So you have fallen in love with scuba diving. You experienced your first breaths underwater, and you worked up the courage to take your mask off in the water and that still didn’t turn you away. You have officially caught the scuba bug and you’re hooked! For a new diver, buying gear is the final step and the act that says “I’m committed to diving my brains out”. However if you are a new diver, it is hard to know what to buy, where to buy it, and what’s good in terms of product and brand.
Most new divers buy in stages. First come the basic necessities (mask, fins, snorkel) , and then when you know you want to be a keen diver, it’s time to put on the big pants and move into the exciting major pieces of life support. This includes a regulator, BCD and dive computer, and if you’re really keen, you can even get yourself a tank. Let’s start with the basics first and move our way down accordingly.
Stage One – The Basics
The Good Old Scuba Mask.
Picking the right scuba mask can sometimes be a hit and miss, so it is important that when you are buying a new mask, make sure you pick the right one for you. Nothing is more annoying than having a leaky mask, and it is probably the number one complaint in terms of scuba pet peeves.
What to look for? The most important factor when picking a mask is to find a watertight seal that fits your individual face. To distinguish if it will be watertight, I recommend doing the sniff and seal test. Grab a mask you like, and without the strap around your head, using only the mask part itself, place it on your face and suck in gently through your nose. Ask yourself, is this mask comfortable? Telltale signs of an ill-fitting mask include a lack of comfort, and the sound of a small amount of air leaking into the mask on your face.
Masks that pass the sniff and seal test are usually a potential keeper. Pay attention to how the mask fits on your forehead and your top lip. In today’s diving world, masks range in volume, shape, colour, polarization, the softness of the silicone, all the way to side windows that add peripheral vision. Take the time to pick the perfect mask for you!
Cost – From $60 to $160
You know “the breathing thing”, “the tube thingo”. These are some funny names that I have heard customers call the snorkel. Snorkels are a growing debate in the diving world, and we get questions all the time, like “Do I really need to wear a silly snorkel if I am scuba diving?” Well, the answer is yes. We use snorkels when diving to conserve air in our tank at the surface. However, I will give you some advice -- when scuba diving, you probably don’t need the fancy dry snorkel.
What to look for? – look for an easy-to-operate attachment between your mask and snorkel, a comfortable mouth piece, a purge value, and something that is light weight. Having a heavier snorkel attached to your mask can be an annoyance, as it can add more drag when moving through the water.
Advice – if you don’t plan on doing a lot of snorkeling, then this is the piece of gear you don’t need to go overboard on. Get something light, simple, and basic that does the job.
Cost - $15 - $75
Unfortunately we were not born with the right anatomy to move through the water like an elegant shark does (bummer). So if we want to play with the fishes, we need a good set of fins to help us keep up.
Just like finding a good mask, fins can be a hit and miss. You really have to pay attention to the comfort, fit and style. A bad or ill-fitting fin can literally make or break your dive experience. Nothing is worse than having a fin fall off at the surface or while diving, or having a fin strap break without a spare.
What to look for? – When trying on fins, look for a snug fit that doesn’t pinch your toes. A simple rule is that if you can’t wiggles your toes, the fins are probably too small. Efficiency of fins is largely determines by their size, stiffness and design. In terms of sizing, a rule of thumb is that the heel should come out of the back of the fin about an inch (open heel fins), or your toes should come out of the front just slightly (full foot fins).
Full Foot or Open Heel? - Full foot fins do not require booties and are recommend for warm water diving. They are essentially a slip on design with the shoe part build it. However, the open heel fin is commonly used in colder weather diving, and booties are necessary to wear them comfortably. The dive bootie also has the added benefit of foot protection and warmth, and provides comfort while walking on uneven ground.
Advice –A good pair of fins can last a long time. Take the time to do your research and try on different types to figure out which one suits you best.
Cost - $65 - $300
Exposure Suit – Wetsuit
Just like the fin situation, we were also not built to withstand long periods of time in the water. Exposure suits insulate against the cooling effect of water, which can rob you of heat 25 times faster than air.
What to look for? – Fit and comfort are the main factors. Wetsuits should fit snugly and you should feel comfortable while wearing them. Pay attention to uncomfortable fitting neck lines or gaps in the armpit, leg and crotch area. If the wetsuit is too big and gaps form, as a result the water will pool in these areas and defeat the suits ability to prevent heat loss. You may have to try on a lot of different sizes or types in order to find the perfect wetsuit that fits your body.
