The other day I woke up and got ready to go scuba diving for the first time in probably a year or so. You know the shoemaker with the bad shoes? Well for me, having a dive center meant I never went diving... mainly because I could. So now, without a dive center, I have been bitten with the scuba bug again!
The night before, I gathered most of my equipment together which had spread to various parts of the house: Mask, snorkel, fins, BCD, weight pockets (found somewhere deep in my bodega), mask defog (I couldn't find the SeaGold which is great, and had some no name brand Sea Quick which was useless as I discovered on the first dive), charged my GoPro Hero3, charged the amphibious surface camera (in case there are whale sharks), and my regulator I'd get in the morning.
I have some good expensive equipment and some good cheap equipment. Dive gear doesn't have to be expensive to work well. I'll tell what I have and give you a few tips on what to look for when buying each piece of equipment. I only know what I know, and I am no expert, I'm just a consumer with a lot more experience with equipment than the average diver. One normally doesn't get to try too out many different pieces of scuba equipment, because when you find something you like, you stick with it instead of having to get used to something new. Since most divers dive about once a year at most, getting used to new gear adds stress to your dive vacation, and can seriously affect the enjoyment of your dive as you get accustomed to the new gear.
Price. I feel that your dollars are better spent on your regulator, then your BCD, wetsuit, then the rest. A no name-brand will suffice for most things, but I would not skimp on your regulator. You will end up spending most of your equipment dollars on your regulator, but spend the extra dollars by going with a tried and true name-brand equipment manufacturer - Atomic, ScubaPro, Mares, Oceanic, Agualung, Sherwood (I'm sure I forgot some). I've had a ScubaPro and Atomic regulators, and we used Sherwood Bruts in the dive shop. When I give a price range, it is to indicate the minimum you could spend to get a reasonable piece of equipment. There are cheaper ones available but they would be unusable for diving.
Style. To many, scuba diving is also about fashion. Although I think people look funny in wet suits. I personally like to have matching equipment, and most divers I see go with the standard and timeless, black or blue.
One tip: You should never try out new equipment on a boat dive. Test out new equipment first in a pool or on shore. If you really want to take it out on the boat without testing it first, bring your old one or a backup just in case. You would hate to lose a dive because of faulty or uncomfortable equipment.
Silicone versus Rubber: For both mask and snorkel, there are options of choosing Silicone or Rubber. Silicone is most likely more expensive, it's softer and more comfortable. Rubber is cheaper, stiffer, but more durable. I suggest you buy a silicone mask and snorkel. I have yet to find a comfortable rubber skirt or mouthpiece.
Mask. Form and fit. Prices range from $25-$250 online.
There are a few types of masks:
We have an average of two masks per person in this house. We all use the same size mask (the purple one on the right). My kids have used this style of mask since they were about 4 years old. Although the mask sat very large on their face, it was still usable. We have all the masks pictured above and then some...
Every person has a different face structure. There are different masks to fit different faces. When looking for a new mask, try the mask on, suck in air with your nose and try to pull the mask off your face. If the mask seals properly, it should make a "PLUCK!" sound when pulled off. Make sure you feel no pressure on the bridge of your nose, or anywhere else. The mask skirt (the squishy part that touches your face) should be soft and pliable.
Silicone is my preference as it is soft and supple. Wearing something something on your face for an extended period of time, with increased pressure underwater, means you want more than anything, a comfortable, well-fitting mask. Things to watch for is whether the skirt is soft. Cheaper masks are often stiff and hard. Keep in mind that if the skirt is not soft, it will feel like it's cutting into your face after a couple of dives as your skin will become more sensitive when it is waterlogged.
ScubaMax is a low cost name-brand with little history in the dive business. However, they have cheap equipment and expensive equipment. I'm happy with everything I have purchased in the past for both personal use and for the dive center.
We used their fins, masks and snorkels in the dive center for rental. This meant they were used a lot! And they weathered well.
