Wetsuits come in a bewildering range of styles, thicknesses and combinations, and they go equally rapidly, as new models and variants supersede them in the shops. So which suit are you wearing now, and what will you choose next? John Bantin finds out which are your favourites, and explains what makes a good wetsuit|
WHAT SUIT TO WEAR in the Red Sea in March? Will I need a suit on the Great Barrier Reef? How cold is it in the water in the Bahamas in January? Will I really need to insulate my body in the Mediterranean in summer? Do I really need a drysuit to dive in Britain? These are some of the questions we regularly hear asked.
The information published in diving magazines is often misleading. We see pictures of people in tropical locations diving with nothing more than a swimming costume. The girl who posed prettily in a swimsuit for pictures for a Maldives guidebook told me how she "nearly froze" while her husband took them.
National press picture editors continue to ask for photographs of divers without diving suits, so keen are they to perpetuate the myth of "diving in an aquarium".
Water conducts heat 20 times more efficiently than air, so unless the water is the same temperature as your skin surface (about 32°C and hotter than most corals can withstand) you will lose heat, and eventually get cold.
Of course, people do dive without suits, but only at the expense of increased fuel consumption - that is, both air and food - and the penalty of increased tiredness as they recover. So we would say you need a suit wherever you dive.
How do you choose a suit? The more insulation you use, the greater the penalty in weight to be added to the weightbelt, and in lost manoeuvrability. Like most things in life, it's a question of compromise.
The other point to remember is that the warmer the water the better it supports planktonic lifeforms, and many of these are equipped with painful stings. Even in the warmest location, it is a good idea to wear some sort of barrier against them.
Most people who dive in British waters wear a drysuit, but around the coast in summer the sea is warm enough for a good-thickness semi-dry (7 or 8mm). It's the chill of the breeze on your wet body after climbing out of a semi-dry which makes for any discomfort, together with the unattractive proposition of getting back into a damp suit for a second dive.
Drysuits aside, diving suits can be roughly divided into "barrier" suits with little or no insulation; wetsuits which allow a layer of water to come between the diver's body and the neoprene, which, once warmed up, acts as an additional thermal barrier; and semi-dry suits - which are really semi-wet.
Semi-drys are wetsuits with seals at wrist and ankles, and around the neck or hood, to discourage water flushing through the suit during a dive. By maintaining more-or-less the same water in the suit, it makes the insulation effect of the wetsuit more efficient.
Wetsuits and semi-dry suits are made of neoprene, a rubber-like material with millions of tiny inert-gas bubbles blown into it. The gas in these bubbles gives the insulation. Of course, it also sometimes gives unwelcome buoyancy, too.
As a suit is subjected to increasing pressure of depth, the buoyancy reduces and the insulation becomes less efficient.
A suit that has seen a lot of heavy use and been left to dry in hot sunshine will have lost a lot of the integral bubbles within its neoprene and so will have become thinner and less thermally efficient than when new.
All manner of hi-tech materials are being added to neoprene to give what is claimed to be better insulation, including things like metal-fleck in the lining. It is hard to substantiate or disprove such an effect, but take claims with a pinch of salt.
What's more important is the thickness of the neoprene and the fit of the suit.
If you have to fight your way into a suit that stretches to fit, it's too small for you.
If you have swathes of folds of material left over, it's too big. A suit should not only be easy to don, it should follow the contours of your body.
Many suits arriving in shops now have a contoured cut. This is especially important for women, as their lines tend to be more curvaceous than men's. Suit manufacturers seem to have realised only recently that women are not simply men with narrower waists. However, off-the-peg suits have contours cut to match off-the-peg bodies.
The position of stitching can be critical. A seam placed at an inconvenient pressure point can rub and cause soreness. Thank goodness we no longer see wetsuit boots with seams up the centre of the upper, just where the fin will put most pressure on the top of the foot and cause a painful sore.
And while we're on the subject of stitching, that is one area in which good suits are separated from bad. Seams are best stitched and glued. Different types of stitching are used, but any sign of a loose thread will auger ill for the longevity of the suit, and you may be faced with splits between panels of material later.
