Jul 222012

Ok, you got your certification in hand.  Now you are ready to do some diving.  But wait!  You’re going to need some equipment.   You remember, all that stuff you used in your training.  Yeah, it don’t go with the card.  You’ll need to be gettin’ ready to spend some cold hard cash on some dive gear.  So where to start?  What’s the best kind of gear to get?  How much will it all cost?  You got scuba questions?  The Fritter has scuba answers.

First and foremost…Remember what I said in the training post.  All that gear you used in your class is designed for one thing and one thing only.  TO KEEP YOUR ASS ALIVE UNDER THE WATER.  When you scrimp on the quality of your dive gear you are literally putting your life in the hands of that scrimpy dive gear.  You get what you pay for.  Make the wrong choices and you could pay dearly.  So it will behoove you to do some shopping around and get the best gear you can afford.  The best place to start, is with the people who trained you in the first place.  If the dive center where you trained is a full service shop, chances are they are carrying a nice variety of the top gear brands in the industry.  Talk to the staff and see what they recommend.  Get online and look at the opinions of the brands you are interested in and see what everyone has to say about them.  But before you whip out the plastic and start loading up on gear you need to stop and think about something.  And you need to think about it at home and away from any sales weasels or the glitter of all that shiny new gear.  What is it you need to consider?

How much diving are you actually going to do over the course of a year and where will that diving be?

Sure, sounds like an easy question.  You just got your certification and boy howdy you are set to go dive around the world.  From Key Largo to the Great Barrier Reef, you are just going to be a diving fool.  Well, you’re half right.  As with all things, reality seldom lives up to the dream.

Here is reality.  Unless you live someplace like the Keys, or near some really good dive sites, chances are after a few months you won’t be diving near as much as you planned.  Sure there is that spring where you did your check out dive that seemed so cool the first time you jumped in.  But after the 4th or 5th time of seeing the same bluegill sitting under the same log, it has lost it’s luster.  You may have been able to do a weekend to Key Largo with the shop but those trips cost $300 or better and chew up an entire weekend.  You make plans to go here or there but bad weather, an emergency at work, or some project around the house gets in the way.  Next thing you know it’s a couple of years down the road and all that fancy dive gear you spent so much on is gathering dust in a corner of the garage.  You always plan on taking it out and heading someplace but it just doesn’t seem worth the effort.

The above scenario may sound a bit negative but for a lot of divers it’s reality.  They come in, take the training, get caught up in the hype, spend thousands on gear, and it sits unused after the first couple of times.  Sad but it’s very common.

So again, before you do decide to buy your own gear, sit down and honestly assess how often you will actually go diving.  If it looks like you will only be able to go a couple times of the year, due to location, work, whatever, then why spend the money on gear when you can just as easily rent at the location.

Gear rental is big business at the dive operations here in the Keys and other places that are close to the good diving.  These dive shops know that for many, dragging a ton of gear down to the dive site from all points north is not feasible for a lot of people.  So they keep a hefty supply of rental gear on hand.  It makes it easier to travel and you don’t have a bunch of gear to clean and take care of when you are done.  For the most part, rental gear is well used but well taken care of.  Things like regulators are built for some pretty hard core usage and will hold up for a long time with proper maintenance.  And given the high cost of liability insurance and the even higher costs of a lawsuit for renting faulty gear, it’s in the best interests of the shop to keep their rental gear in top shape.

So if it looks like you might not be diving as much as you think, or you are still unsure, then take advantage of the rental programs.  If you find yourself actually doing more diving, cool.  Start thinking about buying your own gear.  So, here are some things to think about when purchasing scuba diving equipment:

You have a mask, fins, and snorkel already.  That was part of your class.  Chances are you may have added a couple other odds and ends.  Wetsuit boots to wear with the fins.  Maybe a small bag to hold everything.  But, as you may have guessed, that is only the beginning.  Remember in the first post of this series I mentioned I worked for a company that sold hundreds of different dive accessories?  Yeah, I wasn’t kidding.  Diving is a non minimal sport.  But for the moment, let’s concentrate on the important stuff.

Air cylinders.  Those big, heavy round things that hold the air you breathe.  This is probably the one single item that most people will hold off on buying.  They are heavy as I said, and are a pain to transport.  Imagine loading up a trailer for twenty people and needing two cylinders for each diver.  That’s a lot of weight to be hauling around.  And forget about transport by air.  Assuming the airlines did allow the cylinders on board, empty of course, the fees they charge are enormous.  You might be better off renting as opposed to buying.  But if you do buy you have some choices.  Biggest is in material.  Steel or aluminum.  Steel is heavier but aluminum leaves a distinct taste in the air coming out of it.  I always preferred steel but that was personal preference.  Air cylinders are designed to last for longer than you will be alive as long as you take care of them.  All dive cylinders are required to be visually inspected by a certified shop every year and then be pressure tested every five years.  Usually the valve on the top is serviced every year.  Biggest thing with cylinders, never leave them completely empty of pressurized air.  If you do and moisture gets inside, it will tear up a perfectly good cylinder.

