Port Blair, March 28: Andaman’s oldest scuba diving center ‘DIVEIndia’ has been awarded India’s Favourite Adventure Tour Operator, based on a poll of over 7500 readers of Outlook Traveller magazine and website. Vandit Kalia, Managing Director of the company, was presented with a plaque and a certificate by Shri Parvez Diwan, Secretary of Tourism, Ministry of Tourism, Govt of India, at a function held in New Delhi.
The poll, validated by IPSOS, is an authoritative benchmark of consumer preferences in the areas of travel and tourism, including hotels, airlines and holiday destination and is part of an annual survey conducted by Outlook Traveler Magazine.
Commenting on the award, Kalia said, “This award goes to each and every person of the team, all of whom have quit corporate careers to pursue their passions – we strive to offer the highest quality scuba diving services and at the same time retain a personal touch, and being recognized by our guests for this is one of the most rewarding things for all of us, especially as it comes during our 10th year anniversary”.
DIVEIndia has been operating in the Andamans since 2003 and has established itself as one of the leading dive training agencies in India, offering training programs all the way from beginner to instructor. It celebrated its 10 anniversary in December 2013, and has plans to expand operations to cover all major Indian cities.
So far, muck diving has been synonymous with Lembeh in Sulawesi. Well, the Andamans is a geographical extension of the same region, and we – especially Vikas and Sayeed – have been exploring the macro realm quite intently, looking to expand the scope of what is available here.
During the season, we found a few “firsts” for the Andamans – electric clam, frogfish and devil stinger. And now that the off-season is slowly coming upon us, we have been doing some exploring… and this past week, we found the archetypical muck diving site: black sand, no rocks or coral, just lots of sea urchins and massive feather stars. And while here, 2 exciting new discoveries: ambonscorpionfish (!!!) and robust ghost pipefish!
With an average depth of 18m, and sloping down to 60m plus on one side, this site is accessible to all diver levels and we are also planning to do blue-water dives off from here, hoping to find hammerheads (fingers crossed). Will keep the world posted on what happens!
The site name is V16 for now, and it will be on our schedule of regular dive sites from next season.
So Vikas and I spent 3 days, sitting at the Port Blair port, waiting to get everything sorted so that we could lower our boat into the water (a process which, if one removes the waiting time, took an actual 20 minutes of effort). Yesterday morning, we woke up at 4:00am and headed over to the pier, departing Port Blair by 5, just at the crack of dawn.
Flat calm seas, beautiful lighting, a few sleepy gulls and Mako, purring along with her engines at mid-revs. A couple of bursts of speed got the speed up to well over 40knots and put big smiles on our face.
Today, Gregorio and his friends from Spain, who’ve been diving with us for the past 8-9 days, became the first divers to go on a dive trip on Mako – a sunrise dive at Johnny’s Gorge. Departing at 5am, we were there by 5:20am and had an amazing dive. A couple of the divers claimed this was their best dive ever (and these are people who have dived Galapagos and Sipadan, mind you), for the sheer wealth of fish life on the site.
So, this is what the future holds for DiveIndia this season — dawn dives, expedition trips to Barren Island, Invisible Banks, Campbell Shoal; extended range of day trip from Havelock to include North Button, Port Blair and Neil Island (including the drop-offs around Neil, where supposedly big sharks hang). These will be exclusive trips – 4-6 divers, 1 guide and 2 or 3 tanks, depending on where we go.
At the risk of sounding like we are tooting our own horn (we are, I admit, but I think we’ve earned it ), we can safely say this represents another evolution in what diving in the Andamans has to offer. The first was the new sites discovered by Johnny, Dixon and Jackson; the next was the North Safaris and now this.
As of now, we will be running day trips to virtually all sites visited by liveaboards, and a lot of other sites that they don’t know about (there’s that local expertise coming into play again). And you get to experience the magic of the Andamans as well…
Yep, it’s been a while since our last blog, but I think this one was worth it. We’ll be posting videos and clips online very soon as well.
Every instructor is familiar with this scenario: take 10 students and teach them the same Open Water course, and 6-7 will be competent, 2-3 will be excellent and 1-2 will be at the cusp of acceptability – they may meet all the skill requirements, but the instructor knows in his/her heart that this student is not yet ready to dive independently.
There could be many reasons for this, but a common (and often-ignored) cause, and the subject of this article, is kinesthetic awareness (or K-Factor, to coin a sexy phrase) or lack thereof.
A student’s first immersion in water leads to a lack of physical coordination – gravity, balance and force don’t work the way they are used to. The weight shift that they use on land for balance correction only causes them to topple over. Using their arms for balance doesn’t help. Their body simply doesn’t behave the way they expect.
Most students start adapting very soon – I typically see a big improvement about half-way through the confined water session, and then on each additional dive. In fact, this continues all the way through to Advanced Open Water (which leads to my article on when to do the Advanced Course, but that is a separate topic). Slowly, they realize that doing A and X leads to C and Z underwater, and not B & Y, and their brain starts to build the neuro-muscular patterns needed to replicate this. This process is very similar to the way you learn to play a racket stroke, golf swing, basketball shot, etc. etc. In other words, the student starts to gain a new set of kinesthetic awareness for the underwater world. When this happens, it is as if a switch has come on – they slow down and stop fighting the water, their movements become deliberate, their buoyancy improves and they no longer resemble puppies on speed underwater.
But what about the small percentage of students who simply continue to fight it and simply don’t gain that K-Factor?
Let me go off on a seeming tangent now and talk about a dive industry secret that you don’t know, or whose implications you have not considered. The secret is this: the role of most dive agencies is not to product highly-qualified divers, but to make diving accessible to as many people as possible while maintaining acceptable levels of safety.
And for the record, while this approach is far from perfect, I am not saying it is inherently a bad thing. If you want to ski, do you need to be an expert skier who can handle black diamonds before being let out on the slope? Of course not. You merely need to learn the basics and then you go forth and ski, and continue to develop skills (this aspect – of continued skill development – is often ignored by the doom’n’gloom brigade who rend their garments and beat their chests at the state of diving today).