Volume. The air space inside the mask is called the volume. The bigger the space, the more volume. You do not want a low volume mask as the pressure increase as you dive deeper will be felt more quickly and will require you to equalize your mask often to prevent discomfort. It will feel like someone is pushing the mask onto your face.
Single Lens: My husband uses the mask on the far left. It is made by ScubaMax. It has a black silicone skirt with a single lens. I decided to dive with his mask for some reason. It's very comfortable, however it started to bother me a bit just under my nose, by the end of the second dive. It kept fogging up every second, but that's because I used the no name mask drops.
A single lens mask is good for those who have a nose with a large bridge. In the picture above, with the two masks on the right, the piece in the middle can put pressure on those with large noses, or bridges. Pressure on this area will increase as you dive deeper, possibly becoming painful.
Notice the black skirt with the two masks on the left? Some people prefer masks with a black skirt .The black prevents light from coming in the sides causing reflections and interference.
Dual lens: An example of this style of mask is the purple mask pictured above. This is probably the most common and inexpensive type of mask. I have this pretty purple mask with a matching purple snorkel. Unfortunately, the sun and salt water have bleached the snorkel into a fuschia, so I can't dive with it anymore, as the colors clash. Joking.
Frameless: These masks have a skirt which holds the lenses as well, replacing the hard mask form. I have not tried one of these, but imagine it would be comfortable? Anyone care to comment?
Panoramic: I also have a mask like this yellow one, often referred to as a panoramic mask because it allows you to see more.I find the light coming in from the sides can be a little distracting. However, it's more likely that you'll see that eagle ray swimming by out of your peripheral, than someone with a black skirted mask.
Purge: This type of mask has an outlet similar to the bottom of a purge snorkel that lets you expel the water from your mask, simply by blowing out your nose. I don't like these masks at all because the purge area is hard, and it makes it difficult to squeeze your nose to equalize.
Optical or Corrective: Other things to consider are prescription masks if you use glasses, and not contact lenses. You can get a custom-made mask for your prescription. Just go into your local dive center and order what you need.
Being over forty, I need a bi-focal mask. I can no longer see the wee things, as they are all blurry. You can get the lenses integrated into the mask, or buy stick-ons that you put on the mask yourself. I am going for the bifocal integrated lenses. In the meantime, I'm going to get me a nice magnifying glass which works perfectly well.
Mirrored or Color Correcting: The cool looking black and mirrored red lens mask pictured at the top, in the middle, replaces the red color for your dive. Remember in your dive course, how colors disappear as you dive deeper? The color correcting masks put the color back in your dive. However, it may cause problems when trying to view your camera screen underwater due to its tint combined with the anti-reflective coating on your camera screen. Also the mirrored mask prevents people from seeing your eyes underwater which can hinder underwater communication. So if you're buddy is an anxious diver, this might not be the mask for you, but I think it looks cool!
Camera Integrated Mask. I almost forgot about my Liquid Image HD camera integrated mask. It looks quite silly, I know, but it is really useful for filming video underwater. What makes it nice, is you press record, and you don't miss the experience of what you're viewing. Who wants to fiddle with their camera when seeing whale sharks, dolphins, or other amazing creatures. Simply press the record button and off you go!
The downfall of this design is if you have a regulator that expels bubbles too close to your face, the bubbles can interfere with your filming. It has a camera function as well. The stills are almost impossible to clearly capture due to HD and your movement underwater. But more on underwater cameras in an upcoming blog post...
There are full face masks, which in my opinion, are just ridiculous for warm water diving, not to mention bulky and impractical.
There is very little difference between a name brand scuba manufacturer's mask, and a cheaper brand like ScubaMax. I would go the economical route.
Masks can drastically range in price, however there is very little difference between a name brand scuba manufacturer's mask, and a cheaper brand like ScubaMax. I would go the economical route, but not the cheapest.
Snorkels. Prices range from $20-$70 online.
