It's shiny and it twinkles at you in the dive store and whispers 'buy me!' But UK diving's best-known gear-tester John Bantin advises caution when it comes to buying diving equipment - buy only the basics to start with, and choose the rest later under advice
All that equipment - but what does it all do?
When you first learn to dive, all you need is a swimming costume and a towel. The school and usually clubs can provide everything else you need, and the same goes for dive centres around the world. They can rent everything out to you, even after you have been certified. Their equipment should work perfectly, but it can be very heavily used and may look less than smart. Once trained, you will quickly appreciate having your own stuff, especially as there is so much trust involved when you try it under water.
BRAND AWARENESS So where do you start? Go down to your local dive shop and take a look around, but be aware that there are dealerships in diving equipment just as there are in all retail outlets, so any advice offered may be coloured by the fact that the shop stocks certain brands. The same applies to your diving instructor. He or she will have preferences, and these may well be influenced by commercial ties. This doesn't matter too much because there is so much good stuff around, but if you really want to research the subject properly, DIVER Magazine carries out regular equipment reviews and comparison tests, and these are all archived on the Internet in the Equipment section of its website, www.divernet.com.
START WITH A SNORKEL Even before you learn to dive, or once you have been encouraged by the initial lesson, you will want to snorkel. This requires only the most basic equipment. You'll need your own mask so that you can see properly under water, a snorkel tube so that you can breathe without raising your head, and a simple pair of fins to increase the efficiency of your swimming. Owning this basic equipment will allow you to become familiar with it and for it to become a part of you. Buy a mask that makes a watertight fit. You can tell by holding it to your face and breathing in through your nose - the mask should stay in place. The dive store will help. The correct ?30-to-?50 mask is a good investment from the start. A snorkel can be so simple that there is nothing to it - don't go for gimmicky refinements, just a simple tube - and a cheap pair of slipper-fins require no boots and will get you started.
SUIT AND BOOTS Further down the line, you will inevitably want to wear some kind of suit, and this will probably mean wearing boots. This entails using a different type of fin, one with straps, so it might be worth buying this type, and a pair of neoprene boots to go with them, right from the beginning. The difference between using a ?30 pair of fins and a ?250 pair is minimal when you first start snorkelling and diving. Suits vary in price from ?50 to nearly ?1000, depending on what you use them for. To start with you'll probably want a wetsuit that keeps you warm in the pool, or in the warmest tropical water. This type is made of neoprene rubber, about 3mm thick, and may be a 'shortie', with cut-off legs and arms, or a full suit. The latter is more useful for diving, as it provides more protection from chills or anything in the water that might sting. Expect to pay between ?50 and ?150.
DRY AS WELL AS WARM If you want to dive in Britain, you will be encouraged to buy a drysuit. This keeps you dry and allows you to wear warm clothes underneath, but it does require an extra bit of explanation on how to use it (special familiarisation courses are available). Drysuits cost from around ?350 upwards, depending on quality and durability. Your instructor can teach you how to choose as well as use one. Hoods and gloves can be important too, and again the type depends on where you intend to dive. In most warmwater locations gloves are not only unnecessary but frowned upon, as they can encourage people to hold onto and perhaps damage coral and other features under water.
HOLD OFF ON TANKS Some new divers may be tempted to rush out and buy a tank, but this will be the last thing you need to own. Dive centres around the world supply compressed air in tanks, you can't take them on aircraft unless you dismantle them first, and you will need your own only if you are diving independently in the UK.
REGULATORS You will eventually need a good regulator-valve, and it is certainly nice to have one with which you are familiar, and which no one else has been using (dive centres disinfect regulators after use, but having your own is still more hygienic). A regulator, or demand valve, allows you to breathe air from the supply of compressed air in your tank in such a way that it exactly matches the air to the pressure of the water around you. It's effortless. It should also be equipped with an alternative 'second-stage' mouthpiece and hose, often referred to as an octopus, and a pressure gauge so that you can see how much air you have left. Regulators cost from around ?120 to as much as ?700. Buying the most expensive is not necessarily the best idea when you start.
BUOYANCY COMPENSATORS The other item of equipment that every diver needs is some kind of buoyancy compensator, or BC. You wear it like a jacket, and it holds the tank on your back. It has several other functions, too. It's inflatable, and by varying the air supply will allow you both to float comfortably at the surface and to swim like a fish under water. You will learn how to use a BC during your training course. Perfect buoyancy control is now considered an essential part of diving technique. Once mastered, you will feel comfortable and your diving will be easy and relaxing. BCs vary in price, from less than ?200 to more than ?600. Learn a bit about the subject and the type of diving you are going to use it for before committing to one.
INSTRUMENTATION Then there are gauges. Divers used to need a watch to time the dive and a depth-gauge to monitor their depth. Modern electronics have taken over that task, and inexpensive diving computers start at around ?175. These will keep you safe from the 'bends' when you start going a bit deeper, later in your diving career. But to start with, you will learn to use sets of table to calculate how deep you can go and how long it's safe to stay submerged.
TEMPTING GOODIES There are lots of other diving accessories. An underwater light is a must-have if you are diving in Britain and nice to have if you are diving anywhere else. So is a surface marker buoy, or SMB, to let other people know your position, and a knife you can strap on to look hard (and for useful functions such as cutting away stray fishing net). But buy these things only when it becomes apparent that the sort of diving you will do requires you to have them. Ask your diving instructor for recommendations, ask other divers what they use, see what your local diving shop has to offer, and check it all on www.divernet.com before you buy, especially the more expensive items. A sensible purchase early on is bound to save you money later.
The jumping-off point - snorkel and mask
Our faces are different shapes, so choose a mask that fits yours
Slipper fins require no boots
John Bantin demonstrates the wetsuit
You can wear warm clothes under a drysuit
A BC holds your tank and controls your buoyancy
A variety of diving computers are available but one will be plenty for you!
Underwater torches help you to see in murky waters and restore colour anywhere