Photo by derekkeats

SCUBA. Self. Contained. Underwater. Breathing. Apparatus.

I’LL ADMIT THAT for the average snorkeler or land-lubbing beachgoer, SCUBA can appear pretty scary. There’s compressed air, jackets that inflate, and you actually attach weights to yourself and attempt to swim. It’s just unnatural.

Once you understand the gear, however, you realize that SCUBA is the easiest, most comfortable way to experience an aquatic realm most land-based travelers will never have the ability to see. Though SCUBA is one of those hobbies which can involve an inordinate amount of accessories and add-ons, there are a few crucial pieces of gear you simply can’t dive without.

While most dive operators supply all the gear that any diver may need while diving on holiday, it’s still good to know what that gear consists of, and to consider purchasing a set of your own should you ever want to take the hobby to the next level. So if dancing with leopard sharks off of Koh Phi Phi or soaring with manta rays along the coast of Maui sounds like something you could get into, then here’s the gear you’re going to need to live it.

DSD DIVE
One thing you aren’t going to need—at least at first—is a scuba certification. With programs such as PADI’s Discover Scuba Diving program, curious divers only have to complete a brief class, be medically safe to dive, demonstrate a few basic skills in the water, and they can then descend with an instructor to a depth of 40ft/12m to decide for themselves if this is a sport they’re going to want to get in to.
Certification

Hooked after your first dive? Now you need to get certified.

Being certified to dive means you have passed a 3-4 day course that covers the academic principles behind diving, and you have demonstrated a universal set of skills such as the ability to remove your mask while underwater and retrieve your mouthpiece should it decide to go rogue. Though the certification process can seem daunting, once certified you are free to join any dive excursion anywhere in the world simply by flashing your credentials.

Buoyancy Control Device (BCD)

A BCD is the big black jacket that you see all divers running around in. An inflator hose connects the BCD to the air tank, and through two simple inflate and deflate buttons the BCD regulates the amount of air—and therefore buoyancy—the diver is getting.

More air in your jacket and you go up, less air and you sink down. The goal is to achieve neutral buoyancy so that you can float underwater as weightless as an astronaut on a spacewalk.

Regulator

The regulator is the piece that allows you to breath. A long black hose that leads from the air tank, the regulator has a large circular mouthpiece with a rubber bit that’s exactly the same as a snorkel. It has a demand valve inside which means that air only flows through the regulator when you breathe in. When you breathe out, your air is released as bubbles.

Most places in the world now equip divers with a backup or an “alternate” regulator that the diver can use in the event that their primary regulator malfunctions. Another reason for the alternate regulator is that it gives you the ability to “buddy-breathe” with another diver who may have run out of air. With something as critical as your air supply, it’s always a good idea to dive with an alternate regulator.

Depth/pressure gauge/watch

Photo by Tim Patterson

A depth gauge is pretty straightforward. It lets you know how deep you are. As you will learn in your certification course, the deeper you go, the shorter amount of time you can stay down for (it’s a nitrogen thing). It’s important to always have a dive plan where you know what maximum depth you’re going to hit so you don’t overstay your visit.

The depth gauge is usually also housed with the pressure gauge, which is a reading of how much air you have left. Some gauges are measured in PSI (US), while others are measured in BAR (the rest of the world). You never want to finish a dive with your tank completely empty, and just because you have air left in your tank doesn’t mean you can stay down longer. Nonetheless, you’re still going to need a functioning pressure gauge to let you know just how much air you actually have left.

Lastly, you’re going to need a waterproof watch (with a good battery) that works down to depths of 150 feet. The combination of time spent underwater and your depth beneath the surface are the basis for the dive tables which regulate how long you can safely partake in a dive.

Mask/fins/snorkel

These are lumped together because this is the same gear you would take snorkeling. Just because this gear seems novice, however, doesn’t mean it should be underestimated. In fact, proper mask selection is one of the most important elements in SCUBA. Everyone who takes to the water has a different face structure, and masks that fit some divers simply aren’t going to fit others. A mask that’s filling with water the entire time you’re down is an annoying way to spend a dive, so do yourself a favor and get yourself a mask you’re comfortable with that won’t leak on you relentlessly.

Though a snorkel isn’t a de facto requirement for scuba diving, it’s nice to have another option while on the surface that doesn’t involve wasting air by breathing through your regulator.

Longer fins are going to help propel you through the water quicker than stubby little fins better suited for bodysurfing. Sometimes when you’re diving you can be fighting a current to get back to the boat – a situation where you’re going to be happy you spent the few extra dollars on some fins that really get you where you need to go.

Dive weights

While it may seem counter-intuitive to attach weights to yourself and attempt to swim, dive weights play a crucial part in determining your buoyancy and are nearly impossible to dive without. Without weights, humans tend to float, so it’s vital to have weights that ensure you stay underwater where you belong.

Weights are either worn as an assembly on a weight belt or in an integrated system where the weights are actually embedded inside of the BCD. There are a large number of variables that come into play when determining how much weight you need to wear (gender, salt vs. fresh water, thickness of wetsuit, etc.), but generally the average diver will have somewhere from 8-14 lbs. of weight on them.

Air tank

Finally, if you’re going to be breathing underwater, you’re going to want some air. Tanks range in various sizes depending on the length of the dive, and they are filled with the same mixture of gases that comprise the air we breathe while up at sea level. When you get into more advanced diving, specialists are able to tinker with the gas mixture of the tank to manipulate your bottom time (eg. Tri-mix or Nitrox gas mixtures let you dive deeper), but for the most part, nearly all recreational dive operators are going to be filling the tanks with regular air.

Though most operators fill their own tanks off of a specially maintained air compressor, it’s always a good idea to smell the air coming out of your tank before heading underwater. If the air smells like eggs, acidic, or foul in any way, alert your dive instructor.

Optional gear
  • Dive knife
  • Underwater flashlight
  • Wetsuit, hood, and gloves (depending on water temperature)
  • Dive computer (at least one person on every dive should have a computer)
  • Safety sausage (locator beacon)
  • Noisemaking device
  • Defog spray/gel for your mask
  • Extra rubber o-rings for your air tank
  • Underwater slate and pencil
  • Underwater camera

Personal accessories are all part of the fun of diving, and it’s important when heading into the hobby to not let the large amounts of gear overwhelm you. When you think about the possibilities of exploration that are made possible by a few simple hoses and a tank full of compressed air, scuba diving is a hobby that can add an entirely new element to your world travel.

Be forewarned, however – it can easily double the length of a bucket list. Thresher sharks in Palawan, the Blue Hole in Belize, forgotten Viking shipwrecks of the North Sea…

Good luck, and happy diving.

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