Snorkels are for surface swimming. If you are diving on a boat, you may surface from the boat and have no air left to swim back to the boat. Swimming on the surface with scuba equipment on is not easy, nor comfortable. The best way to do it if you do not have a snorkel is to turn your back to the boat and kick towards the boat. When scuba diving, the snorkel is actually considered a pi
Normally hand-in-hand with diving destinations, is snorkeling. Although I would rather dive any day!
There are purge snorkels, and non-purge snorkels. Purge snorkels have an outlet at the bottom of the snorkel so you don't have to force the water out the top. This makes clearing water from your snorkel much easier. The old-fashioned snorkels require a very forceful breath to shoot the water out the top. I would only purchase a purge snorkel.
The new thing is a dry snorkel, or a semi-dry snorkel. Dry snorkels claim to not let a drop of water into your snorkel. I haven't tried one of those, but I imagine that would be cool, especially for the anxious or less comfortable snorkelers.
There are a lot of gimmicks with snorkels. Folding snorkels (to put in your BCD pocket during the dive), snorkels with balls on the top to prevent water from entering from above, dry, wet, etc. A folding snorkel is cool because I hate the drag underwater of wearing my snorkel when scuba diving, and it easily gets caught in my hair! The main thing is that they have a comfortable mouthpiece.
One teensy weensy preference I have is the little clip for the snorkel. Most fasteners are a pain in the butt to attach the snorkel to the mask. There are quick release clips. These are awesome when you have long hair, children, when you dive, and then you snorkel, and you remove and replace the snorkel often. I can't live without a quick release clip.
Prices range drastically, but same thing, I'd go economical and comfortable. There is not much difference between them, save for some gimmicks.
Fins. Comfort and stiffness. Prices range from $20-$260 online.
There are mainly two types of fins. Closed, and open-heeled fins categorized into Paddle fins and Split fins.
The fins on the left are paddle (because they look like oars) and they are closed fins because the back part of the fin encloses your foot.
The fins in the middle are open-heeled split fins. And the fins on the right are open-heeled, paddle fins.
Because of the beautiful temperatures here in Utila (about 27-28 degree water year-round), you don't need boots to keep your tootsies warm, so a closed fin will do.
Open-heeled fins are usually more expensive, and you'll need to buy the boots too. However, they are more versatile in that they can be used in almost all environments, whereas closed heel fins cannot. The straps are adjustable for the perfect fit. Most manufacturers do not make large sized closed heel fins (Size 13+), so this is likely your only option... although some people say "with feet that big, who needs fins?"
I am a minimalist. The less equipment I need to remember, the better. The lighter the equipment, the better. And the smaller, the better. I am small, so keep that in mind for my requirements on fins. The bigger you are, the stronger your fins need to be to propel you through the water. As happens with a dive center, I have about 7 pairs of fins, with booties, without, split, closed, open, you name it!
Pictured above, on the left, I have the yellow AquaLung fins. I like them because they are light and stiff.
I have the TUSA Xpert Zoom fins which are extremely heavy and extremely stiff with re-inforced sides. You can also see the fancy design which is a split-fin. This is supposed to reduce resistance and increase propulsion having a split in the middle mimicking a fish tail. I think they look pretty neat!
The fins on the right, are Blades. I bought these when required to purchase my own equipment for my Open Water Course in Toronto in about 1990. I still have them, but they give me cramps in my feet. Probably because they are too tight.
I also have a black pair of ScubaMax fins, which I use as well. They are light and stiff enough.
You want a relatively stiff pair of fins to propel you through the water. The diving conditions where you scuba dive will dictate your fin requirements. I dive so slowly and there are no strong currents here in Utila, so almost any fin will do. You'll want a stiffer pair for stronger currents.
I'm happy with all the fins I have. I use the TUSA ones the least just because they are very heavy. It probably means they will last the longest. My Blades still look brand-new after 24 years!