In a similar vein, diving courses tend to focus on teaching the basic, specific skills needed to dive safely – how to clear your mask, how to share air, how to achieve neutral buoyancy, etc. After that, you go forth and continue to develop those skills and have a bunch of fun in the process.
Using Bloom’s taxonomy, the focus in entry-level training courses is on getting up to the Comprehension level in the Cognitive domain, and Mechanism stage in the Psychomotor domain. Sure, a conscientious instructor might go up one or two stages higher in each of these domains, and also perhaps up to the Valuing stage in the Affective domain, but strictly speaking, it is possible for a student to get certified if they merely achieve the above-mentioned two stages.
Leaving jargon aside, what does this mean in reality? It means that if the student is able to understand dive theory to the point of being able to pass the exam (Comprehension) and able to satisfactorily perform a set of complex tasks (Mechanism), then he is ready to be certified – which, as we all know, is not the same as being qualified.
Oh come on, Vinnie, you are such a pessimistic cynic, you say. My students do a lot better than that, and are able to apply the information I have taught them to new situations [Application and Adaptation], you claim.
Sure. A lot of instructors do ensure that their students are able to integrate what they’ve learned, and actually master the motor skills they were taught, to the point that they can apply them with some situation-specific modifications as needed. However, my point is that due to the focus of the dive industry in making sure diving is accessible to as many people as possible, teaching standards of most agencies are focused on achieving basic competency and safety, that’s all.
So now let’s go back to our student diver who has successfully completed all the skills but hasn’t stopped fighting the water yet.
Any instructor who cares about producing qualified divers (and sadly, this breed is not as common as you would think, given that scuba is a passion-driven sport) will not just hand out a C-card to this student. However, this where the support system provided by the agencies tends to fall apart.
While experienced instructors usually develop, through trial and error, their own set of exercises to help such a student achieve aqua-zen, newer instructors are often left to their own devices in such cases. Some of them give up on the student. Others just say eff it and certify the student, to ensure that they get their salary commission or meet their targets. Yet others waste time repeating buoyancy drills or mask clearing drills or whatever, sometimes frustrating the student to the point where they are put off diving for good.
Not surprisingly, as there is nothing in any Open Water curriculum I have seen that even discusses this problem, let alone give tips on how to solve it.
As such, I’d like to address this gap by suggesting a few tips of my own for teaching kinesthetic awareness to students – and do note, these tips are by no means exhaustive, there is some overlap between the concepts in them, and there are plenty of other ways to teach this as well. These are simply tricks that have worked for me and instructors I have taught/worked with.
1/ Start by making sure kinesthetic awareness is the issue, not something else
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But accurate diagnosis of the problem is often harder than it seems. As instructors, we all know what the critical attributes for a particular skill are, and how to pinpoint skill mistakes by checking the critical attributes. But when a student is fighting the water, it is harder to figure out if it is a matter of nervousness/fear of the water, lack of the K-factor, or a specific lack of knowledge on how to perform a specific skill. To complicate things, nervousness can be increased by the lack of K-Factor, and vice versa. While there are some things that can indicate a likely reason, they are not reliable and my goal with this article is not to handhold anyone (or provide guidelines which can be mis-interpreted as rules), so I am not going to get into specifics – suffice to say, simply by knowing the possibilities, you can start the process of eliminating them by observing and chatting with the student.
2/ Allow the student to struggle a little
Yes, that is correct. A lot of instructors will pile on with a bunch of instructions, signals, exercises, etc. right at the beginning. I suggest the opposite approach – let the student struggle a little with flappy hands, moving around a lot, etc. and then start to work on specific exercises to correct them. Now, the trick is to only let them struggle only a little – too much, and they start to build in bad habits or get discouraged. And needless to say, the struggle should be purely with motor skills, not mental or physical stress. The benefit of this is that the student has a first-hand experience to draw upon when you explain how to correct the problem.
For example, when I teach confined water, I initially do a short underwater swimming without any briefing on buoyancy, use of the BCD or lungs. We just go for a swim. Then I give each student one specific thing to try on the next swim. And so on.
3/ One thing at a time
It is very easy to overload someone with a low K-factor by giving them a complicated briefing with multiple sub-skills. For that reason, it is best to work in small steps and give them one thing to focus on. Give them time to experiment and truly absorb what happens when they try that one thing you have told them to work on. Once they get the hang of this, then go to the next one.
Hovering and neutral buoyancy is a skill where people with poor K-factor usually struggle: so usually I start by having them focus on one thing only – using their lungs to inhale/exhale and see what happens. They are encouraged to experiment with different breathing patterns in an effort to imprint upon their brain the relationship between breathing and buoyancy. At this point, everything else is secondary. Once they get this, then we go further.
Usually, each step in this process is related to the errors that have led to the struggling.
4/ Work on breathing and balance
The best way to learn proprioception (another fancy word for K-factor) this is to simply spend time in the water and feeling how your body reacts. I usually tell the students to let their body
it wants, and just focus on relaxing and breathing. As you can see, this is an application of point #3 above – i.e., one step at a time.
5/ Complex to simple works well sometimes
Usually, the best way to teach things is to keep it simply and slowly add complexity. In principle, this is correct. However, take a particular Task X, which consists of sub-steps (or critical attributes, if you will) of A, B, C and D. Each of these is a simple task, which, when done in succession, accomplished the complex Task X.
By breaking X up into A, B, C and D, you are effectively simplifying the task. At that point, you can add complexity to when teaching sub-step A. And separately to B, C and D as well. Then, when you put them all together without the added complexity, each sub-step becomes easier to perform and the overall Task X ends up being overlearned.
Case in point: for the first few sessions, I over-weight my students and have them learn to achieve and maintain neutral buoyancy while overweighted in shallow water. Then, once this is mastered, the extra weights come off – so the added complexity of swimming while neutrally buoyancy is off-set by the simplication caused by proper weighting and greater depths.
