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?

Repairs

  • Get a second opinion on extensive repairs.

Entry techniques: Giant strides

For me it’s a toss up between backward rolling and giant strides as my favourite entry technique for scuba diving. Living in Cape Town, opportunities for giant strides are limited to occasional harbour dives (boat dives are generally done off a RIB). In Malta, however, we were in giant stride paradise, and had a number of opportunities to basically bomb drop ourselves into the sea off piers, boats, and rocky ledges.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYOXS4MeBU0&w=540]

These two (slightly dodgy but very short) videos were filmed at Wied iz Zurrieq, where the Um El Faroud wreck lies, and the Blue Grotto can be found. The first shows Tony in action, and the second shows our impossibly tall divemaster, Sergey. That one was filmed while I was already in the water, so it’s rather unsteady!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cf5qxq4DEE&w=540]

Usually one does this with a fully inflated BCD, so you pop to the surface right away. Of course, regulator is in your mouth and mask on your face, with one hand resting lightly over them for security. To get out of the water at this particular dive site, one uses a metal ladder on the side of the pier. On a boat there’d be a ladder or a dive platform on the back.

Water by accident

Some of my favourite accidental photos are of the water, and not much else. On a winter’s day, the water at Long Beach can be crystal clear.

Splash!
Splash!

This next photo was taken by accident as I exited the water carrying a stripy sock I’d found towards the end of the dive.

Carrying a sock
Carrying a sock

It looks as though we’re miles out in ankle-deep water here, but probably not the case…

Very clean, tropical-looking Long Beach
Very clean, tropical-looking Long Beach

The diver on the right below has his mask on his head – a definite no-no. That’s how I know he’s not one of Tony’s students!

Note the two divers in the background
Note the two divers in the background

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…

Books

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!

Donations

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

Experiences

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.

Handy hints: Snorkel technique

Kate demonstrates incorrect snorkel technique
Kate demonstrates incorrect snorkel technique (in the car)

Note that the snorkel is worn on the right hand side of the mask in these images; this is incorrect, and it should be on the left. Because your regulator is worn over your right shoulder, the snorkel is usually on the opposite side.

Kate demonstrates snorkel remove and replace
Kate demonstrates snorkel remove and replace

Wearing a snorkel on land is not recommended unless you are highly trained, as Kate is.

Dive gear maintenance: Masks

Masks tend to fog up due to some form of contaminant on the glass. You are told when you buy a new mask to give it a toothpaste treatment, or “burn it gently with a lighter.” These theories have dubious origins and the reality is that the glass is dirty: silicones from manufacture, sunscreen, and natural body fluids all make the glass oily.

The Number Two cat has some opinions about dive mask maintenance
The Number Two cat has some opinions about dive mask maintenance

The trick is to wash the mask with warm soapy water. End of story, a clean piece of glass will not fog up. Baby shampoo is often recommended due to the fact that if you leave a residue in the mask it wont burn your eyes, but after years and years of experimenting and testing all the different suggestions I can assure you warm soapy water works like a charm.

I wash everything with Bio-Classic (an enzyme-based washing powder that is great for cleaning off body fluids) and this includes all my masks. I rinse them well after washing and store them in a plastic container.

Lomography: Dive buddies

My camera housing has a large mechanical shutter release button, and when I don’t turn it off after a dive it sometimes bumps against my leg as I walk up the beach. The resulting accidental photographs, while neither beautiful nor perfectly composed, have a particular charm. While I can’t conceive of purposely taking a bad photo (you can always make it look bad afterwards in Photoshop!), when I look at these photographs I can almost see the appeal that lomography has among the trendy hipster set (of which I am emphatically not a member).

Here are some of my favourite pictures of my dive buddies:

Tony disentangling his camera gear at Long Beach
Tony disentangling his camera gear at Long Beach

The fair Kate spent two months with us doing a Zero to Hero course (Open Water to Divemaster). She spent a lot of time towing the buoy around!

Kate walking up the beach behind me with the buoy
Kate walking up the beach behind me with the buoy
Kate waits on the sand
Kate waits on the sand

Kate and I took Jeremy, a Canadian visitor, for a dive one November day. We saw beautiful schools of strepies on that dive. You can see my face at the top right of this photo, looking down at the camera. I was probably about to unclip it from my BCD.

Jeremy the Canadian
Jeremy the Canadian

Finally, here are some student photos…

Mark removing his mask
Mark removing his mask
Tony and a student leaving the water
Tony and a student leaving the water

This could actually be Kate!

Mystery student of Tony's
Mystery student of Tony's

Handy hints: Transporting dive gear on a scooter

Preparing to depart
Preparing to depart

Perhaps you’ve wondered how you’re going to make it along the coastal road from Simon’s Town after a dive, with a bag full of dive gear. You’re worried that a strong gust of wind might catch your enormous dive bag and overbalance your bike. What’s more, maybe you have a passenger who also has a large bag of gear. What to do? Stay at home?

Final mechanical check
Final mechanical check

Fear not! Help is at hand, courtesy of Andrew and Oliver. Their solution is as follows:

  • wear your wetsuit, booties, weight belt and BCD
  • stow your regulators and masks under the seat of your bike
  • get the passenger to hold both pairs of fins
  • don’t forget the helmets!
Ready to go!
Ready to go!

I’m afraid if you have cylinders too, we can’t help you. A bigger bike might be required…

Handy hints: Designer stubble

I’ve mentioned how a stray hair in one’s mask can turn a dive from pleasant to a simulated near-drowning experience… For girls, it’s usually just a matter of putting one’s hair out of the way. For guys, it can be more complicated.

