How to Buy Basic Snorkeling Gear
Not all masks are created equal! There are marked differences when it comes to the quality of mask construction and materials. There are two types of materials used to construct most mask skirts on the market today. The first is plastic and the second is silicone. Plastic mask skirts are generally very inexpensive, and are fine for kids' use in swimming pools, etc. Plastic mask skirts (or vinyl, or PVC) will not last as long as a silicone mask will, due to the nature of the plastic material. Plastic will crack after repeated use in the sun or in chlorinated water (swimming pools).
Silicone masks, on the other hand, will last the user upwards of ten years, if cared for properly. Silicone mask skirts will always fit better, and give a better seal than other materials. This is because silicone has more elasticity, and can withstand repeated use in any type of water conditions. Silicone mask skirts come in two colors, clear and black, with the choice being a matter of personal preference. Clear skirts will allow more light to enter the mask, and give a brighter view of the environment. Black skirted masks, however, are very popular with photographers who prefer not to have any extraneous light entering their camera's viewfinder.
How should a mask fit? This is a question that has lots of answers. First, try the mask on without the strap. Place the mask on your face and inhale through your nose very lightly. You should feel an even seal around the perimeter of the mask, with no air leaking through the mask at any point. Be especially cautious of the areas next to your eyes and under your nose, where lots of folks have some little lines or creases that can prevent a mask from sealing properly. Once you're satisfied the mask fit without the strap, go ahead and place the mask on with the strap. Is there any discomfort......do you feel any air leaking when you try to inhale?
Let's talk about styles now. There a lots of different styles on the market today....single lens designs, twin lens, three lens and even four lens designs. As you move up in the number of lenses, the internal volume of the mask (the amount of air space inside the mask) tends to increase. This has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you will get better peripheral vision from a multi-window mask. The downside is that if the mask leaks somewhat it requires more effort to clear the water out of the mask. A great feature for snorkelers is a purge valve mask. This type of mask has a small one-way valve that will allow the wearer to purge or remove the water from the mask without lifting the face from the water. All that is required is to hold the entire mask firmly against your face, and blow through your nose, keeping the purge valve at the lowest point of ther mask. This design saves energy and allows the wearer to keep their face in the water.
In it's most basic form, a snorkel is nothing more than a tube that allows you to breathe with your face underwater. The things to look for in a snorkel are a large diameter tube, allowing air to pass freely through the snorkel, and some type of purge valve system, which lets you use the force of gravity to help you move water down through the snorkel, rather than up against the force of gravity. The purge valve on better snorkels operates the same way as those on masks.....keep the snorkel bottom in the water, and blow forcefully to move the water through the purge valve, take a cautious breath, and you're back to snorkeling! Snorkels cannot be more than about 17 inches long, because your lungs do not have the strength to fully move against the water pressure. Some snorkels are curved to fit the side of your head better, making the snorkel less resistant to water, causing less drag. Other models have "dry tops" on them, meaning they have special one-way valves that will close off the top of the snorkel when the user dips their head under water or if a wave comes over the top of the user's head. These valves work great for those that have had a less than desirable previous experience, or for those that can't purge their snorkel completely of water when it fills. The best snorkels have special mouthpieces designed by an orthodontist, to alleviate the jaw and mouth discomfort some folks have when snorkeling for extended periods.
Like masks and snorkels there are lots of different fins on the market today. Some fins are better utilized for Scuba Diving, rather than snorkeling. There are really two types of fins used, and these are full-foot or adjustable heel models. Again, each has it's own advantages. For example, the full-foot fins, which are designed to be worn barefoot, are better for travel, as they weigh less, and are generally shorter and narrower than the adjustable heel style. The full-foot fins come in a variety of price ranges and materials, with thermoplastic blades and rubber foot pockets being most common for snorkeling fins. Adjustable heel fins require the use of neoprene booties to protect your feet from the rather stiff foot pocket. The booties will, however, make rocky or coral shoreline entries much more comfortable, as well as warmer in cooler local waters. The downside to strap fins is their bulk...they tend to be heavier and more cumbersome for snorkeling than full-foot styles, consequently you'll see more Wisconsin divers using this type of fin for local diving. They also provide more proulsion with scuba gear than full-foot styles can. Strap style fins may be used in both warm and cooler waters, with many folks simply changing the thickness of booties they wear when traveling to warmer waters.
When selecting fins, most manufacturers make their full-foot fins in regular men's shoe sizes. Women generally have to order one size smaller than a man's size for best fit. Full-foot fins should be worn comfortably, but not tight, as this can cause irritation on the top of the foot and can also cause blisters in the toe area. Adjustable heel fins generally come in three sizes...small, regular, and extra large. The small sizes generally fit shoe sizes 7 through 8, while the regular sizes fit sizes 9 thru 10, and the extra large size fits 11 and up.
Some things to consider when trying adjustable heel fins: make sure you try them with booties. Next, be sure there are no tight areas; the fins should be comfortable across all parts of your foot. Extend your foot outwards to see if there are any tight spots across the top of your foot. Next, try wiggling your toes, so you'll have good circulation. Lastly, try wiggling the entire fin side-to-side, to see how much play there is in the toe area. A little is OK, but too much will cause leg cramps.
Either style of fins should feel like they're an extension of your leg.
Some of the most popular accessories for scuba and snorkeling include lights, slates, and marine life identification cards or books. Lights are a great way to explore the marine world at night or early in the morning. Some of the most colorful and interesting life can be found once the sun goes down. Lights also help bring out the natural colors in corals and fish, because as the light passes through water, some colors like red get absorbed, and a light will bring out the true colors. Having a waterproof writing slate with you can be helpful when trying to describe a fish you saw, or when recording data about your adventure. Even the most experienced snorkeler sometimes has a difficult time remembering all the names of fish they see, so having fish ID cards with you or a set of fish ID books at home will make the job of identifyng fish and corals much easier.
Because today's equipment is made from better materials, the need for special care is practically eliminated. There is really no other requirement other than to rinse all your gear well in fresh water as soon as possible to avoid odors or bacteria forming in your gear. There are special cleaners available for deeper cleaning; these cleaners contain enzymes that will attack the odor causing bacteria and eliminate them, while giving your gear a fresh scent. Mask skirts sometimes can have a buildup of suntan lotion on them....this is easily removed by mild detergent and warm water. Some folks use dish soap as a general purpose cleaner, as it cuts through grease and rinses away easily. Before each outing or trip, inspect all your gear for any tears, cuts, or breaks. Most locations will have spare mask straps and snorkel keepers, but why bother? Keep one of each in with your gear and you'll never have to postpone or cancel an outing because you can't get a replacement part.
About the Author
Colin is an Scuba Instructor Trainer, published underwater photographer, and store manager for The Underwater Connection, a Scuba Diving Center located in Delafield, Wisconsin.
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