The £1000 diver IT WASN'T DIFFICULT TO FIND the most expensive diving gear available for a cost-no-object diver. The whole package came out at £11,000 (The £11,000 Diver, December 2007). That was then, and this is now. The challenge was this: could we assemble a set of decent gear for less than a 10th of that price? When newly qualified divers embark on buying their own equipment, the choice available can be bewildering. Internet forums are full of advice to buy the best and most complicated kit now, on the basis that you're going to need it one day. Instructors, on the other hand, tend to suggest that students buy kit similar to that with which they trained. This is not always impartial advice. We need to know where you intend to dive. New divers intent on exploring home waters will need a significantly different set of kit to those with warmer waters in their sights. For a start, the former will probably need to own a tank and weights, while the latter will find that these are provided wherever they dive. If we assume that those first dives with a basic diving certification will be made in warm waters, and that enthusiasm for home-waters diving will grow later on, it becomes easier to conceive of a clear progression in equipment choices - and put a package together. Our two main pictures (right and overleaf) illustrate such packages, the first built around a wetsuit at under £1000; the second, costing more than £1200, a drysuit.
IQ Thermatec 7
You can rent a suit, but the trouble is that it will never seem to fit properly. It's better to get something that you can easily climb in and out of, and which clings properly to your body while you're wearing it. A full-length semi-dry suit - with water-resisting seals at both wrist and ankle in a 5mm thickness neoprene - won't be too hot in the tropics, and you can always add an extra layer of neoprene in the form of a jacket if you're diving somewhere cooler, such as the Red Sea in winter. Don't forget that a hood really makes a difference to how cold you might feel. You can get most suits in an alternative lightweight 3mm thickness, and a heavyweight 7mm too. We don't recommend shorties unless you're a particularly hardy type. They may be warm enough, but they do leave limbs exposed to the ravages of unintentional knocks on water-softened skin, as well as the stings of hydroids, zoo-plankton and jellyfish. One suit stands out for good value, and that's from British manufacturer Typhoon. Its XTS 5mm is semi-dry in that it has seals at wrists and ankles, and is available for around £120. The IQ Thermatec 7 is a warmer suit, but costs around £190. There are lots of suits available now in super-flexible materials, with most manufacturers providing anatomical cuts to suit women divers. Popular examples bear the badges of Waterproof, O'Neill, Cressi, Mares, Oceanic, Seac Sub, Fourth Element, Beuchat and Scubapro - its Everflex is pictured here. Many of these suits originate in the same factory in Thailand, but with the rising cost of neoprene and the falling pound, you can expect to pay around £200. The O'Neill Sector 7mm costs £220.
Cressi BigEye Evo
Most masks tend to inhabit the same price range, though prescription lenses will increase the price quite a lot. If you're looking for a bargain, look no further than the combined TUSA Splendive II mask and Imprex II snorkel set at £40. The Oceanic Mini Shadow costs £30. Many masks with differing brand names originate from the same factories in the Far East. The single-lens IST Dynasty (£25) is typical. This one also has a purge valve that is said to make mask-clearing easier, although if you look for a low-volume mask that shouldn't be a problem. Probably the most in-demand masks nowadays are in the "BigEye" style popularised by Cressi. Though slightly more expensive, they provide good overall vision. Try a mask on without the strap in place and inhale gently so that air pressure keeps it on your face. If you have to continue to inhale, it doesn't suit you. Try another.
Cressi Rondine A
Effesub Power 5
As with masks, you can spend a lot of money on a pair of fins, or not a lot at all. We suggest that the main choice at entry-level price is whether to equip yourself with a slipper-fin that can be worn over bare feet, or an open-heel fin that calls for a pair of neoprene boots to be worn with it. The slipper fins keep things to a minimum for those who want to spend a lot of time snorkelling from beaches, but a straw poll of divers reveals that most prefer to wear boots. It reduces the wear and tear on their feet. You don't need to spend a lot on a pair of effective fins. The TUSA Liberator X10 open-heel fin can be bought for less than £35. Good examples of fins that perform well at a reasonable price are the Effesub Power 5, the Oceanic Vortex V8 and the Cressi Rondine A. Available in sizes XS to XL, expect to pay around £50-60 for a pair. A pair of Mares Avanti X3s cost £48.
Scubapro MK2 R295
Oceanic Alpha 8 SPS
Cressi Ellipse Black MC5
If you are only ever planning to dive in the warm sea rather than cold fresh water, a simple piston regulator such as one of those that were recently reviewed in our comparison test (Budget Regs, March) will be adequate. Make sure to choose one with an adequate number of medium-pressure ports on the first stage. Besides the primary regulator, you'll need one for an octopus rig, your BC direct-feed hose and perhaps later a drysuit feed hose. Check that you are happy with the way the hoses route. It's worth considering another make, if they appear too uncomfortable in the way they attach to your first choice of regulator. Take a look at the Oceanic Alpha 8 SPS at £139, or the Scubapro MK2 R295 at £165. Other inexpensive regulators include the Mares Rover, Aqualung Calypso or the Cressi Ellipse Black MC5. All are available at less than £200. Prices don't include that all-important pressure gauge or octopus rig, so add another £100. If you conceive that you might sooner rather than later find yourself in colder water, paying the extra for a diaphragm-type regulator that is environmentally sealed against dirt and detritus might be more appropriate. An Apeks ATX40 DS4, Oceanic Delta 4 DX4 or an Effesub Iton HD270 might then appeal.