Obviously, this has to be used selectively – and generally, it is effective only if it meshes with the overall geshtalt of your teaching style and progression. So dont go rushing in and making everything complicated right from the get-go. But if done right, especially for certain specific skills and within the proper framework of your overall teaching progression, it is a very powerful technique.
6/ Reduce pressure – allow student to practice on their own
There is a difference between a student not understanding what he needs to do, and a student not being able to perform the skill. With K-Factor issues, lack of understanding is not the problem – it is the ability to perform that is. In such cases, it helps to give the student time to work at their own pace, without the added pressure of someone watching and evaluating them.
I am often surprised by how much of a difference 5-10 minutes of solo practice can accomplish, yet many instructors – fed by an agency-fuelled diet of always needing to supervise and control – find it hard to leave the student alone. Find a safe place in confined water for the student to practice, give them 1-3 simple and specific things to work on and leave them alone for a while: you might be surprised by the improvements in a short term.
7/ Give them time
Sadly, there is no shortcut here. You cannot teach K-Factor, the students have to acquire it themselves. And nothing beats time. Obviously, there are limitations on time imposed by external factors, and there, each dive center has its own policy. I would encourage instructors to ensure an environment which minimizes time-related stress for the student – and by time-related stress, I include cost-related stress as well: i.e., “If I don’t learn it now, I will lose $X or have to pay $Y for more training”.
I realize not every dive center can operate this way, but our approach is we charge a student a certain fee to teach them to dive – and that takes whatever time it takes. This isn’t as extreme as it sounds: with most students, even those with fairly poor K-Factors, it only requires a few additional sessions, including perhaps some solo practice time, for them to gain competency. And realistically, a student who has such poor K-Factor that he need substantially more time is probably not ready to be certified at this point of time anyway.
8/ Non-scuba skills work
Snorkeling, skin-diving and even swimming sessions are a good way to build K-Factor. And as an added bonus, a lot of this practice can be done outside training time.
The Total Immersion swimming books and videos have a couple of good drills on teaching balance – these are primarily geared towards swimmers, but I have found that the same balance drills are actually very helpful for students with acute K-Factor issues. Because practising these drills do not require scuba gear, the student can work on their water balance in a pool or beach-side, between training sessions or even after certification.
9/ Teach relaxation
Try this – unclench your stomach and your glute muscles. When you do, your whole body relaxes. In martial arts, when doing chi-flow exercises, relaxing/tightening the core is one of the basic exercises for developing chi flow. On a more prosaic level, it is impossible to be stressed, struggle and to retain air in your lungs when your stomach and butt muscles are relaxed. When a student focuses on this aspect, he is too busy to struggle in the water – in the meantime, his subconscious brain is busy learning proprioception and re-wiring his neural system accordingly.
10/ Patience and communication
As an instructor, it can sometimes get frustrating. You pride yourself on the thoroughness and efficiency of your teaching, and of how good your typical student looks in the water when done. And now you have someone who simply refuses to absorb your training. Even the most patient of instructors will have a few “COME ON ALREADY” moments. I have to admit, I have.
However, in such cases, it helps to realize that if you are frustrated, the student is doubly so. He is seeing you looking graceful in the water (as an instructor, you DO look graceful in the water, right?), he is seeing the other students doing the same thing a lot more easily – and you can be sure, he is frustrated by his own struggles.
This can make him stressed, which leads to clenched stomach/core and greater air retention in the lungs, which in turn leads to greater struggles. This can also lead to finding excuses – this isn’t working, I don’t have enough weight, etc. etc.
As an instructor, you need to find the right balance between being encouraging and positive, and at the same time, not wasting too much time entertaining false excuses.How you deal with it varies depending on you, the student, the dynamic between the two of you and the situation, and can range from gentle encouragement to firm instructions and even tough love. Regardless of how you choose to handle it, use empathy (not sympathy, mind you – the two are different) to understand what the student is feeling and figure out the best way to get them to improve.
Teaching diving is, in many ways, an exercise in managing liability. So instructors, with the best of intentions, tend to be excessively protective of their hatchling divers while teaching the course. And then the certification happens, the hatchlings become certified divers and get passed on to Divemasters – who are focused on mainly showing them cool stuff and preventing accidents.
This leads to a state where divers are often kept in an overly protective bubble when they are doing the course, and then left to fend for themselves, without much guidance or mentoring, once they have completed the course. As such, further development often follows the “learn from bad experiences” model.
Here, I present 10 skills/areas which all divers should strive to develop and maintain. These will help you become more confident, better and safer divers.
Visit any popular scuba forum, and one common question that is encountered is – which agency is better.
Well, there is an easy answer to that – none.
The standards for basic Open Water training are set by an agency called the Recreational Scuba Training Council. All the major agencies are members of this council, so the essential standards are more or less the same. There are some minor differences in how agencies approach teaching, their standards and so on. However, these are akin to different routes for climbing a mountain – you get there in all cases.
The popularity of one agency over another typically has more to do with business reasons (cost of becoming an instructor, marketing benefits, cost of certifications, and so on), none of which really affect you as a student diver.
Anorther concern some students have is – “I have not heard of PADI/SSI/NAUI/NOB/SDI, so will my card be accepted worldwide?” Short answer is – yes, it will. Just because you have not heard of the smaller agencies is not really a big deal. After all, why would you, a non-diver, have heard of all the different agencies out there? You can be assured that the dive centres you visit, however, HAVE heard of these agencies and recognize them. All of them.PADI, SSI, NAUI, CMAS, SDI, ACUC, NOB, BSAC and more. They are all valid and recognized agencies.
Look at it another way – as a dive centre, we are in the business of taking qualified divers out for dives. Why would we turn away someone from a recognized agency? Now if someone shows up with Bubbajohn’s Scuba Card, that’s one thing. But turning away a diver from another agency would only happen for two reasons: one is ignorance, and the other is some kind of personal bias or ulterior motive (perhaps selling you another course). Either is a reason to go dive with another operator.
