Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Review of Fins for Scuba Diving and Snorkeling

Review updated 11-12-15:
Mares Volo Power fins: My first choice for diving.  

I just spent a full month diving Papua New Guinea (PNG).  I brought only one pair of fins on this trip, the Mares Volo Power fins.  I am overwhelmingly impressed and happy with these fins.  I was able to swim underwater with great power, in scuba gear and carrying a camera with strobes, in a near two-knot current back to the boat.   The fins are light, fast, comfortable, and powerful.

I never experienced cramping on the entire month-long trip.  The fins struck the perfect balance between stiffness and flexibility -- they were just right; not too stiff and not too flexible.  When swimming with them, I felt the fins giving a nice springing motion to my kick.  Stiff fins are more powerful, but after a full day of diving, I will often experience calf or thigh cramps when using them -- sometimes cramping in both areas, which is really painful.  Some less flexible fins cause pain in my old knees. 

I was able to control my movements with the fins when taking photos or video.  I did not feel that these open-heel fins were any slower than full-foot fins that I've used in the past.  The standard (older) style fin strap worked just fine.  I had a little trouble getting the fins on and off, and I did not like using the ABS buckle to get the fins off.  Once on, the fins and fin pocket were extremely comfortable.  I used them with both very thin and thicker wetsuit socks.  My only quibble with the fins is that they seem a bit too long sometimes (when I am situating myself to take a photo, the long fins interfere with my positioning occasionally), but this is a minor quibble. 

In short, the Mares Volo Power fins are terrific, perfect for traveling, powerful enough to get a diver through currents with lots of gear.  They are my first choice for diving fins.

Unfortunately, Air Niugini lost my bag containing a camera housing and my now-favorite fins.  It's been three days, and the bag is officially lost after a week.  I hope that I get my bag and these fins back). 

(Note: I updated this review on 9-2014 and 4-2015 to include my impressions of several more models of fins:

Mares Volo Power
Force Fin
Mares X-Stream
Mares Avanti Quattro+ (Quattro Plus)
Mares Power Plana
and Apollo Biofin Pro with stainless steel straps.
Reviews of these fins are at the beginning and end of this blog entry.

The fins that I rate highest (for speed, light weight, and comfort) are:
Mares Volo Power
Force Fin
Sherwood Elite

I found each of these three fins to be comfortable and I was able to swim laps very quickly with them, with minimal cramping.  I tested the Sherwood Elite and Force Fins while SCUBA diving, and they were powerful enough for SCUBA diving while carrying a DSLR rig with two Ikelite DS-160 flash units.  I have not had the chance to test these fins for their power while diving with a rebreather and bulky underwater video gear, nor with a drysuit.  I did find that the Sherwood Elite fins caused some pain in my knees when swimming, and their foot pocket was a bit stiff and hard.  I found that the Force Fins worked well even in currents, but the open toe design could cause a diver to scrape the top of his foot against rocks or reef.  This can be a big problem; once a diver has a cut or scrape on his foot, it can preclude diving.  I also got tired of people laughing at how fast I was kicking through the water with the Force Fins -- a minor thing, but an irritation. 

Open-Heel Fins: 

Mares Volo Power open-heel fins: 1 lb 7 oz per fin; $164.95 as of 4-15-15; +3 speed rating.  These fins, after a month diving in Papua New Guinea, have become my favorite fins.  I liked these fins as soon as I put them on.  They felt very comfortable on my foot, and struck a nice balance between stiffness and being a bit flexible.  I was able to swim extremely fast on the surface and underwater with these fins.  

The fins are 24" long, which seems an ideal length.  They come with a standard Mares ABS buckle and strap system, rather than the newer bungee straps.  I like these buckles and straps just fine. 

Mares states that all its fins adhere to the same size: if a size Medium fin fits your feet in one Mares fin, it should fit you in another model.  I have found this to largely be true, but still -- each fin fits my foot slightly differently.  This fin's fit was ideal.  It did not encase my entire foot, like the Mares Power Plana and some other models did.  Because my entire foot and heel were not encased, I felt like my calf muscles had more of an affect on my strokes.  When swimming very hard for a long distance with these fins, my calf muscles cramped with these fins.  With other fins where my heel was lower down in the foot pocket, my feet would likely have cramped before my calf muscles.  In short, I felt like I was able to use all my leg and ankle muscles with these fins, because my entire foot was not encased.

After writing the above, I took out the Power Plana and Avanti Quattro Power + fins that I tested recently, and which felt different from this fin.  With these fins, the foot pocket seemed deeper, so that the heel of my foot was completely encased.  I did not like this feature; I felt more restricted in my finning with my entire foot encased inside the fin foot pocket.  Photos at the end of this section confirm my hunch: the foot pocket for these fins is about 8.25"; whereas the Power Plana has a foot pocket of 9" deep and the Avanti Quattro Power + has a foot pocket depth of almost 10 inches!

These fins are near-perfect for me.  I was able to swim very fast with them for a long distance without becoming uncomfortable.  They  were not so stiff as to be cumbersome and ungainly, and the foot pocket was not too deep, so I could use all my leg muscles.  I look forward to trying these on a dive trip for an extended period, with a big camera and rebreather gear to gauge how well they are suited to carrying bulky loads underwater. 