Black is this year's black! Sadly, brightly coloured suits seem to be temporarily out of fashion. However, by using panels of different colours the designer can make a suit that makes you look better than you really are. The right cut and panel colour change can render you more long-legged than in reality, more narrow-waisted and deep-chested. Who wouldn't want that?
Some manufacturers use panels of different-weight neoprene to allow freer movement of the limbs. Some use materials that slide over your skin more easily.
With a few European exceptions, most suits are now made in the Far East, where people are more slightly built. However, many factories there work to European designs. The Italians probably design the sexiest-looking suits but some very good-looking suits are coming from northern Europe too.
But be aware that, while a brand might be North American, its suit might come from a Maltese factory, or the brand might be Italian but the suit made in Korea. Equally, two suits of the same design and brand might have originated from entirely different countries.
Like any clothes, you can buy something at an economic price that will suit you better than spending a lot on a big-brand name, but a cheap suit will always be exactly that. Few wetsuits or semi-drys are made to measure, so it all depends on how an example looks on you, and how it feels - which brings us back to the fit. Try it on before buying.
Semi-dry suits used invariably to be made of the heaviest-weight neoprene but many lightweight neoprene suits are now available with semi-dry seals. More thermally efficient suits are often now offered as a system of layers that can be built up, to give the desired effect. The buzzword is "layering", but people have been putting on extra layers of clothes to beat the cold since the dawn of history.
One style which has almost definitely seen its day is the no-sleeves long-john with jacket over. It took years for manufacturers to spot that water flushing round the armpits dissipated a lot of body heat quickly, so the full-length one-piece suit with arms and the short-sleeved jacket over has virtually replaced it.
Some suits use a mixture of different thicknesses of material in their construction, leaving the material quite thin at points of body flex but adding extra thickness over the kidneys and spine. You can start with a 5mm suit and end up with 20mm of neoprene over some parts.
Much heat is lost through our heads. The brain needs an exceptionally good blood supply but the head affords little in the way of natural insulation.
It would be foolish to add unnecessary layers of neoprene to the body and leave the head unprotected, but many divers seem to prefer diving without a hood if they can.
Some say hoods are restricting, but that is so only if you have the wrong hood.
The most lightweight suits are those which offer little or no thermal protection but keep the "nasties" away from contact with your skin. However, those who have invested heavily in beer and crisps during the winter are best warned off them - just for the benefit of the sensibilities of fellow-divers.
You might find this type of suit ideal in places like the insides of atolls in the Maldives, Polynesia, the Red Sea at the height of summer, the protected seas of Indonesia, and the Caribbean.
These "skins" are usually made of Lycra, but some manufacturers make suits from 0.5mm neoprene (an example is the Oceanic Cyberskin) or other high-tech polyurethane-type materials such as those used by Reed Chillcheater. These are slightly more flattering than simple Lycra.
Thin suits can be used as a base layer to a heavier suit and take up little space in the dive bag, so they offer a good add-on option if you are not sure how warm or cold your destination will be.
Those with allergies to neoprene can use those lightweight suits made of other materials as a physical barrier under a wetsuit, too.
More popular for warmwater use among those lacking excessive body fat are the "proper" wetsuits that usually zip up at the back. Typical examples are the Typhoon Riot, Bare Attack, Gybe Extreme Mesh and the Beaver Hawaii.
These suits are usually made of 3mm neoprene but with certain sections often made of a lighter-weight material.
The most popular choice in wetsuits and semi-dry suits is the 4 or 5mm one-piece. Some of them come with seals in a semi-dry configuration and typical examples are the Waterproof Aquazor, Mares Evolution, O'Three MSF Semidry, Gybe Semi-dry, Hydrotech Explorer 2 and Mares Twice, with its hidden built-in extra layer. These also usually zip up at the back.
Many 5mm suits are now offered with an optional secondary layer in the form of a jacket, often with short arms and legs, that zips up at the front. This can be worn over the full-length suit if you find yourself too cold, giving 10mm of insulation over the torso, or instead of the one-piece if you find yourself too hot. Separate matching hoods are also available if not supplied as part of the jacket.
Popular examples of 5mm suits offering this layered solution are the Cressi-sub Lontra 2, Scubapro Pacific Steamer, Seacsub Sea Team, GUL semi-dry Steamer and Body Glove Thermolater.