So instead of agencies, let me give you 2 bigger variables that you should consider, when it comes to the quality of your diver training:
One is the instructor. A good, conscientous instructor will make sure you are truly comfortable at each stage of the learning process before moving on to the next. Diligently following the standards of any agency generally ensures a thorough course. On the other hand, an instructor that cuts corners will teach a shoddy course, regardless of which agency he is affiliated with.
Another is you, the diver. No matter how well a course is taught, if you don’t get in the water again for another 6 months or a year, you can be assured that your skills will atrophy to some degree or the other. Diving, like any other sport, relies on repetition and practice for mastery. The Open Water course gets you to the point where you have learned the basic skills and are ready to continue growing them through independent diving.
To use a golfing analogy, the Open Water course would be the bit where you take your newly purchased clubs and get lessons on hitting the ball till you are able to hit the ball decently without digging up huge divots every time. However, to become a good player, you still have to go out to the course and play regularly.
Some people have a natural ability and leave the Open Water course as fairly polished divers. Others leave a little “rougher around the edges” and need a little more practice. That is fine. Diving is not a competitive sport, and as long as you are able to maintain your buoyancy and are calm in the water, it is ok if you flap your hands a little bit to steady yourself as you swim. You only get better with practice, after all.
So, let’s now look at a list of factors that you should or should not consider when doing an open water course:
- Agency – there are minor differences in each of the courses. While the name of the agency is irrelevant, you should speak to your instructor about the difference between the agencies and which one is more suited to your needs.
- Instructor – very important, but quite hard to evaluate. Some people say talk to the instructor and get a sense of the rapport you get from him. That works but only to a limited extent: yes, sometimes you can and do get excellent – or really poor – vibes from one particular instructor, and than can help you make a decision. However, other times you may encounter a smooth talker who may not be all the good when it comes to teaching. You can also ask about the instructor’s experience – experience is always good to have but sometimes, very experienced instructors tends to be burned out/brusque/lacking in patience, while newer instructors tend to be a lot more supportive and patient. Also, a good diver is not always a good instructor, and most agencies provide a lot of support to instructors for teaching Open Water so being a highly-experienced diver is not always needed in order to be a good instructor (although it generally does help) – so assess these factors only in conjunction with other areas. This is, admittedly, probably one of the hardest areas to evaluate and probably something to consider only after taking the next 2 points into account.
- Course duration: it matters, but only in the context of how many other people are in the course. Some centres take great pride in the number of hours they have in the classroom – this is a great, low-cost way for the dive center to make the course sound a lot more intensive than it really is, but the fact is, diving is a practical/active sport and is best learned in water. Dive theory is not rocket science, and with modern videos and books, basic open water theory can be easily picked up in a day’s worth of study, lectures & quizzes. More is always nice to know, but can be done independently or after the course as well.
What you need to look into is how much time is spent in the water. Some places specialize in a course where confined water training is essentially rattling off all the skills once and that’s it – no swimming around and getting a hang of this whole underwater thing, no repeating various skills, etc. This then gets repeated in the Open Water portion of the course – divers go down, sit and do the skills, swim around for 5 minutes and up. Such a course has taught you the various skills of diving, but not diving. So make sure you get a course whichemphasises plenty of time in actual diving (which is where you will learn the meat & potatoes of diving).
- Course policy – sometimes, even the best, most caring of instructors is hampered by dive centre policy – usually, this is “complete the course in X days.” This can mean that sometimes, portions of the course don’t get the attention they deserve. Also, as different people learn at different speeds, so what happens if you are not able to complete the skills or be thoroughly comfortable at the end of the allotted time? A good instructor will not certify you and you will only get a partial refund, if at all. This is probably better than getting a card for which you are not qualified, but it is still not the ideal solution for you.
So look into what your options are in case you have problems completing the course and need more time. The worst case would be a “sorry, better luck next time.” The better dive centres will offer you a chance to continue your training – either on a one-on-one basis, usually at an additional charge (which can be modest to extremely expensive) or by giving you a chance to jump into the next class. What you are looking for is a course where the overall setup is one that does not impose an external time/monetary pressure on you to try to complete the course within a strict timetable.
- Class size – this is important. The more the number of people in the class, the more time you spend sitting around at the bottom of a pool or ocean bed waiting for others to complete their exercises. So a 45 minute session with 10 people is definitely not the same as a 45 minute session with 4 people.
- Price – you are learning to go into an underwater environment where mistakes & problems, while rare, an have severe condequences. You are also getting a license which is valid for a lifetime. A properly taught course will help you fall in love with diving and ready you for a lifetime of adventure. A poor or shoddy course will leave you hating the sport. Given this, is a $50. $100 or even $150 difference in price really significant?
Hopefully, this article has provided you with a good basis with which to decide on where to do an Open Water course.
We encourage you to ask around and compare our courses to those of others, and make an informed decision.
There is a common – and prevalent – belief that beginners need to buy a lot of equipment right away. Pretty much everything is touted as “essential for survival”, and so divers are urged to have their own gear so that they don’t have to rely on questionable rental equipment.
Another oft-cited statistic used to justify hard-selling equipment is that divers that own scuba kit are more likely to dive than divers that don’t. To me, this is a very silly stat which confuses cause and effect – is it owning gear that makes people more likely to dive, or could it be that the people that purchase gear are the keener divers, who will be diving more anyway?
Preying upon the insecurities and fears of new divers or relying on misleading stats may help the dive shop sell gear, but is it necessarily the best thing for the diver? I humbly suggest to you that buying all your gear upfront is NOT the right thing for beginners to do.
Don’t get me wrong – I am all in favor of divers owning their own equipment. The benefits of this are manyfold – you get gear that has more features than rental equipment, you can configure it exactly the way you want, it will fit you properly and most importantly, you can really fine tune your weighting and trim with your own gear. A keen reader will notice safety is nowhere in this list… and with good reason: having dived almost all over the world, I have yet to encounter a professional dive center with unsafe gear.