Open-heeled fins require booties. Booties are nice when you're doing shore diving and need to walk over rocks,etc. You'll also need booties when diving in cold water to keep your feet warm. I don't like to use them here because it's one more thing I have to put on, or remember to bring.
There are some strange looking fins out there with different designs, but they all do the same thing. Some just look cooler than others. Feel free to correct me however, as I don't have any crazy fins like the two pictured on the left.
Fit. You don't want any pressure points on your feet. All my fins are comfortable except for my Blades, which were purchased with no scuba knowledge or experience. They are sized incorrectly and therefore uncomfortable. Your toes should not stick out the end holes of a closed heel fin.
Unless you need a great fin for diving currents, are an advanced diver, need to have something trendy, I would go with an economical, stiff, comfortable fin.
So that's it for now.
I hope it helps? I'd appreciate any comments from those who LOVE their scuba or snorkel equipment. I only know what I know!
Stay tuned for Part Two soon: Regulators and Buoyancy Control Devices (or BCDs) and Wetsuits!
Until then, blub blub blub!
Top 9 Things to Look For in a Dive Center
Try as I might, I couldn't think of ten!
Utila is an amazing place for scuba diving, not only for it's amazing macro photography, but for whale sharks, dolphins, and learning to scuba dive.
So you've decided on Utila to Learn to Scuba Dive. Good call! What better place to learn for it's calm waters, lack of deadly creatures underwater, beautiful marine life and up to 100 ft/30m visibility! Seriously! Not to mention the Holy Grail of the sea, the Whale Shark. Oh, and dolphins. My favorite. Some other treats that can be seen are orcas, pilot whales, and sperm whales.
So now selecting a dive center is the next step.
Some of these tips may be difficult from across the world, but here's the list anyhow, and I'll keep in mind that you may not be here on the island to check out the places personally. But that's what the internet and social media are for.
After 14 years of having my own dive center here in Utila, here's my list of things to look for when learning to scuba dive. The list is different than for divers who are already certified, but then again, those divers will probably have a better idea of what to look for anyhow.
My Top Nine
1. What do you want?
Sounds silly, but dive centers here each have their own personality and learning to dive requires a good fit, just like a wetsuit.
You may be:
a) scared (about one person a week would experience anxiety)
b) a star (you'll breeze through it like you were born to be underwater)
c) cheap (come to Utila)
d) aged (as in 'gets better with')
e) under 14 years old (then you could do a PADI Junior Open Water course)
f) attractive (ha! this might have something to do with the place you choose! read on!)
g) a party animal (see point f)
h) serious about your education (which you should be)
i) safety-conscious (ditto above)
j) spanish or other language speaker (some dive centers cater to certain languages/countries)
l) 8 years old (and you could do the PADI Bubblemaker course like my daughter in the picture)
I could go on and on, but you get my drift.
So, finding the right dive center for you depends on the 'right fit'. So suss out the 'type' of dive center based on what is important to you. Just like the instructors, dive centers also have their own vibe, focus, demographic.
Over 14 years ago when I came to Utila (I was already certified in Bonaire 6 years prior), but I just followed the good looking Israeli guy to what was Gunter's Dive Shop at the time. But I still shopped around using the iformation from the guidebook I was traveling with through Central America.
2. How's Their Reputation?
In the past, this was not so easy to investigate as we relied mostly on Travel Guide Books to determine where to stay and what to do based on the very biased opinions of the writers. Some guide books were better researched than others, however, nowadays that's almost a moot point.
This is the joy of internet and social media, as the masses can quickly disseminate information, good and bad, about a dive center, restaurant or hotel. Gone are the days of cheating people, poor service, and unprofessional staff. Social media has allowed the good to prevail by letting past customers dictate the future of a business based on their experiences.
So do your research. Look up TripAdvisor, Scubaboard (that's more from people who know diving, so lend a bit more credence to them), check their Facebook Page to see responses and reviews. In all respects, discard the gushing and the complainers and look at the bulk of the reviews for the truth. Facebook is in full control of the dive center page, but TripAdvisor and Scubaboard are in the hands of the customers.