85 Degrees and Above – Swimsuit, 2mm – 1mm Shorty.
80-85 Degrees – 2mm-1mm Shorty or Full.
73-79 Degrees – 3mm -5mm Full.
66- 72 Degrees – 5mm – 7mm Full
50 – 65 Degrees – 7mm Full, Semidry, Dry Suit.
Of course, this is dependent on your personal tolerance level of the cold.
Cost - $70 - $650
The BCD, also called the “BC”, stands for Buoyancy Control Device. It is a vital, complex, and multipurpose piece of equipment, and it is glue that holds everything together.
What does it do? – Everything. It keeps gear in place, lets you carry a tank with minimal effort, helps you float at the surface, and allows you to achieve neutral buoyancy at depth. Imagine diving without one, where would everything go?
What to Look for? – Correct size and fit are important. Look for a BCD that fits you snugly, but doesn’t squeeze you too much when it’s inflated, as it should not restrict your breathing. It also helps when trying on new BCDs to also try them on while wearing your wetsuit. Pay attention to the inflator hose and ask yourself, “Can I operate this easily with one hand?” Also, it is important to test out all the valves, adjustments and straps for accessibility and ease of use. If you take care of you BCD, it will take care of you!
Cost - $300- $800
Now we’re talking, right? These bad boys are the number one most important piece of equipment that you will own. Your regulator is your life line, it’s as simple as that. It allows you to breathe in a foreign environment, and is a complex, high performance piece of equipment.
What does it do? – The regulator converts the high pressure air in your tank to ambient pressure so you can breathe it. A regulator must also deliver air to other places, such as your BCD inflator and alternate second stage.
What to look for? – When buying a regulator, one should look for high performance and comfort. The best regulators can deliver a high volume of air at depth, under heavy exertion, and even at low tank pressures. Some regulators breathe easy, and some don’t. There are regulators more suited for cold water, while some are limited to warm water. Make sure you find out this information before purchasing a regulator, as many people make this mistake. Most of the time when you buy a regulator, you buy the first stage (the part that hooks up to the tank) and second stage (the regulator part/mouthpiece) together. The gauges and octopus (alternate air source) are usually bought separately, but if you’re lucky, all parts of your regulator can come together as a package.
Advice – Do your homework. Researching will help you find the most suitable regulator for your diving needs and budget. Don’t be afraid to take the time you need to read reviews, ask questions and see the equipment in person before you buy it.
Cost - $225 - $1600.
Who likes figuring out the dive tables? Not me! Dive computers are a godsend to us divers who are still confused by all the pressure groups, residual nitrogen times and all those other calculations.
What do they do? – Dive computers constantly monitor your depth and bottom time, and automatically recalculate your no-decompression status to keep you within safe recreational limits. Computers can also monitor your ascent rate and tank pressure, tell you when it’s safe to fly, log your dives, and much more.
What to look for? – You want something that is user friendly. Some computers are easy to use and some are extremely complex. The fancy computer that you spend your rainy day fund on may look nice, but it won’t do any good if you can’t quickly and easily access the basic information you need during a dive at depth. The big question: when it comes to computers, do you want one on your wrist or do you want one on your gauge console?
Advice – Before you buy a fancy new computer, begin with an honest evaluation of your diving needs – do you plan on using mixed gases or decompression diving? Study the features online and compare other computers, then choose the one that fits your diving needs and your budget.
Price - $300 - $1300
Yup, owning your own scuba gear requires a considerable investment, and can be expensive to say the least. However, when properly cared for and maintained, your gear should last as long as you want it.
So there you have it newbies! You are now on your way to buying your first scuba diving equipment from head to toe! It’s important to do your research, ask questions and take the time to figure out which type of gear is right for you. Buying your first set of equipment is very exciting and should be looked at as a great milestone in your diving life! Always remember to support your local dive shops, as we are here to help and answer any questions about any type of gear!
Firsts are Special...
This story goes back to a time before Jody started a dive shop. I'm sure all you divers out there remember the first time you dived in open water. They are all special memories that can never be forgotten. This one is mine...
by Jill Smith, wife of a dive shop owner.
A few years ago, husband, Jody, bought me a PADI Open Water Scuba course for Christmas. He was very excited to have me join him in this sport when we travelled south on vacation that winter.
I was less than thrilled.