A BC is quite a lo-tech item. After all, you simply need to let air into the buoyancy cell on the way down, and release it again on the way up. You'll want to turn it from a buoyancy-compensator to a buoyancy-provider once you are at the surface, so you'll need plenty of surface support. Be aware that some manufacturers' figures for maximum buoyancy are derived from the volume in litres of the buoyancy cell. This can be misleading if part of it is out of the water - as it will be when you are at the surface - and takes no account of the intrinsic weight of the item. Conventional BC designs tend not to suffer from the cell being out of the water, because most of the BC that expands when fully inflated is positioned low down, under the arms. Lots of basic BCs are available, many aimed expressly at the dive-centre rental market. These tend to be simple yet tough designs. Because the rental market is often used by infrequent divers who tend to dive over-weighted, these BCs usually have masses of maximum lift available. Avoid buying one that is too big. Examples of bargains are the Oceanic Reef Pro and Effesub Basic, both at £195. Other good buys include the Mares Origin Sport, Scubapro T1, Aqua Lung Wave, Cressi Aquaride and Seac Sub Comfort Plus. These are useful examples of entry-level BCs originally aimed at the diving schools market. All should be available without breaking the £200 barrier. You'll want your BC to be a snug fit, and a well-designed integrated-weight system can help with this. The uplift from the BC is countered by the downforce of the ballast in it, rather than your back taking the strain between BC and weightbelt. If you choose a BC with integrated weights, satisfy yourself that the weights are secure, yet easy to release if required. A BC that allows you the strategy of trim-weights can end up being a lot more comfortable. Some wing-style BCs with weights at the front will tend to push you face down when fully inflated at the surface. The Mares Origin Sport MRS Plus at £225, the Scubapro T-Sport Plus and the Beuchat Masterlift Voyager are recommended examples of BCs with integrated weights. If you fancy spending about 50% more overall, the British-made AP Valves Buddy Explorer will last for years.
COMPUTERS People used to argue about the pros and cons of depth-gauges and timers versus computers. Thanks to the consumer electronics revolution, computers are so inexpensive that every new diver should be able to start off with one. They are simple to read and easy to use. However, we have come across instances of divers not understanding what their computers were telling them, so be sure to be familiar with yours and its manual before getting into deep water. Good places to start are with the Suunto Gekko at £189. Other choices include the Mares Puck, the Oceanic Veo 100 and the Seemannsub XP5 wrist-mounted computers, all of which should be available at less than £200 each. The Suunto and Mares computers are made in Europe and have an enviable reputation for reliability. The Gekko is set up with three buttons, whereas the Puck uses the simplicity of a single button. The XP5 and Veo 100 suit those inclined to stick to no-stop leisure diving, and are the least expensive at around £145.
LIGHT The consumer electronics revolution has had its effect on the design of underwater lights, too. You can now buy a very effective lamp with a high-output LED light source for the same price as something we would have called a back-up lamp years ago. Not only are these LEDs bright and deliver hours of burntime from one set of batteries, but they are virtually indestructible. A good example is the Frogman Lenser, with up to 50 hours from four AA batteries at £50. For a conventional tungsten torch, the Ikelite PC at £33 is hard to beat.
Beaver Iceberg Ultra
Once you've done a bit of diving while on holiday, you may well catch the bug and want to dive at the weekend while you're at home, too. That's when you'll need a drysuit, a warm undersuit and warm gloves to go with them. As with any clothing, it's important to get a suit that fits you properly. Suits can be of the membrane type or of neoprene. Those that use a membrane of trilaminate or some other waterproof material are usually easier to get to fit effectively, and latex seals, although sometimes considered more fragile, can be a better barrier to water ingress than neoprene. You can save a few pounds by going for a simple wrist-mounted dump-valve, but this might prove to be a false economy, as some divers feel that the operation of an automatic constant-volume valve, which costs only a few pounds more, can make things less fraught on an ascent. The least expensive suit we found was the neoprene Typhoon Seamaster at £429, but our main picture shows Oceanic's entry-level suit in nylon trilaminate, the HD400 (£460). Both have cuff-dumps. If you're looking to pay less than £500 for a drysuit, you may do well to look at other products from Typhoon, which offers its membrane Pro Sport at £479. Other inexpensive suits worth checking out are those of Robin Hood Watersports such as the membrane RoHo Commercial (£454) and neoprene Beaver Sports Iceberg Ultra (£475). Neoprene drysuits offer some thermal insulation, so you need only to wear a simple base layer for most diving situations.
UNDERSUIT & GLOVES When it comes to keeping warm under your drysuit, ideally you'll need something more technical and thermally efficient than a simple T-shirt and sweater, although this is obviously the cheapest option! The undersuits made by C-Bear, Weezle and Fourth Element take some beating, but a Beaver Arctic 200g costs only £105. If you find that you are still not warm enough, you can always invest in a base-layer that will wick away any sweat, and with it that cold and clammy feeling - expect to pay anything from around £30. A pair of Typhoon gloves will set you back £18 or so.