Mask, Snorkel, Fins:
These items are often referred to collectively as "basic equipment" and are relatively cheap. Having said that, a mask can cost around £40-£60, a snorkel around £20 and a pair of fins may cost over £100.
The mask may have a clear or coloured silicone surround or skirt. Bear in mind that a clear skirt will permit light to enter through the sides of the skirt, which may reflect on the tempered glass face plate and cause highlights which may interfere with vision. Underwater photographers often prefer a black silicone skirt. The glass front port MUST be "tempered" safety glass. Most mask styles fit most people but it is essential that the mask fits comfortably and does not leak.
A snorkel should be a simple tube with a mouthpiece attached. There may be a clip to attach the snorkel to your mask strap. One way valves on snorkels are not recommended. Dive shops may try to sell you a snorkel with all kinds of fancy valves at BOTH ends. You don't need them. A simple "J" shaped tube with a mouthpiece is all that you require. It will be considerably cheaper as well!! Unfortunately, snorkels often get lost, so you may need to buy a replacement. This is another good reason for keeping it simple and cheap!!
Fins come in 2 styles; an enclosed foot pocket fitting and an open foot pocket with heal strap fitting. The latter is probably the better fitting, especially when it comes to wearing your fins over dry suit boots. The fins should fit comfortably without crushing your foot or toes. You should be able to fin in a relaxed manner without expending too much energy and causing your breathing rate to rise.
Now comes the expensive gear. It is debatable as to which item you should purchase first with your hard earned cash: a dry suit and thermal under garments or a demand valve! A dry suit is a personal item of clothing and provides protection against the cold water whilst a demand valve is the crucial item of equipment to which you possibly entrust your life. It must function correctly every time you inhale!
However, unless you buy a dry suit, you won't be going in the sea in any case, so perhaps it could be the first BIG item on your equipment list! Unless, of course, you borrow or hire a dry suit from your club or dive shop.
Dry Suits are available in 3 different styles: the membrane dry suit, the compressed or crushed neoprene dry suit and the "standard" neoprene dry suit
The membrane dry suit is a loose fitting suit usually constructed of tri-laminate materials of nylon/a rubber compound/nylon. The suit has thin latex membrane neck and wrist seals. It is important to realise that this suit only keeps you dry. Thermal protection is provided by "woolly bear" fleece type under garments.
Crushed/compressed neoprene dry suits. There are subtle differences between "crushed" and "compressed" neoprene dry suits but they are typically 1.5mm to 3mm thick neoprene suits. This thickness provides some thermal protection but "woolly bear" fleece type garments are still essential with this suit. Neck and wrist seals may be neoprene or latex membrane. These suits can be made to measure to show off your svelte form and tend to be tougher than membrane suits.
Standard Neoprene dry suits are approximately 7mm thick, can be quite bulky and generally do not require fleece thermal under garments, though you may need a "base layer". It may be necessary to carry additional lead weight to overcome the inherent buoyancy of these suits.
All suits will be fitted with either a rear shoulder zipper or cross chest zipper plus a suit inflation valve and either a manual air dump valve or "auto" dump valve. A neoprene hood and a suit bag are also usually provided. A pair of neoprene gloves will also be required to maintain bodily warmth, costing around £30. The suit price range varies from £500 - £2000.
Demand Valve or Regulator: There have been enormous improvements in design of demand valves (D/V) over the last 50 years. Without doubt, this is the most important item of equipment you will buy. It is no exaggeration to say that you will be trusting it with your life. It must function with every inhalation you make, that's 12-16 times a minute, for every minute of your dive. No matter how well trained you think you are and how prepared you think you are, if your air supply fails for any reason, the situation can spiral out of control very quickly. Minimise the risk by purchasing the best demand valve you can afford. This is not necessarily the most expensive!! Having said that, modern demand valves are very reliable.
A modern D/V consists of 2 parts: a 1st stage which connects to the diving cylinder pillar valve, and a 2nd stage held in the mouth, connected to the 1st stage via a hose. The 1st stage may be a balanced piston type or balanced diaphragm type. I won't go in to detail about the differences here, but suffice to say that in cold Scottish winter waters, the balanced diaphragm type is less likely to freeze. Study your diving manual or search the internet for full details about how the different types of D/V work. The range of demand valves is considerable and the prices range from around £400-£1000. You should ask other experienced divers for advice. Ask the dive shops as well, but remember they want to sell you a demand valve.
Don't forget to include in your purchase an easily readable high pressure air contents gauge and hose. It is extremely important to know exactly how much air, or nitrox, you have left in your cylinder.