Some divers prefer to use only a "shortie" in warmer waters but must take their chances with tropical stinging hydroids and nematocysts. Others use the 5mm one-piece alone.
Permutations of suit layers and neoprene thicknesses are endless. Some suits, notably the Aqua-Lung Balance Comfort suit, combine a 5mm one-piece suit and a thicker 7mm jacket with hood attached.
Then there are the semi-dry suits offered in a one-piece style but made of a chunkier 7mm neoprene. Many even have dry-zips across the shoulders in an attempt to lessen the effects of flushing.
This makes them feel quite uncomfortable out of the water but the effect is not noticeable once you are immersed.
Examples are the Aqua-Lung Iceland, Beuchat Semi-dry, Cressi-sub Semistagna Ice, Camaro Semi Extreme TI, Seacsub SemiDry and Mares Isotherm T.
Again, separate matching hoods are offered where none is attached. These seem to be very popular with Mediterranean divers.
Finally, there are the full semi-dry suits that often have jackets with hoods attached and prove so essential in places such as the Mediterranean and the northern Red Sea in winter, and even in British waters.
These offer 7mm of neoprene in two layers, with additional 7mm layers designed in at the spine and kidneys.
You might find you have up to 21mm of neoprene at certain points - cosy!
It should be said that some of these suits are effective enough to wear in Antarctic seas, provided you have somewhere warm to get changed afterwards!
From the vast array offered by different manufacturers, we identified typically the Aqua-Lung Balance Comfort 7, Beaver Icelandic Ultra, Camaro Stingray, Mares Thermic Semi-dry, Northern Diver Omega with its added integrated pads, O'Three Semi Dry and Poseidon 4. We should not forget the Scubapro S-Tek range, which offers a suit in almost every specification already mentioned here.
In fact nearly every manufacturer represented makes a full range of suits from a lightweight 2-3mm to a heavyweight 7mm in several layers. It would be difficult to attempt to identify any one suit as best.
When we asked each manufacturer to supply an example of its best-selling suit, to get an idea of what you like, almost without exception a 5mm semi-dry arrived. Presumably customers feel this provides a flexible compromise.
Some suits were simply one-piece, while others came in the form of a one-piece with a jacket as an optional secondary layer. Hoods, if supplied, were often separate, not attached to the jacket.
If you choose a suit system that you can build in layers to suit conditions, be sure that the zips of the different layers alternate between the backs and fronts of each layer to avoid discomfort.
Prices vary from around £60 for a basic lightweight suit to as much as £315 for a fully layered system.
Keeping warm is a very personal matter. Some people feel the cold more than others. The addition of a hood to a 5mm semi-dry could make it warmer than a 7mm suit with a second 7mm layer over, but without a hood. If in doubt, take a suit system that you can build up to give you the effect you want.
People are rarely too hot in the water, even if there is a danger of over-heating beforehand. If that is the case, make the suit wet as soon as you can after you have donned it to benefit from the cooling effect of evaporation.
Keeping warm is an imprecise science. Different people have different tolerances to the cold, and what suits one will ferquently not suit another.
However, don't be misled by that tourist-destination publicity material. The water is rarely warm enough for a long dive in the buff!
| WETSUIT MAKERS & SUPPLIERS|
Aqua-Lung UK 0116 2124200
Bare (Suunto Diving UK) 01420 587272
Beaver Sports 01484 512354
Beuchat (Typhoon International) 01642 486104
Body Glove 01752 854418
CamarO 0043 6232 4201
Cressi-sub 01484 310130
GUL 01208 262400
Gybe 0161 3048471
Hydrotech 01455 274106
Jag International 01579 363444
Mares (Blandford Sub-Aqua) 01923 801572
Northern Diver 01257 254444
Oceanic 01404 891819
O'Three 01305 776754
Poseidon Diving Systems 01420 84300
Reed Chillcheater 01271 815828
Robin Hood RoHo 01924 444888
Scubapro UK 01256 812636
Seacsub (Alpha Distribution) 01709 515157
Typhoon International 01642 486104
Waterproof (CPS Partnership) 01424 442663
WETSUIT COMPARISON TABLE