What to buy first?
If you can afford your own kit at once, by all means go for it. It is nice to have everything at once, and you can probably get a better deal this way as well, as opposed to buying piece-meal. However, what do you do if budget is tight and you cannot buy everything?
The traditional recommendation is to buy your own regulator, as it is “life support” equipment. I disagree. I have yet to see any dive center anywhere in the world whose regulators are “unsafe.” In fact, rental gears in most places are probably better maintained than a lot of personal regs. Also, remember that the biggest cause of reg failures is not lack of servicing, but manufacturing flaws in the gaskets, O-rings, etc. These usually come in defective batches, and a dive centre using lots of regs daily is far more likely to isolate and resolve this than personal regs, which probably do not get used more than 50-60 times a year. And besides, if you cannot trust the regs of the dive centre you are diving with, you probably shouldn’t be diving with them in the first place.
My personal recommendation is as follows:
Start by buying a set of mask, fins & snorkel. These are personal items where fit is essential, and it is always good to have your own. I recently got back from a dive holiday where I was using rental fins (I couldn’t locate the pair I wanted, and so had to rent) – while they got me from point A to point B, they were too soft for my legs, and didn’t provide me the thrust that I was used to from my longer, stiffer fins. I was always aware of them, and they intruded a little into my enjoyment of the dive.
If you plan to dive in cold or temperate waters, start by getting your own thermal protection suit. If you dive tropical locations, you can get by with rentals, in which case move on to the next item on this list. However, for colder water, a wetsuit or drysuit that has been carefully selected for fit and thickness can make the difference between years of enjoyment of the sport or quitting it entirely. Another reason to get your own wetsuit is so that you can learn the buoyancy characteristics of that suit and how many kilos/pounds of weight you’ll need with it. Suits vary greatly in their buoyancy, depending not only on their thickness, but also the type of neoprene used. Your own suit makes it easy for you to fine-tune your weighting to the bare minimum. And as an added bonus – you only have your own pee in it!
After you get a thermal protection suit – or if you dive tropical waters only and so are ok with rental suits – the next step is to get your own dive computer first, especially if you plan to do reef diving. If you plan to dive wrecks, you can get by jes’ fine with using dive tables, but for reef diving, dive tables are clunky to use and pointlessly limit your dive – not only do they limit your bottom time, but they also limit your flexibility during the dive. This recommendation is sure to draw gasps of horror from experts on many Internet forums, so rather than digress here, please read my article on Tables or Computers for my thoughts on this subject. Getting back to the subject – a dive computer lets you get the most flexibility out of your dive, and at the same time gives you all the information you need in order to truly be in control of your own dive.
A lot of people are content letting themselves be led around by the DM. This is may be safe enough in practice, but as a diver, you re responsible for your own safety. Delegating this to the divemaster is an abrogation of your duty and responsibility as a diver. Having a computer puts the responsibility for your safety back where it belongs: with you. I cannot stress enough how important this is.
The next item would be to get your own BCD. Why? Because BCDs vary greatly in their fit, comfort and stability underwater. And these are very personal preferences. For example, thousands of divers swear by Buddy BCDs – I cannot hover horizontally on them if my life depended on it. The additional features of personal BCDs are nice to have as well – for example, trim pockets, which let you redistribute your weight more evenly (few rental BCDs have this feature) or personalized attachment points for your octo, SPG, knife, etc. Lastly, with your own BCD, you get familiar with the rate of inflation and deflation, and so it becomes easier to adjust your buoyancy underwater.
A regulator would, in my opinion, be the last item to get.
What to look for in scuba gear
Masks: Quite simple and obvious: fit. You want a mask that doesn’t let in water. And you want one that is comfortable for the entire dive – even if the mask doesn’t leak, it can vary significantly in comfort, especially around the nose pocket. The last benefit of your own mask is that you can make sure it doesn’t fog, by using toothpaste and/or burning the inner surface of the glass with a lighter. And when you get a mask – make sure you also get a neoprene strap to replace the rubber strab that comes with it.
Lastly, remember that the most expensive mask is not necessarily the best. The mask I have used for my last 600 dives cost me $12. The mask I stopped using after 5 dives cost me $80.
Fins: Fins don’t get the attention they deserve, which is surprising, as few things can ruin your dive as much as fins that don’t match your leg strength, kicking style and dive conditions. Some fins are designed for people with strong legs – they require a lot of strength to kick, but give you a lot of power. Other fins are designed for people with less well-developed swimming legs – they are softer but give you less thrust. Nowadays, there are a lot of expensive split-fins, which claim to reduce effort without compromising on thrust… but there, the trade-off is price. People who use the flutter kick would be better off with different fins than people who use the frog kick. Ideally, what you want to do is try out a range of fins at your dive centre or borrow some from your friends, till you find something that matches your legs/kicking style.
Do not spend a lot of money on fins unless you know you’ve found a set that works for you. Rent or buy a pair of cheapies in the interim, if need be.
Computer: Virtually all computers do the job from a safety point of view. Size, user-replaceable batteries, Nitrox capabilities & air integration are some of the features to look for. If you are on a budget, a basic Aladin or Suunto Mosquito does the job, and does it very well. I like wrist-mounted watch-style computers as I wear it when I go traveling, and am less likely to forget it. Others prefer bigger computers for ease of viewing the screen. Yet others prefer computers that are attached to their regulator console – one less thing to strap on while getting ready for a dive. The good news is, there really is no bad computer in the market today.
BCD: This is where it starts getting personal. Literally. There are three things you need to take into account with BCD. The first one is lift – ie, does it have enough buoyancy to support you during the dive. For tropical water diving, ie, with a 3mm suit, this is a non-issue. But if you plan to dive with double steel tanks and a 7mm two-piece wetsuit in cold water, you better look into the lift capacity in more detail. At the start of the dive, those tanks will be quite a few kilos heavy. And as you descend, your wetsuit will compress and you will become even more negatively buoyant. It is possible to be as heavy as 10-12kg negative at depth at the start of some dives. Can your BCD support that? After lift, the next feature to consider is features: are the pockets easily accessible, do you need weight integration, does your BCD have trim pockets (essential,
in my opinion),
etc. The third item is personal fit. Some people like back-inflating BCDs, some like the classic stabilizing jackets where the air moves about everywhere and some like the back-and-side pockets of modern BCDs. If possible, try before you buy. Only in the water will you know if a BCD rides up on how, or if the pockets are really accessible or no.