3. How Is Your Instructor?
It may be impossible to do so before you book a dive course, but just like Point#1, a fit with your instructor is important too. Things you would like to know are:
How many people has the instructor taught?
You may think that the more students taught, the better. However this is not necessarily true. I've come across long term instructors who still love what they do! And unfortunately, on the contrary, I have seen instructors who have taught for too long and lost their joy of diving and teaching.
On the flipside, you wouldn't want a brand new instructor either, as there is a great deal of responsibility from making the step up from a Divemaster to an Instructor. It takes practice. I would say you'll probably want an instructor who has at least 30 beginner certifications under his/her weight belt.
Does the instructor seem patient?
This is extremely important especially if you are anxious. About once a week, we would have a terrified student. This would often result in a pow-wow in the office with the student, and another one with the instructor. I believe the only question to ask the student in this situation is "Do you really want to learn to scuba dive?" Often, pressure from a partner or friend can make a student try diving, but deep down, it's not for him or her. If the answer is 'yes', than I think it is the responsibility of the instructor to get the student through the course.
How long has he/she been scuba diving?
One can become a scuba instructor in as short a period of time as six months. While teaching on Utila is easy, with fairly calm seas and no navigational hazards, I personally think that 6 months and 100 dives is too few. Time spent as a divemaster, or dive guide first, allows the teacher to be comfortable with the sea and find interesting things in the sea. It's not just about learning to dive, you want to see the incredible creatures underwater too!
4. Is the equipment in good shape?
It is impossible to have new equipment ALL the time with so many divers going through Utila. What can you look for as someone who knows nothing about diving?
Brand doesn't matter much. If it's being used here in Utila, it must have passed the test.
Just look. Take a peek for yourself, and look for well-maintained, not ratty equipment.
How is the equipment stored? If it's on the floor, or thrown over a bench, chances are the proper respect isn't given in maintenance either.
Clean. If you get a chance look at one of the mouthpieces of a regulator. This is going in your mouth. Do you want it to go in your mouth? Where is the equipment rinsed? Is the water relatively clean too? Check the masks too. Some dive centers also have prescription masks
Abundance. Although the water is a balmy 27 or 28 degrees throughout most of the year, you're going to want a 3mm wetsuit. During the months of October to January, it can get chillier and a long wetsuit is nice.
If there is an abundance of scuba equipment, you can assure that you will find something that fits properly. A wetsuit is useless if it's not the proper size. A buoyancy control device (or BCD, or jacket) will not provide the proper buoyancy if it's too big, and you slip through it on the surface. One too small may be uncomfortable.
5. How's the dive boat?
Diving in Utila is great because the reef surrounds the island, so you're never very far away from shore, except for one of the best dive sites on Utila called Black Hills (a must see).
All diving courses are completed with boat dives. So here are things to look for in the dive center boat:
Safety. Check out the boat and see if it looks clean and well-maintained. This usually indicates how they take care of the engine, which is the important part in a safety situation.
Size. Yes, size does matter. A large dive boat will make you more comfortable than squeezing onto a teeny boat. With diving and all your equipment, it's nice to have space to move and sit comfortably and enjoy the ride and the view.
Speed. A nice fast boat will get you to see the whale sharks when they are around, but in generally, there is no rush, right? Savor the experience!
Covered boat. A covered boat will shelter you from the elements. However, most of the year you don't need it. Personally, I love to warm up on the boat after a dive in the wonderfully hot sun. If it's rainy season, this would be a deal breaker for me. A skiff in this situation is not nearly as comfortable as a proper dive boat.
Here in Utila, we normally complete two dives each trip. Therefore you're sitting on the boat for the surface interval between dives for about an hour. On a skiff, you're sitting in the sun. Not so good for the fair of skin.
6. Is there Oxygen on-board?
Utila has a great safety record when you consider the tens of thousands of divers that have gone through here.