Next up is the regulator.  This is the device that controls the flow of the air from 3000 psi in your cylinder down to a breathable pressure so you can take it in your lungs and keep on going with that whole living thing.  The basic design of a common regulator hasn’t changed much over the years.  It works in two stages.  The first reduces the pressure out of the cylinder down to about 120 psi and the second stage reduces the pressure from 120 psi to ambient or surrounding pressure so you can breathe it in.  (If all this sounds a bit technical don’t worry.  This is stuff you’ll be learning in your class).  Regulators have improved over the years with lighter materials and a few tweaks here and there.  The better the regulator, the easier it is to breathe out of it.  You want a regulator that allows the air to flow into your mouth with as little effort as possible.  The deeper you go, the more effort it will take to suck that air in.  Depending on the amount of use, a regulator will require the most maintenance of all your equipment.  Heavy use may require a complete rebuild every couple of months while others that are used less can get by with a rebuild once or twice a year.  Not surprisingly, a regulator is also one of the more expensive items you’ll be buying.

Attached to your regulator are some other important gadgets.  A pressure gauge which is sort of fuel gauge.  It tells you how much pressure is left in your cylinder so you know when its time to stop diving and head back to the surface where that big air thingy is, you know, the atmosphere.

Usually attached to the pressure gauge is some sort of mount which also carries a depth gauge.  A depth gauge tells you how deep you are.  Another important thing to know that you will learn about.  And maybe a compass.  Yes, a compass does work underwater and it’s something you will learn in an advanced class.  A handy thing to know when diving in low visibility.

Also attached to your regulator is, a second regulator. also commonly known as an octopus rig.  The reason for the spare?  Suppose your dive buddy (never dive alone) runs out of air and you still have plenty left.  You hand them the octopus so they can breathe and then you both can make it back to the surface.

Next up is the buoyancy compensator.  The BC as it is known is a combination of a back pack to hold your cylinder on your back and an inflatable vest.  When you go down into the deep dark depths of unknown, you will be carrying weight in the form of all your gear, and be floating due to your own natural buoyancy, otherwise known as fat.  And most likely you’ll be wearing a wetsuit made of neoprene which also floats.  When you get down to where you want to be you may rise or sink depending on the balance of weight versus floating.  To help stabilize yourself at depth you use the BC.  It is attached to the regulator and inflates using the air in the cylinder.  You can inflate by mouth too but it’s a trick underwater.  By adjusting the amount of air in the BC you try to achieve something called neutral buoyancy, where you are neither sinking nor rising.  It’s as close as you can get to being weightless and allows you swim around much easier.  It’s really cool when you do it.

I mentioned a wetsuit.  Even in the warm tropical waters of the Keys you are going to want to wear some sort of skin protection.  Not just for warmth, even at 20 feet, the water temperature will cool off fast, but because of another interesting feature we have on the reefs, fire coral.  Yup, it’s exactly what it sounds like.  Brush up against fire coral and it’s like a bee sting.  It burns, it hurts, and it ain’t fun.

To compensate for the buoyancy of the wetsuit you’ll need a weight belt with some lead weights.  How much depends on the individual.  Some people can get by with just a few pounds.  Others may require up to 30 pounds to keep them under the water.  It takes some experimenting to get the right amount of weight.

So how much is all this going to cost?  Again, it depends on the brand, where you buy it, and so on.  A good idea is to figure on anywhere from $3000 to $5000 to get started.  And that’s just for the basics.  I haven’t included things like:  divers tool (big ass knife), dive flag and float, dive watch, dive computer if you are really into the tech stuff, little things like clips, lanyards, goodie bags, lights, tickle sticks for lobster catching, lobster measuring gauges, (don’t forget the Florida saltwater fishing license with lobster stamp), gloves, mask defogger, underwater lights for night diving (try it, it’s the best diving of all), and other specialty items like spear guns, underwater cameras and lights, and a big bag to carry it all in.  Want to try your hand at cave diving, one of the most dangerous dives of all?  Double your gear.

And all of that is just the beginning.  I told you scuba diving is not a minimalist sport.  But you can see, if you are not going to be diving a lot, it may not be worth your while to spend a lot on gear when you can rent it just as easily and cheaper.  But again, if you are really going to get into this thing heavy, and maybe even make a career out of diving, then be prepared to spend some serious cash on the right kind of equipment for the kind of diving you will be doing.

And speaking of careers in scuba diving, I’ll be writing about all that in the next post.

Capt. Fritter

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