Btw, one hot new thing in the recreational diving community these days are backplates and wings – basically, tech-diving gear being used by recreational divers. However, you can get all the benefits of BP/wings even with traditional BCDs – the main features to look for are a back-inflation bladder and a crotch-strap to keep the tank from riding up. This way, you also get the benefits of quick-releases (let’s face it, if you aren’t going to be putting twin-100s and 2 stage bottles on your harness, a QR is actually quite a nice feature to have) and pockets for keeping slates, safety sausages, etc. Of course, you lose the whole “bad boy techie” glam, so not everything in life is free. And before the inevitable “try it first” emails come in, I should point out that I dive in BP/wings myself, and have been doing so from the days when DIR was an MS-DOS command, not a dive cult. I even teach OW in them. But I think for a lot of recreational divers, something like the Dive Rite Transpac is probably a better bet than full-on BP/wings.
Regulator: I am going to get a lot of hate mail on this, but I have a simple theory regarding regs and recreational diving -it doesn’t matter a whole lot what you get. Balanced, unbalanced, piston, diaphragm, breathing resistance and what have you… you can spend months and months analyzing the minute details of these various features. Yes, one reg may be marginally easier to breathe at 40m than another. Yes, in some sort of an extreme lab-created situation, you might be able to over-breathe a reg (although if that situation were to happen in real life, you’d have a lot more pressing problems than you reg). In practice, even a good entry-level reg ill give you decades of service.
Design and innate reliability of one brand or another are not an issue either for most typical regs. I have taken apart and serviced Oceanic, Apeks, Beuchat, Scubapro and Aqualung regs. The basic concept of a reg is pretty much the same for a given design family (piston/diaphragm, balanced/unbalanced). So it isn’t as if that is a huge concern. Note, however, that I did a “most typical regs.” There are a few brands which are exceptions to this rule, but those are the “exotics.”
One area where there is a difference is in maintenance requirements – some regs are more finicky and need to have their IP adjusted and washers, etc. changed regularly or they develop leaks. Others just work and work and work, regardless.
If you do cold-water diving, things are different. You will need a higher-quality, environmentally-sealed reg. And in this case, there are differences between brands, so do your research before you buy.
The above consists is my personal recommendation on what gear to get, when & how to go about the process of selecting gear. However, one question I get asked a lot is what specific brand or model to get. There really is not single “best” choice out there. However, some quick recommendations based on my experience:
Mask – no recommendations can be made, as it is too personal a choice
Fins – Cressi Frog series for frog-kickers; Mares Quattros for general all-purpose use; Atomic Split Fins for people with weaker legs or requiring a lot of speed, especially in calmer waters
BCD – Anything by Seaquest. Excellent BCDs. The Waves are hardy, budget BCDs which will give you YEARS of service (we use them at our dive centre and a more trouble-free and comfy BCD I have yet to encounter). They don’t have trim pockets, but you can buy trim belts to attach to a tank anyway. At the higher end, the Pro/Pro QD/Black Diamonds are all excellent BCDs.
Regulators – Apeks. There is no reason to look for anything else. My own regs are about 8+ years old and were last serviced in 2003. I’ve taken them to 94m, taken them ice-diving and done over a thousand dives on them. All they ask from me is a quick rinse after a dive. Now that’s love!
Computers – Aladin/Uwatecs or Suunto. It is like the great “Landrover or Landcruiser” or “Canon or Nikon” debates. You really don’t wanna ask. Just go to a store, look at them, and see what you want. Suuntos have a nicer form factor (you can wear them as a watch) and you don’t have to suffer that hideous monstrosity of an interface that the Aladin/Uwatecs do. On the other hand, Suuntos are a bit too conservative – almost ridiculously so – especially the newer ones. It is sort of like diving with your mom telling you to be careful, put your hat on, wear your scarf. The Aladins have a more realistic algorithm (which is perfectly safe, I might add). Ultimately, both are quality devices where is really counts – keeping you from getting bent.
The above brands are good, and you cannot go wrong buying them. However, that is not to say that these are the “best” or that other brands aren’t as good. There probably are a lot of other fins, BCDs, etc. that are just as good as the ones I mention above… and some may even be cheaper.
The good thing about scuba is that there is a plethora of opinions out there. I can bet you a lot of divers – including those with a lot more experience than me – feel differently and would suggest that you go the traditional “get your own reg first” route. Others, no doubt, would be horrified by my blasphemy about “all regs being more or less equal in the water for recreational diving.”
But these are my opinions and are not biased by anything – we don’t sell equipment nor do I get any commissions from any of the brands I recommend above (although if they feel like sending me some goodies, they are welcome to do so!). So you decide how much credence you want to give it.
Generally speaking, I find most “my gear” sections to be an exercise in stroking one’s ego. However, I’ve realized that with the appropriate information, this section can be useful when it comes to helping prospective buyers make a decision as to what to buy.
So here is my equipment list, along with a reason why I chose what I did.
MAIN SETUP – HOUSED DSLR
- Canon 20D – I am already a Canon user, with a wide array of lenses for my wildlife and nature photography work. I had initially contemplated going with Nikon, but ultimately, Canon won out. With the release of the Tokina 10-17 fisheye and the Sigma 4.5 & 10mm fisheyes, as well as high-quality 10-22/10-20 lenses by Canon and Sigma, the big reason to go with Nikon – viz, the availability of wideangle and fisheyes – is no longer valid. Either system works well.