I had been content to let Jody dive without me on vacations while I sipped Mai Tai’s on the beach with a good book. Truth was, I was intimidated and afraid of the sport, terrified that all sharks within a 100 km radius were just waiting for the chance to eat me, if only I would jump in. My heart raced and I felt claustrophobic at the thought of donning all that rubber, especially on a hot day. I worried that my mobility would be restricted while wearing all the scuba gear. So I had reservations, to say the least, but I did promise to try my best and be open to whole experience, reserving all rights to choose when, and if, I dive on a day to day basis.
I proceeded to study the manual closely, because if I was going to do this, then I was certainly going to beat Jody’s test score from all those years ago. I was going to aim for perfect. I found the manual interesting and learned a lot, before I even went to class the first time. I guess it’s true; knowledge is power. I began to feel a little more confident and a little more eager, with each chapter I read.
The course was held over a weekend at the dive shop, and was a combination of classroom instruction, and practical skills in the local pool. I found this to be a very enjoyable experience, and really liked the instructor, Matt - his enthusiasm and love for the sport was contagious - and we (his students) were all excited to get in the open water to try scuba for real. We all laughed when Matt told us, “There are two kinds of divers: those that pee in their wetsuits, and those that lie about peeing in their wetsuits.” I didn’t believe it for a second, and knew that I would never do that, although Matt assured me I would. Gross.
I passed all exams - 100% on the written, though conveniently Jody didn’t remember his score. The only thing left to do was the open water testing.
It was February, so we decided that I would finish my certification in Samana, while on vacation, instead of waiting for the ice to melt here at home to complete my certification. I told Jody, “Matt says that when you scuba dive, you have to look good! I need a nice dive suit. Pink.”
Jody laughed and rolled his eyes, but on Valentine’s Day, he showed me a picture of a 3mm wetsuit with pink trim that he had specially ordered. All I had to do was go into the store and try it on, when it came in.
Awesome! I was so excited.
Two days before we were to leave on our trip, my suit was in, and I dashed out to the shop to try it on. It was gorgeous. Pretty pink accents, and even a pink floral tattoo design on the ankle.
I skipped into the change room to try it on, and here it became somewhat of a challenge. It isn’t exactly easy to put these things on; they are a second skin. Inch by inch, I worked it up my legs over my hips, torso, arms, and finally zipped up. Unfortunately, the neck of the thing was digging into my chin uncomfortably. I was disappointed. It would have to be returned, and instead of looking good in my new suit, I would be wearing a tattered, pee soaked, armpit smelling rental.
I came out of the change room to show Theo, who was working the shop that day. “Look at it,” I wailed, “It fits everywhere else, but it is cutting off the circulation to my neck, and Matt says that your wetsuit must fit comfortably around your neck so that it doesn’t cut off your carotid!”
Theo took one look at me concerned, but then burst out laughing. “You have it on backwards,” he said. “The zipper goes to the back. That’s why there is a long cord attached to the zipper, which will allow you to zip it up yourself! Hee hee hee!”
So, Theo yucked it up - and I looked like a wee bit of an ass, but that’s ok - I was just relieved that, perhaps, I would be able to wear this suit after all. I did, however, have to go back to the change room and painstakingly peel off the suit, only to have to roll, pinch, and pull it back on the other way. With a lot of effort, and a lot of sweat, I did finally accomplish this. It was perfect, and I loved it.
Samana, Dominican Republic! We were so excited! As soon as we arrived, we met with the dive instructor at the resort, and booked the requisite dives for the week. In the morning before my first session, we ate a healthy breakfast, and I hydrated myself very well with orange juice, water, and caffeine-free tea. I advised Jody to hydrate well too, because, “Matt says that dehydration is one of the leading factors that predisposes a diver to decompression sickness.”
Jody rolled his eyes.
We had a bathroom break after our meal, retrieved our equipment from our room, and headed for the resort’s dive shop on the beach, where I visited the restroom one last time before we headed out with six other men and my instructor for a two tank dive. I’m not going to lie – I was nervous.
There had been a rainstorm the day before, so the waves were high - the boat ride, alone, was a bit of an adventure. The little dive boat seemed to climb up the slope of one watery hill, and then come speeding down the other side, splashing us all with the wake, when we hit bottom. I am a fan of moderately sized roller-coasters, however, and so I enjoyed this ride very much.