Above all remember that your demand valve is your most vital piece of kit. No apology for repeating myself!! It must work every time you inhale and that is on average 12-16 times per minute. It operates in a harsh, cold, wet, pressurized environment. Your life is in its hands! You will learn to trust it. You will learn the "feel" of it. Look after it! Don't bounce it around the beach or get it covered in sand. Check the condition of your demand valve before and after every dive. If hoses are damaged - replace them. Get it serviced regularly. Love it. It should become your best friend.
After you have blown the savings on your dry suit and/or demand valve, what should you save for next on the list? How about the BCD or Buoyancy Control Device!
The BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) is really just an expensive way of carrying your cylinder on your back. However, it is also a possible means of positive buoyancy in an emergency or indeed, if suitably equipped, an alternate means of air supply. The BCD can be used to adjust your buoyancy as you descend in the sea. However, if you are using a dry suit I would advise that all buoyancy adjustment is carried out on the dry suit and rarely, if ever, the BCD, except in the case of an emergency, such as a ripped dry suit. I know that some divers will disagree with my point. They may suggest a combination of buoyancy adjustment with the dry suit AND the BCD, but this is not the place for this discussion. Suffice to say that the BCD should fit you comfortably. The diving cylinder should be attached quickly and easily. Any BCD pockets should be easily accessible. There should be "D" rings for attaching accessories. The BCD material should be lightweight yet tough and above all, it should have sufficient inflated buoyancy to enable you to make a controlled ascent to the surface by means of efficient inflation and dump valves. The prices range from £250-£600.
A Diving Computer is perhaps next on your "to buy" list! Once again there are many different manufacturers, but they basically all do the same thing, namely, keep a constant check on your previous depth, current depth, duration at different depths and by the Buhlmann ZHL8 algorithm, work out how much nitrogen you have absorbed and therefore how much "no stop" time you have left and how much decompression you may have to carry out as you ascend. More sophisticated computers integrate with your gas supply and tell you how much time you have left for your dive. Some dive computers are about the size and shape of a wrist watch. As a consequence, the displayed information can be quite small. You should make sure that you can clearly read the display in dark Scottish waters!! If there is any doubt, buy a computer with a larger, clearer display. Your life might depend on it!!!
I would strongly urge you not to dive or use a dive computer until you have a clear understanding of the theory and practice of Nitrogen absorption and desaturation. Also an understanding and a working knowledge of the SSAC/Buhlmann Decompression Tables.
Coupled with your dive computer, you may also wish to consider any dive log software supplied with the diving computer, particularly if you intend to keep a desktop/laptop computer based diving logbook. There are some extremely comprehensive logbook programs available and there are some which are absolute rubbish, one, surprisingly, from a very well known manufacturer of good diving computers!! Beware!!
Weight belt or harness: Once you have put on all this heavy equipment you will, unfortunately still require a weight belt or harness. WHY?
Even though you will have removed ALL the air from your BCD and as much air as possible from inside your dry suit, you will still not be able to get underwater, owing to your own buoyancy and the inherent buoyancy of some of your equipment. You will need sufficient additional lead weight on a weight belt or weight harness so that when you are fully submerged, just under the water, you can gently rise and fall merely by inhaling and exhaling.
Correct weighting and good buoyancy control are important techniques which you will be taught by your instructor. Suffice to say, at the moment, you must never dive with too much weight on your weight belt or weight harness.
Most other items of gear are not really essential, but more like "desirable". Once again I suggest speaking to other divers about their kit and also asking the dive shop. The list may consist of:
A diving knife, a diving torch, compass, a delayed Surface marker buoy and reel, a kit box or bag.
As your diving skills and knowledge increase, you will find yourself needing spares such as, a spare diving mask, spare fin straps, a repair kit, spare "o" rings, etc. The list can go on and on!
ALL PRICES QUOTED IN THIS FEATURE ARE CORRECT IN 2020
Colour, Colour, Colour!!!
Finally in this list of kit to buy and in what order, I should mention colour!! Unfortunately most diving gear is predominantly BLACK. Someone, way back, thought it looked cool and "tekkie" and so the manufacturers thought it would be a good marketing ploy!!??? Logically, black is not good in the dark seas around Scotland (see the photo below).
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and the Coastguard fit their staff and equipment out in "dayglo" orange. That should send a clear message from the maritime professionals!! I would urge you to look for brightly coloured gear and buy it whenever you can. It will make you far easier to spot if you ever get in to trouble at sea. Other watersports enthusiasts use brightly coloured equipment, why not us?
Happy and Safe, Diving.
Please support the RNLI. They've got our back!!