- Aquatica A20 housing – I initially was looking at an Ikelite housing because of its lower price and build-in TTL capabilities. However, after speaking to various people about usability and ergonomics, I settled on Aquatica. I was also considering Sea&Sea, but the cost of accessories for Aquatica is quite reasonable and S&S did not have a housing for the 20D, which I already owned (nor was I ready to downgrade to a Rebel body). I have been very happy with the Aquatica- my only niggle with it is that the camera has some play, and occasionally, moves itself out of alignment with the zoom lever. Tilting the body usually fixes this. On the other hand, the housing is robust – it recently fell 3 feet onto concrete, with camera and lens inside. The lens broke, but the housing and dome port survived intact. One additional plus of the Aquatica system is that you only need 2 ports – an 8″ dome port and a flat port. These, plus extension rings, cover virtually all the lenses you will use underwater – and Aquatica has support for new lenses pretty much soon after they hit the market.
- Inon45 degree finder – I just had this finder custom-installed on the housing. It provides a 100% view of the camera’s viewfinder, and because it is angled at 45 degrees, makes it easier to get a lower perspective. I am still getting used to it but will post additional comments once I do.
- Canon 100/2.8 USM macro – generally, people recommend 50-60mm as the main macro lens. I use the 100/2.8 because I already owned it. It is hard to shoot fish portraits with this lens, as it is too long (especially on a 1.6 crop body), but for macro, I find the increased working distance very useful. Were I starting out, I’d probably get the 60m macro instead.
- Sigma 10-20 WA – my first wideangle lens. Sharp, great field of view and quick AF. Comparing reviews and images, I didn’t see any reason to pay extra for the Canon 10-22. Still don’t. It is a Sigma EX and built like a tank, to boot.
- Tokina 10-17 Fisheye – a great, innovative lens, providing 180 degree diagonal coverage at its widest setting. This is my lens of choice for dynamic WA and CFWA shooting. I recently did an album cover for a musician using this lens. For big fish, I’d prefer the Sigma, however, as you have to get VERY close with this lens to get a full frame shot.
- Sigma 17-70 zoom – this is my “exploratory” lens, which I take for shooting fish portaits or when I am not sure what I will see. I have to admit, I prefer the mental focus that comes from selecting a more specialized lens, and since most of my diving is done here in the Andamans where I know the reefs inside out, I rarely take this lens into the water. This would be a good travel lens, however – I really regret leaving it behind while in Sipadan.
- Macromate 2X macro adapter – I just ordered this from Backscatter in California. It is a wet lens that attaches to the flat port of my housing and provides a 2x magnification. As my 100/2.8 macro already goes to life-size, this lets me shoot at twice lifesize (add in the crop factor and I get a field of view equivalent to a 3 times lifesize lens on a regular 35mm camera!).
- 2x Inon Z240 strobes – I found Inons to offer the best balance in price/performance. They recharge quickly, run on standard AAs, have lots of power and all the controls one can wish for in a strobe. And they are small, and so easy to pack. What’s not to like? I have been using them in Manual mode so far, but am thinking of installing a Heinrich’s E-TTL board, simply because I have one and would like the option to use TTL if I want. The Z240s are supposed to be fully compatible with this board.
- Stix buoyancy arms – I had originally gotten TLC arms (which are more or less the same as ULCS arms), but my rig was painfully heavy in the water with this setup. I replaced them with Stix arms and floats, and now my rig is very nicely balanced. On lands, the arms wobble a bit but undewater, where it matters, they stay in place until I move them around. Very strongly recommended – all metal-housing owners should get these.
Generally speaking, I am very happy with my setup. A smaller rig such as Seatool or Hugyfot would be nice for traveling and in reducing drag, but given my struggles to get this rig to be neutrally buoyant, I am not sure whether the loss of buoyancy would be worth it or no. And for sure, this benefit is not worth paying $2000 extra. As of now, I have no intention of upgrading or considering another housing.
BACKUP SYSTEM – COMPACT CAMERA
- Canon G6 – I used this camera because I had it lying around. It used to be my compact topsides shooter until I replaced it with a Panasonic LX1, at which point it was laid-off. Now it is gainfully employed again. The G6 (and its brother, the Canon S70) have, IMO, one of the best sensors used in compact cameras – the classic 7.1MP Canon chip. However, this is a somewhat sluggish camera when it comes to shutter lag. Were I doing it again, I’d get a Canon G9 or a Fuji E900 or similar.
- Ikelite TTL housing – the only show in town for this body. I got a decent deal on one used.
- TLC arms – left over when I replaced the arms of my DSLR rig. They work well with the buoyant housing.
- Sea&Sea YS-110 strobe – I wanted a small, compact and relatively inexpensive system. That ruled out paying extra for the Z240s (besides, I can always use my current pair if need be). The Sea&Sea YS-110 offers more power and wider beam than the Inon D2000/2000S strobes and was a good buy for this setup.
- Inon WA and Macro add-on lenses – the 35mm wide end of the G6 is pitifully useless for any kind of wide-angle work. The Inon wide-angle wet lens gives it a respectable wide angle, which can be used for serious work. The G6 already has very good close-focus capabilities, and the macro lens makes it that much better. Neither lens comes close to matching the performance of a dedicated WA lens on a DSLR, but it is good enough. I plan to add a dome adapter to the WA, which would give DSLR-equivalent wide angle coverage. At that point, I will also need a second strobe, I guess.
This system is small and easy to carry around – and it provides high-quality results if shot within its limitations. This is the system I take with me when I am traveling and plan to mix diving with other activities (for dedicated dive holidays, the housed DSLR rig is still my tool of choice).
- Olympus C3000 and Olympus housing – this was my first digital camera and housing, purchased back in 2001. Terrible shutter lag, but still a lot of fun to play with (did I mention it was my first digital camera)? Sadly, the housing fell out of my daypack while I was boarding a flight en route to a Maldives liveaboard, and broke. RIP.