Needless to say, decompression sickness can occur, most often in dive staff as they do repeated dives daily over several days. Regardless of who it can happen to, or the chances of it happening, oxygen on-board is imperative. There is a decompression chamber on the island right next to the BICD (Bay Islands College of Diving) where treatment can be made. This is also a great reason to choose Utila to do your dive course.
Usually the oxygen kit will be a green suitcase to shield the 02 tanks from salt water and will most like be a DAN (Divers Alert Network) Oxygen Kit. The leader in emergency oxygen equipment.
When diving around the world, you should check to see where the closest decompression chamber is, and you will be sadly shocked!
7. Are the tanks tested?
This is often overlooked by dive centers and unknown to new divers. Scuba tanks are high pressure cylinders that squeeze all the air (not oxygen) you need underwater, into a bottle. Anything under high pressure requires care. And you're breathing this air under water and under pressure, which means that every breath you take has a concentrated version of the elements in the tank (but that's more advanced scuba dive theory).
Every 5 years, scuba tanks are required to be hydrostatically pressure tested. herefore, there is a date stamped on the tank that should be less than five years from the day you start your scuba diving course.
More info for the scuba geeks is here:
8. How Big is the Class Size?
There are ratios and class sizes. Some dive centers talk about ratios (how many students to one instructor), and some talk about class size.
So you could be in a class with twelve students, but have three instructors and the ratio would be 4:1, or you could have a class size of 4 and one instructor, and it would be pretty much the same thing.
With the easy scuba diving environment here, this is a direct factor in your enjoyment of the course. If there are too many students for one instructor, you will be waiting underwater for the other students to finish their skills, before moving on. A good class size is 6 students or less. Obviously, the smaller the class size the more attention to be paid to you!
9. What dive organization do they belong to?
There's a myriad of dive organizations worldwide. The majority of certifications I encountered in the dive center were from PADI, SSI, NAUI, CMAS, BSAC, and TDI.
By far the largest and most prevalent is #PADI (Professional Assocation of Dive Instructors), in the regions that I have dived. Here on Utila, everyone will educate you with PADI, so really, here, it's a moot point.
Having a world-renowned dive certification means that if you show your card, the dive center will recognize it and allow you to dive. I have never refused someone to dive with us if they were certified with a different organization, as the minimum requirements to learn to dive are all very similar.
Now there are different levels of PADI dive centers on the island.
PADI Dive Center or Resort
PADI 5 Star Dive Center or Resort
PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Center
PADI 5 Star Career Development Center
The higher the designation, the more experience that dive center has, and more requirements need to be met. Each dive center will proudly display their designation on the storefront.
If you want to see the gadzillion other dive organizations, check out Wikipedia here:
Currently there are thirteen dive centers and resorts here on and around Utila. Each dive center has its own personality, so finding the right fit is important. Hence Tip#1 above. What do you want? And one extra tip, if it feels right, it probably is!
Here's a list going from east to west on Utila:
Alton's Dive Center: www.diveinutila.com
Deep Blue Divers: www.deepbluediversutila.com
Deep Blue Resort: www.deepblueutila.com
Utila Dive Center: www.utiladivecenter.com
Underwater Vision: www.utilascubadiving.com
Captain Morgan's: www.divingutila.com
Paradise Divers: www.paradisediversutila.com
Parrots Dive Center: www.parrotdivecenter.com
Bay Islands College of Diving: www.dive-utila.com
Utila Lodge: www.utilalodge.com
Ecomarine - Gunter's Dive Shop: www.ecomarineutila.com
Coral View Dive Center: www.coralviewutila.com
Laguna Beach Resort: www.lagunabeachresort.info
Utopia Village: www.utopiautila.com (just sold)
Utila Cays Diving: www.utilacaysdiving.com (new)
So I hope that helps! Feel free to email me if you have any questions, and I'd be happy to help!
#ScubaDive #PADI #Utila #DiveCenter #LearnToDive #LearnToScuba #ScubaDiving
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