The problem is designer stubble: not all gentlemen like the clean-shaven look. A full-scale moustache really precludes a career as a scuba diver, but there’s no reason why Andre Agassi or his ilk can’t don a mask and hit the ocean.

Marinus gets a personalised application of Vaseline
Marinus gets a personalised application of Vaseline

The solution to the problem – assuming you don’t fancy a pass with a razor – is Vaseline. The generous application prior to a dive of petroleum jelly to the top lip, and any other stubbled portions of the male face that fall beneath the skirt of a mask, will solve the problem ONE TIME.

Of course, if you can get someone to wade into the sea and actually apply it for you, that’s a bonus!

FAQ: Don’t you feel claustrophobic underwater?

Many people seem to think that they’ll experience claustrophobia when they put their faces in the water, with their breathing restricted to their regulator, wearing a wetsuit, and having all that water around them.

Here are some facts…

Breathing from a regulator

A regulator or demand valve is a brilliantly designed piece of equipment that attaches to a hose linked to a cylinder of compressed air. It’s constructed so that it’s easy to breathe from – no more effort is required than breathing without one, it gives you as much air as you need, and you can even cough or (I know this from sad experience) vomit with it in your mouth and you won’t have ANY trouble at all with the consequences… If you get my drift. In the unlikely event that it fails, it won’t fail in the “off” position and stop your air supply; it will free flow (deliver a continuous stream of air). One of the skills you do in your Open Water course is breathing off a free-flowing regulator, so you are fully equipped to handle this situation.

Your regulator delivers more than enough air, NOT less than you get breathing on land. If you do at some point feel as though you’re not getting enough, it’s because you’re breathing too shallowly. When you dive, your breathing must be deep and slow. Extracting the full goodness out of each breath maximises your enjoyment: your air will last longer, and you’ll feel more relaxed.

Bubbles rising in the Atlantic
Bubbles rising in the Atlantic

Having to breathe out of your regulator – as opposed to being able to go take one breath in each corner of the room, or open your mouth as wide as it can go – is not restrictive at all. If you think about it, when you breathe on land, you’re drawing in the air that is in front of your face. There’s no hardship in not being able to take in the air from down the passageway – that’s not where you are.

What’s more, having the regulator in your mouth only feels funny for the first few minutes. It’s made with soft rubbery flanges that fit in your mouth (mouthpieces come in different sizes, too) and once it’s seated properly you won’t even know it’s there. If you’ve snorkeled, you know what it feels like to have a mouthpiece between your teeth. Breathing from a regulator is easier than breathing from a snorkel, and what’s more you don’t have to worry about rogue waves splashing water into your breathing apparatus! So if you can snorkel, you can definitely scuba dive.

All that equipment

Some people worry about wearing a mask, and think they might feel closed in with one covering their eyes and nose. Firstly, it’s important to note that it’s essential for the mask to cover your nose so that you can equalise your ears . If you wore swimmers’ goggles, they would get compressed onto your face at depth (which would hurt, and might look funny). This way, you can exhale through your nose into the mask to equalise (one of many techniques).

To be honest, a mask is no more claustrophobic to wear than a pair of wrap around sunglasses, and it’s probably going to be a lot more comfortable once you’ve found the one that suits your face shape.

Oscar enjoying all that space
Oscar enjoying all that space

Others worry about wearing a wetsuit, that they won’t feel free to move. They’re right about that: wearing a wetsuit on land is one of the least comfortable things you can do. They’re hot, restrictive, and tight. In the water, however, you won’t even notice it’s there. Wetsuits keep you warm (important in the Cape) and protect you from marine creatures that might sting or scratch you as you pass through their domain. Deciding you won’t like or try diving because wetsuits make you feel cramped is like deciding you aren’t going to eat Haagen-Dazs ice cream because you don’t like the font they write their product labels in.

All that water

Finally, some people worry that they’ll feel trapped under the weight of all the water above them, and that it’s impossibly far to get to the surface. There are a few answers to this:

Firstly, you’ll learn a skill called a CESA, or Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, on your Open Water course. This enables you to swim for the surface in a controlled, non-panicky manner if you need to. This is not something you’ll just do if you’re feeling uncomfortable one day – it’s for when you run out of air and have no buddy nearby to borrow an octo from.

Second, when you learn to dive you’re not suddenly going to start spending all your time at 30 metres. The PADI Open Water course qualifies you to dive to 18 metres, and you have to do an Advanced course to get to 30 metres, and a Deep specialty to get to 40 metres. So these things come with time. Some divers have no interest in deep diving, and there’s nothing wrong with that – Tony and I spend most of our time in less than 10 metres of water because the best and easiest photographic opportunities are there, and we can stay down a looooong time because our air lasts forever! Your first diving experiences will be in relatively shallow water, and only as you get used to being underwater will your instructor gradually increase the depth you go to.

Looking up in the clear Atlantic
Looking up in the clear Atlantic

I will admit that when visibility is poor, one loses the feeling of having three beautiful dimensions around one to play in. But this is infrequent, and if you’re diving for fun, then you hopefully won’t have to get in the water when conditions aren’t great (unless you’re desperate to get wet, in which case you won’t care!). But the feeling of space when one drops into the gin-clear water of the Atlantic on a summer’s day is so extreme as to make one almost dizzy. Being underwater is the closest I get to flying, and I love it.

In conclusion, diving involves a fair amount of unfamiliar equipment, and is quite different to our day-to-day experiences as human beings on planet earth. You may not like it; but you probably will. If you’re not sure, sign up for a Discover Scuba Diving experience (DSD). Tony even sometimes does these in people’s swimming pools – just to give you a taste of the freedom that comes with breathing underwater. You can make an educated decision about diving after that.