Soon, the boat was anchored, though, and my heart was pounding as I donned my gear. All geared up, I suddenly felt constricted and anxious, so my instructor told me to do a back-roll off the boat right away, hand over the regulator in my mouth and over my mask. The cool water trickled down the back of my wetsuit, but I felt refreshed. Thankfully, that feeling of constriction disappeared as soon as I was in the water, and, as the others were preparing to enter the water, I took a moment to calm my breathing again and relax. By the time my instructor was ready to descend with me, I was feeling great, and eager to go.
This was my first dive in open water; my job was to follow my instructor. He wanted me to spend this dive getting comfortable - and practicing buoyancy control - and did I need practice! I cannot tell you how many times I started to panic because I was sinking too low - I was very fearful of touching or damaging the reef, so I would then pump air into my buoyancy control device (BCD), which would then cause me to rise. A lot.
My poor instructor would look all around for me, and then look up. There I would be – floating away, sort of shrugging apologetically. He would gesture for me to get back down there beside him and, once, even came swimming after me to empty my BCD of air, himself. I was just having such a hard time mastering the buoyancy. The goal is to adjust the air in your BCD, until you are neutrally buoyant – neither sinking, nor rising – and then swim effortlessly through the water. It does take practice – more for some than others, I guess. I would constantly find myself ploughing the ocean floor with my face, and then try to adjust the volume of air in my BCD and rise too much. Jody tried to help too, but some people are just beyond help sometimes. Finally, my instructor made me hold his hand for the whole dive. It’s okay. He was kinda cute.
After a three minute safety stop at fifteen feet, we surfaced and returned to the boat. My instructor debriefed me on the issues I was having, and instructed me to stick to his side on the next dive. He assured me that my buoyancy would improve, giving me some helpful tips. Then we were off to the second dive.
But now I had to pee. A lot. Perhaps I had over-hydrated.
I yelled in Jody’s ear over the noise of the ocean waves and boat motor, “I HAVE TO PEE! ARE WE STOPPING SOMEWHERE WHERE THERE IS A BATHROOM?”
He smiled at me indulgently, and then moved up to the front of the boat to talk to my instructor. My husband pointed back at me as they spoke, and the instructor turned and glanced at me and then looked at my husband, holding his arms out to indicate the great expanse of ocean. My heart dropped; there would be no ladies room for me.
They stopped the boat and let out the anchor, and by now everyone on the boat knew that I had to pee, and that I had to pee NOW. I jumped into the ocean without hesitation, and held on to the side of the boat, riding the waves, trying to pee while they all sat there. Watching. It took a while – I think I had performance anxiety, plus 10 gallons of fluids to unload – but what a relief.
Meanwhile, Jody was seasick and losing his 3 egg omelette on the other side of the boat, and the instructor now says, “Ok, everybody! Tanks on and get in the water!”
Oh. I thought we were just stopping so I could go to the bathroom (in my awesome wetsuit, I might add; it would seem that I am indeed the type of diver that pees and tells). I do kind of feel sorry for the other guys now. Pick a side, fellows, any side. Starboard is the ocean of urine, and port is full of chunks of my husband’s breakfast.
I am certain that they were all sorry that my husband and I were on this dive trip with them. What a couple we make!
However, the second dive went very well, now that I was comfortable. I really was starting to get the hang of buoyancy, and, once I achieved neutral buoyancy, I found it easier and easier to control where I was in the water simply by breathing in more deeply to increase my volume and rise, or exhale more fully to decrease my volume and sink, remembering all the while not to hold my breath – the first rule of scuba.
I passed the skills of the open water certification program over the next three dives. I did it! The instructor was delighted that I was able to accomplish all of the requirements (I think he was a little surprised), and hugged me after the last skill test.
It was a wonderful experience, and I was so happy to be able to do it with my husband at my side.
Since then, my husband opened a dive shop, Adventure Sports Newmarket Inc., and runs trips locally through the summer in Ontario, and dive excursions in the warmer climates throughout the winter. Our next trips coming up are in the Bahamas – Blackbeard’s Live-aboard Adventure Cruise, and Aqua Cat Luxury Live-aboard Scuba Cruise – where one of the featured dives will be with sharks! So excited for this – check back in December to see the pictures and hear the tall tales of thrilling exploits!
If you are contemplating getting your first open water scuba certification, then let me congratulate you now. It is a lot of fun, and the people involved in this sport are truly dedicated to the safety and importance of having a good time (while looking good). So best wishes as you embark on this new venture - fill your log book with your scuba adventures so that you never forget them - and dive safely!
Divers: Want to share your story? I invite you to share your own first experiences!
You can email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy and safe diving adventures to all!