Sherwood open-heel Elite fins; 1 lb 8oz; $99 at scuba.com; +3 speed rating; negatively buoyant; standard fit. I was very impressed with these fins. They are the lightest open-heel fins that I have seen. They were super easy to get used to and were the fastest yet in the water. The foot pocket is a bit hard and narrow. With booties, I started getting foot cramps both times that I tested the fins. My fins came with rubber straps that had nice quick release buckles on them, but were not adjustable. They were a little tight when I wore booties, but when I wore these fins with only Henderson Microprene fin socks, these fins felt pretty good (the hard foot pocket was still hard).

I later used these fins with thicker neoprene socks and with EZ spring straps from Leisurepro. I was pretty happy with this combination (4-15-15 after several dives using somewhat thick Tilos neoprene socks, I am happier with the standard silicone strap that come with these fins, purely because they fit well and comfortably).  These fins are fast, fairly stiff, but I seem to be able to maneuver in them. I like them a lot and may use them for tropical AND fast snorkeling (eg whale sharks, whales) with thicker fin socks (not booties).

The Sherwood Elite fins are among my first three choices for snorkeling and diving in tropical waters, with thicker wetsuit socks or booties.  I look forward to trying a pair of these in size Large, to see how they work with my drysuit.  I like the fact that these fins come with a standard post so I could mount EZ spring straps on them.

The Sherwood Elite fins have what I believe are "standard" post and buckles.  They come with silicone straps.  I found that EZ spring straps from Leisurepro fit these fins just fine.  I also found that spring straps from Scubapro Twin Jet Max fins fit the Sherwood Elite buckles. 

Force Fins: 1 lb 6 oz per fin; retail $229.95, +3 speed rating, very negative (they sink like a rock).  

The Force Fins tied with the Sherwood Elite and Mares Volo Power open-heel fins for my favorite fins.  All three of these fins are extremely light at 1.5 pounds per fin.  The Force Fins are very flexible and fit my feet very well.  Like the Mares Volo Power fins, I liked them as soon as I put them on.  I was able to swim extremely fast with these fins, with no cramps in my calves, feet, or thighs after swimming a number of laps in the pool.  I tested these fins on a recent trip to Socorro, and they were powerful enough for me to swim pretty well underwater with a DSLR camera rig.  Other divers on the trip laughed at me, however, saying that my feet were whirling by like helicopter rotors.

These fins don't look very sexy.  In fact, you will be laughed at if you use these fins.  But the folks who have these on dive trips tend to love them.  I myself have never seriously considered these, but for the purposes of this review, I bought a pair off Ebay to try.  I have to say that I am impressed and that I like them a lot.  They provided plenty of power and speed both when swimming laps as well as when I was SCUBA diving.
The fins are easy to put on and take off.  The Force Fin website has a table that gives foot size and the size of the relevant fin.  I found this table to be spot on.  The length of the Force Fin  is only 17” from foot pocket start to tip of fin. It took me a bit of time to get used to them, but then I could swim very quickly and without feeling effort.  The back of my heel sticks out of the foot pocket about one inch, which was very comfortable.

The only drawback to these fins is that the top of my foot comes out of the foot pocket and is therefore exposed.  I wore neoprene socks with these fins, and I did find that I scraped the top of my foot a couple of times.  Because I was often swimming vigorously with these fins, I needed to take care not to hit my fins and feet on anything.  I need to be a better diver and more aware of where I am kicking with these fins -- a good thing for any diver.
Here's some text about the Force Fins from their website.  This text is about the Pro Force Fin.  To be honest, I don't know if what I bought from Ebay is the standard Force Fin or the Pro Force Fin.  I have to grudgingly agree with everything said on their website about the Force Fins. 
Ranked among the most efficient fins. Preferred by Special Forces and serious fin users. Features Force Fin's toes-free foot pocket that reduces cramping and leverages power from your strongest kicking muscles, for a most efficient kick. Easy to pack. Small, effective blade is the perfect size for turbulent free and fast movement of water. Easy to maneuver.

Orginal review:

You can be forgiven if you think that choosing a pair of fins for scuba diving should be an easy task. I used to think so. After nearly 40 years of diving, I am still learning about what kinds of fins work best for me in different situations. I’ve dove in markedly different environments over the years, ranging from diving under the ice in Antarctica, to the cold temperate waters of northern California, to tropical diving around the world. I've gone from carrying little gear; to SLR housings as a professional underwater photographer; to large 70-pound HDCAM and film housings while wearing a drysuit and using a rebreather.  My diving has ranged from carrying this gear in still, clear tropical waters; diving with double tanks in 150 foot depths with heavy currents while carrying a 70-pound camera housing; to trying to keep up with sperm whales at the surface. I've learned some things along the way that no book or magazine will tell you. 