- Canon S70 with DC-WP40 housing – this is actually our shop rig, but I’ve sold a magazine cover and a couple of articles using photos taken with this camera/housing and an el-cheapo $200 Sunpak G-Flash strobe. An excellent performer, especially given its price.
Virtually every other day, I burn CDs for people who have rented out an underwater camera from us and who hope to have good images to share with their friends and family. However, often the results don’t match expectations. P&S cameras are very well suited to delivering crisp, well-exposed snapshots in the hands of even the most inexperienced photographer, which is what most users want from them anyway. However, take them underwater and suddenly, all those exciting colors and fish end up as brownish-grey blobs of indeterminate focus.
A frequent comment I hear from people is “this small camera simply cannot deliver the same results as that big rig of yours” – till I show them some shots that I have on file, taken with compact cameras.
There really is no magic here. Compact cameras are indeed less flexible than more complex, multi-strobe setups with specialized lenses and ports. However, used within their limits, they are perfectly capable of providing shots that are good enough to share with your friends.
Here are 10 tips, in no particular order, which should help you achieve a noticeable improvement in your images:
1. Get close: If anything, this has to be the rule #1 of underwater photography. Get close. How close? Within 1-2 feet for high-quality images (in tropical waters; less if you dive in green soup), but at most no more than 3-4 feet. Any more than that, and don’t bother shooting unless your subject is very large. A good test is that the subject should occupy atleast 25-30% of your LCD screen.
Why is that? Even the clearest of water has particles which will affect sharpnesss and contrast. Also, the more the distance between you and your subject, the longer the path travelled by the light from your camera’s flash, which means more loss of reds. Moral: minimze the water column.
2. Avoid the zoom: Zooming is no substitute for getting close. Keep your camera at its widest setting, then get as close as possible, and then, if need be, zoom to adjust your composition (never as a substitute for physically getting closer).
3. Manual white balance: Learn how to set manual white balance on your camera. Then take a white slate with you underwater and use it to set white balance for that depth. If your depth or lighting changes, adjust the white balance again. This is especially useful for ambient-light shooting. If you are using strobes as your prime source of lighting, then setting AWB to daylight should suffice, as most strobes are daylight-balanced, more or less.
4. Use a strobe: I know, I know… you bought a small compact, and now I am telling you to spend hundreds on a strobe. Well, the sad fact is that really good strobes – the kind you will never outgrow – start at around $500. Inon and Sea&Sea are excellent buys. However, even a small strobe will yield very good results. Epoque makes a decent unit for around $200, as does Sunpak (the G Flash). Sea&Sea, Sealife and Fantasea also have small, inexpensive strobes. These will be the best investment you can make to improve your photos. It is hard to escape the laws of physics, even underwater – strobes are the only way to add back the red that has been absorbed underwater. On-board strobes work ok within limits (clear water and low working distances), but for most flexibility, you’ll want an external strobe.
5. Shoot up: Most people swim slightly angled. The DIR crew swim perfectly horizontally (thereby missing everything in front and above them, which also explains why they dive only caves – not a whole lot more to see on reefs this way). Either way, the cone of view for most people is weighted downwards. Therefore, most people also tend to tend to shoot downwards. This has one problem – your subject and the background both get even illumination. So the subject doesnt stand out. The solution is simple – get low, and shoot upwards or against blue water – and you’ll get a crisply defined subject (you did remember to get close, didn’t you?) against a pleasing blue (or green) background. Now we are talking! Keep in mind that getting low means that there is a good chance that your fins are going to bang into the reef, so please watch your buoyancy and your fins.
6. Spend time on a shot: If you find something interesting, spend time on it. Now, at this stage, you are probably not ready to spend the entire dive on one subject, but you can – hopefully – allocate atleast a few minutes without making your buddy homicidal. This will allow you to explore various shooting angles and compositions. I personally don’t have the divine gift of artistic genius and so have to work for my shots – my first shot is rarely my best. If you are anything like me, the more time you spend, the better results you will get.
7. Start with quick wins: Quick wins are subjects that don’t move much – anemones, clownfish (ok, they move, but within a small area), colorful coral, nudibranches, etc. These will let you apply all the techniques we have covered so far.
8. Stalk fish: Swim towards a fish, and it takes off. Bet it has happened to you. So how does one get close to the subject? I use the same approach to getting close to fish as I do with birds and wildlife.. I move slowly, I exhale slowly and I try to close in at an angle (instead of directly towards the fish). I also bring my camera gear into position before hand and avoid ALL sudden movements. This improves your chances of getting close and taking shots where the fish are still facing you.
9. Improve your buoyancy: Sometimes, the best camera angles require you to put your body in all sorts of awkward positions. In order to achieve this, your buoyancy must be top-notch. It takes time to get here, so keep practising… before long, you’ll be hanging upside down, peeking into an overhang and shooting away to glory. Do remember that your learning curve should not come at the expense of coral – if you are going to practise, do so somewhere where you are not going to break or damage the reef. No photograph is worth damaging the reef.
10. Practise: Sounds like a cliche, but it isn’t. First of all, let me tell you what not to do. Don’t just go on a shooting spree, hoping to find some gems in the shots later. You can spend a 100 dives this way without getting better. What you need to do is spend some time before each dive setting targets for yourself (perhaps take one of the points from this article and work on it), then go shoot according to that plan. Then review your results, figure out your mistakes and then next time, work on avoiding those mistakes. Before long, you will see your photographs improve drastically. Don’t be afraid to experiment or shoot a lot – however, engage your brain before thinking. Don’t just blindly fire away.
And now, because we are great value and big fans of Spinal Tap, we’ll give you 11 tips on a list of 10 Tips to Improve Your Underwater Photos.
11. Post-process: Some people take great pride in presenting their photos exactly as they emerge from the camera. Personally, I don’t see how showing a sub-standard result is anything to brag about. If you are taking photos, then spend some time sprucing up your shots so that they look best. It doesn’t have to take long – a couple of minutes adjusting contrast, color balance and saturation goes a long way. And don’t forget the most important post-processing tool: the trashcan. Not every shot is worth showing.