy boat traffic as there are often many operators diving the same dive sites, these skippers look for a buoy close to a boat (the boats follow a surface buoy towed by the dive master), and skippers don’t really want divers scattered all over the ocean as it is hard to keep track of them. If the resort you are diving with has an anchored boat it is easier to do a solo dive especially if you loose the group as there is seldom a dive master thats going to come looking for you. You may be lucky to find a skipper that will drop you off separately from the group, but it is rare.

Cape Town is a little different. It is often a case where someone on the boat is doing a mapping project, or some research or looking for a specific feature underwater so solo diving happens. The skipper and sometimes other members of the group know you are down there but not where.

If you want to maximise the number of photos you get on a dive or get some good video footage then solo diving makes this easier. Not having a buddy means you do not need to check up on them, you do not need to periodically look for them and you wont have them yanking on your fin to show you something cool just as you are about to get that ”shot”. By the same token there is then no one looking for you, checking up on you and no one for you to signal ”out of air” for example.

If you are going to go solo diving start small, somewhere where the beach is close, the weather is good and someone knows where you are, how long you plan to dive and what your route will be. It is for some an intimidating experience and your comfort level takes a while to increase.

Once you decide to try solo diving be brutally honest with yourself: do you trust yourself, your equipment and your ability to think rationally in a stressful situation? If not, don’t try it.

If you are okay with all of these aspects make sure you have the right gear. Split your weights over a weight belt and integrated weights. You’ll need a knife, a compass, a dive computer, decent gloves, a hoodie and all the rest to ensure you don’t get cold, tired, uncomfortable or lost. Be sure you know when to turn the dive if you are swimming out somewhere and returning to the same spot. Ensure you plan and monitor your air consumption, checking more often because just knowing you are ”good on air” won’t help you if you have a leak on your first stage that no one tells you about… There is no one there remember. (If you think you have a leak, you can roll onto your back and look up and between breaths you will be able to see if you do.)

Plan your dive and dive your plan.

Girl stuff: Hair

Sometimes I wish I was bald. It would make a lot of things much easier, and life would be less expensive. No GHD, no expensive shampoos, no styling products (not that I have the talent or patience to use much of those!), no hair clips or hair bands. I would also be able to provide entertainment to my fellow divers: as Gerard pointed out in Sodwana, Goot’s bald head turns all manner of different hues at depth, like an angry octopus.

Goot demonstrates the joy of baldness
Goot demonstrates the joy of baldness

Fact remains, however, that I have hair, and quite a lot of it.

Why is this an issue? Well, hair gets in the way when you dive. The chief problem is that if a hair – even just one hair – gets between the silicone skirt of your mask, and your skin, your mask will leak. It’s why Tony shaves before a dive, and why girls (or boys) with long hair need to keep it out of the way in the water.

If you’re learning to dive (at least with Tony), you’re going to be taking your mask off – a lot. Putting it back on is going to be a pain in the nether regions if each time you have to push aside waves of free-floating locks. And getting all that hair off your face so your mask can seal is going to be well-nigh impossible.

Fear not – help is at hand.


Diving in Cape Town, I wear a hoodie most of the time. I make sure my hair is wet, or pulled back tightly, before I put the hoodie on, and lift it high over the top of my head before releasing it. Problem solved.

Clare at Long Beach, Simon's Town
Clare at Long Beach, Simon's Town

Swimming caps

In Sodwana, I dived with only one wetsuit, and no hoodie. The water was really warm, and I wanted to feel it. My hair, however, has a life of its own, and after one dive of doing a mermaid impersonation and losing all my hair accessories, I resorted to wearing the nylon swimming cap that I use when I do laps at gym. I am sure the others on the boat wanted to disown me, as it looks TOTALLY ridiculous, but it solved the hair problem and I really enjoyed my dives.

Diving in Sodwana wearing my dorky swimming cap
Diving in Sodwana wearing my dorky swimming cap

Because there are no air holes in the swim cap, I did look like a bit of a cone head. But everybody was very kind about that (at least to my face).

Hair clips and bands

Final solution, which will work if your hair is not too thick, or quite obedient. Clip it back, especially the fringe and any other short bits at the front, or use a hair band like Mariaan’s in the picture below to keep it under control.

Mariaan and her headband
Mariaan and her headband

Keeping warm in the Cape

Cape Town water is not warm. The Atlantic ocean’s temperature ranges between 8 and 13 degrees, while False Bay can be anywhere between 10 degrees (very unusual) to 20 degrees (also rather unusual, and generally combined with visibility that can be measured in centimetres rather than metres), with an average somewhere around the 15 degree mark.

Being cold increases your risk of decompression sickness, and it makes you stupid and slow, and hence a danger to yourself and your buddy. It dimishes your enjoyment of the dive and can lead you to get out of the water when you still have plenty of air and time at your disposal.

Here are a couple of suggestions – tried and tested by Tony, a lifelong warm-water diver, and me, a boat-diving wussy…


Justin demonstrates the virtues of a good wetsuit
Justin demonstrates the virtues of a good wetsuit

Ah, you say, cold water means you need a drysuit, or at least a nice thick (5mm plus a 5mm shorty on top, or otherwise at least 7mm) wetsuit to keep out the chill. This is true, but there are three other essential components to a Cape diver’s gear that can make a HUGE difference.


Get thick booties – the thickest ones you can find, especially if you have poor circulation. If you can, wear them with the cuffs inside your wetsuit.

Thick booties on the boat
Thick booties on the boat


Gloves, at least 3mm thick, are essential. Don’t try and dive without them – you won’t be able to operate your camera or inflator hose after a while. Your fingers are not well-insulated. Again, tuck gloves into your sleeves if you can.


The hoodie is actually the most essential part of your gear. While it appears to be a myth that the majority of body heat is lost through your head, if it’s the only part of you that’s exposed, it WILL be the primary source of heat loss. Heat loss through the head increases with exercise up to a point, and like the hands, your head is not well insulated for the most part.

When Tony moved to Cape Town from Mozambique a year ago, he was quite resistant to wearing a hoodie, and got very, very cold (almost paralysed after a dive… not good) for the first while. He found a loose hoodie (not attached to his wetsuit) that didn’t make him feel restricted, and we are now able to do one hour dives in 12 degree water with relative ease (as long as we don’t sit around TOO much). I think this has been the greatest assistance to him in adapting to the 10 degree lower temperatures here, compared to further north.

Other techniques

A couple of other techniques that have worked for us…

Move about

If you get cold, swim a bit. We tend to stay still for longish periods, interacting with fish or taking photos or just looking, and this tends to cause one to get cold quite fast. Go for a short swim when you start getting chilled – it makes a big difference.

Wear a jacket on the boat ride

One of those cheap and nasty anoraks with a white flannel lining can transform your boat ride – specially the ride back to the slipway, after you’re wet. Put it on straight over your wetsuit. This can make a huge difference as it almost eliminates wind chill on your torso.