By Joe Ross
Image by Fiona Ayerst
Scuba diving is a gear-intensive sport, so the decision whether to rent or buy your scuba equipment is imminent. Make your decision an easy one by reading on.
Earning a scuba diving certification is an accomplishment. It represents many weeks of independent study, class work and pool sessions where divers master dozens of skills before venturing into the open water environment. For most divers, certification means that every future holiday will involve diving, and time spent living topside counts as one long surface interval.
As a scuba instructor, I have the privilege and responsibility of introducing divers to the underwater world and helping them to make good decisions about their future diving activities. One of the most important decisions to make is if and when to invest in equipment and what dive gear is most appropriate for an individual diver. Many divers simply rent equipment from their local dive shop or resort operator while on a trip; others prefer the familiarity and comfort of diving with personal gear regardless of the location.
For most, diving equipment represents a significant investment so it is common for divers to go on renting for quite some time. There are advantages to renting. For vacationing divers, the investment in personal diving gear does not stop at the cash register. Airlines place strict limits on baggage, which can translate to significant additional fees. It is not unusual for baggage fees to exceed the cost of renting gear on-site. Renting diving gear also saves the hassle of lugging heavy gear bags through airports, in and out of taxis and through hotel lobbies.
For divers sticking closer to home, renting equipment eliminates storage problems and places the maintenance responsibilities with the shop owner. Additionally, many locations require speciality items like drysuits that can cost thousands of rands. The availability of these through rental makes comfortable cold water diving possible without requiring a major investment upfront.
Renting scuba equipment makes sense for many reasons. Most dive shops and resorts offer several different models of regulators, BCDs and other equipment in dozens of configurations. Renting makes it possible to experiment and find the best gear options for the individual diver prior to handing over a lot of hard-earned cash.
While renting has many benefits, most divers eventually buy their own equipment. Owned equipment has the advantage of being readily available, making it unnecessary to plan a trip to the local dive shop prior to heading off to the dive site. Owning personal equipment also brings the comfort of knowing how the gear has been maintained and that it has not been abused or subjected to who-knows-what. Horror stories about torn weight pockets and sand-filled, free-flowing regulators are common. I have witnessed divers who arrive at the dive site only to learn then that some critical element like a drysuit hose or fin strap is missing or broken. Often, divers begin purchasing dive gear one piece at a time. Most buy their mask, fins and snorkel right away, using them throughout their training. After that, the decision about what item to own depends on several factors. Here are some considerations regarding each of the basic items that make up the complete scuba kit.
Probably the most common first purchase after the basic snorkel gear is the regulator. It makes sense since regulators are very sensitive to proper maintenance. Regulators are also very personal. Owning a regulator eliminates questions regarding its sanitation. For germophobes like me, that alone is reason enough to get my wallet out.
The differences between regulators on the market are in the features and performance. Features include the availability of DIN and yoke models, high- and low-pressure port locations and swivels to aid optimal hose routing, amongst others. It is important to make sure that the regulator has the right number and types of ports to accommodate your gear configuration. For example, if you dive with a drysuit, you will need enough low-pressure ports to supply the suit as well as your primary and alternate second stages, not forgetting the low-pressure inflator on your BCD. Those ports also need to be located on the appropriate sides to avoid complications in hose routing.
Naturally, performance is critical. Some regulators are easier breathers than others, but most perform adequately in shallow water. At depth, however, the increased gas density can make an adequate shallow water regulator miserable to breathe. It is best to talk to your local dive shop about the type of diving you plan to do and to make the final decision based on their advice.
Finally, consider your alternative air source preference. The most common types are the simple octopus second stage and the integrated second stage/BCD inflator sometimes referred to as a “safe second”. Examples include Aqualung’s Airsource and the Scubapro Air 2. There are variations of both, but it is important to realise that some require non-standard hoses or connectors that may not be available in remote locations.
If you own your regulator, but rent your BCD, find out in advance what you will be diving with and plan ahead. As mentioned, hoses and connectors vary, so planning ahead can save a lot of frustration. In most cases, the standard octopus with a standard low-pressure inflator hose will accommodate most of the BCDs which are available for rent.
BUOYANCY CONTROL DEVICES
While all BCDs function similarly, the range of options is staggering. If you rent, chances are that you will be diving with a jacket-style BCD, where the air cell wraps partially around the diver’s waist. These comfortably float the diver’s head above the water when at the surface, which many find comforting. On the other hand, divers spend very little time orientated vertically at the surface. A well-trimmed diver swims horizontally, which is more streamlined and helps to keep their fins from making contact with the delicate marine life. Rear or back-inflation BCDs are designed to support horizontal trim and encourage a more natural position underwater.
Another difference is in buoyancy capacity. In general, cold water diving requires far greater lift than warm water. This is due to the extra weight that is necessary to sink a thick wetsuit or drysuit. If you dive in cold water at home, but travel to warm water occasionally, the added bulk of your cold water BCD may be enough to push you over airline baggage limits. That same cold water BCD may be a loose fit when you take away the thick thermal protection. In this case, renting may be a better option than owning a second BCD which you will only ever use on every other diving trip.
Divers travelling by air generally have no choice but to rent cylinders on location. Closer to home, the choice to rent or buy depends on what is available. Virtually every dive operator has dozens, even hundreds, of aluminium cylinders available for rent. However, divers in thicker wetsuits or drysuits generally prefer steel cylinders because they sink – even when they are empty. The difference in negative buoyancy means that the diver can reduce the amount of lead carried on a belt or in weight pockets. Steel cylinders also distribute weight higher up on the diver’s back, usually resulting in better horizontal trim.
If you plan on diving in cold water where steel cylinders are not available for rent, it makes sense to purchase your own beforehand. There are dozens of cylinder sizes and shapes available, thus taller or shorter divers have options that may better suit their needs than the ubiquitous rental cylinders.
SPECIALITY DIVING GEAR
Most divers develop equipment preferences as they gain experience. Also, divers gravitate toward equipping themselves for the types of dives they enjoy or have access to. Over time, divers tend to become more specialised as their dives become more complex. This is particularly true for advanced diving activities that require expensive, specialised equipment. Scooters and drysuits are obvious examples, but even small items like reels, lights and lift bags can be expensive, but necessary for certain types of dives. The availability of these types of items for rent depends on the shop. As technical diving gains popularity, the demand for speciality equipment in remote locations has been on the rise. However, if there is any doubt about the availability of an essential piece of dive gear, your best bet is to purchase it before learning that it is not available for rent. Ownership ensures that your dive gear fits well and is properly maintained.
Ultimately, the decision whether to rent or buy depends on many factors. If the cost of equipment is prohibitive, renting may be the only practical option. For travelling divers, packing scuba cylinders is generally not possible and taking along lead weights rarely makes sense.
As a rule, renting provides a welcome opportunity to try before you buy, which can go a long way toward avoiding a purchase you may later regret. In the end, most divers choose to buy their own equipment. Ownership ensures that your dive gear fits well and is properly maintained. Also, diving with the same set of equipment helps to eliminate buoyancy and trim issues and can increase safety by keeping alternative air sources, releases and inflators in the same location on every dive. For most divers, owning their own equipment adds to the safety and enjoyment of the sport.