Every person is different, and fins for diving are perhaps the most personal and difficult choice of gear to get. I can only describe my situation and hope that this review helps other folks figure out what to look for in a diving fin. I got certified at the age of 15, I am in my mid-50s, and I’ve spent the past 25+ years working as a professional underwater photographer. I am short and round, I am in decent shape for swimming and diving, but I am 30 to 40 pounds over my ideal weight. I swim regularly at a local pool (about 1.1 miles every other day) but that has not been enough to combat my bad food habits. I have small feet and short legs compared to giant white males but my feet are wide. I am 5 feet six inches tall, my feet are size 7-1/2 and I prefer New Balance shoes since I can get them in a wide EE size.

It's ridiculously difficult to find important information on fins. One of the criteria for choosing fins is how heavy they are. If two fins are equal in other ways, I would prefer fins that are lighter, purely because I need to minimize the weight of my luggage to avoid excess baggage fees. I was surprised that many manufacturer's websites do NOT list the weight of their fins with their products. For instance, Scubapro has a lineup of very popular fins, but their website does NOT list the weight of their fins (or other specifications such as length of the blade). In order to find the weight of these fins, I had weigh them myself. I couldn't find any website that listed the weight of these fins. For some manufacturer's fins, I could go to the Leisurepro website and dig down to find this information. I did weigh every fin that I personally tested. 

I undertook this review because I wanted to know what the dang fin weighs, see how it fits on a real person, get a sense of how fast or slow it is, and get a sense of how maneuverable the fins are. In the past two years, I spent hundreds of dollars buying fins (on sale) from LeisurePro and searching local dive stores' clearance bins (the stores ranged from my home base in Monterey to as far afield as Bali, Maui, and West Palm Beach). I have tried out and weighed about a dozen pairs of fins, and I've preliminarily settled on about three favorite styles which I will use for various types of trips: classic warm-water coral reef trips where one does a lot of macro photos and needs to maneuver as well as swim in currents; whale and dolphin trips where one needs speed above all else; and cold-water trips (classic diving on reefs only; forget cold-water speed swimming in a drysuit!).

In the past months, as my plan for this review became clearer, I wrote to several diving manufacturers to ask them to supply their best fins for this review. The good folks at Mares, ScubaPro, and Sherwood recognized the value of such an article (as well as my 25-year history in this industry) and supplied me with a few of their models of fins to test. They were quite generous in supplying the gear, and I give them my thanks. Manufacturers who support reviews like this obviously want to get the information out there and realize that they have great products. I wanted to test some of Oceanic and Aqua Lung's fins, but they ignored my requests. This article is a work in progress; I'd welcome trying out just about any fin and if you are a manufacturer who would like their fins included, please contact me.

I've had a few learning experiences over the years, and I would like to share those first. 

When I started working as an underwater photographer, I traveled all over the world to tropical locations. I preferred full foot fins for the beginning of my career. As an underwater photographer, I needed fins that were easy to carry around, were powerful enough to let me photograph while swimming against currents, were light for travel, and let me maneuver easily to get into position underwater. I used Cressi's full foot Free Frog fins during this period. They were relatively light (1 lb 12 oz per fin), fit my feet well, gave me enough power to swim against currents (I was carrying still cameras and strobes, not bulky film housings), and allowed me to maneuver underwater just fine. They held up through years of tropical diving and were a great combination of letting me maneuver around a reef, ease of using them, and powering in strong currents.

Swimming with a bulky HDCAM housing, photos by James Watt
Starting in 2001, I started shooting video underwater with a large, bulky 70-pound housing that had an early Sony HDCAM professional HD camera in it. I then started diving with an Inspiration rebreather. I got certified with this rebreather in Mexico, then did some diving at Cocos Island with my very large HDCAM housing. Until then, I had always done my tropical diving with my trusty Cressi Free Frog full-foot fins.

I discovered, when diving with this rebreather and still camera housings off Cocos Island with my friends Howard Hall and Bob Cranston, that my Cressi full foot Free Frog fins were not capable of giving me enough power to get me through the water with a bulky rebreather on my back. These fins were just barely adequate.

Swimming with a bulky HDCAM housing, photos by James Watt

I later had to keep up with diving officer Doug Kesling and his crew at the University of North Carolina, diving with double tanks at 150 foot depths for long periods, battling strong currents and carrying a large HDCAM housing, using these same Cressi Free Frog fins. It was nearly impossible – the fins just weren't powerful enough. I also caught a ton of flak from the crew of the NOAA research vessel for not having foot protection when walking on deck – they required adequate foot protection when walking on the deck of the boat. Rubber sole booties were barely acceptable, and fin socks were not acceptable. I had to wear booties to cross the deck, jump in the water, take my booties off, and store them in my BC pockets – a huge pain in the butt. I should have just brought some open-heel fins. With the bulk of a rebreather or double tanks, and large video housings, I quickly learned that full foot fins were not powerful enough. I needed to graduate to powerful, open heel fins.  
For these reasons, since I've started carrying heavier and bulkier gear and diving in different situations, I've found that open-heel fins are preferable to full-foot fins in most diving situations, even tropical diving. I have always felt, and still do, that full foot fins (which are shaped to fit a bare foot) offer more speed than open-heel fins (which have larger pockets to fit diving booties with rubber soles). However, when I am walking across the deck of a boat, walking back up a coral rubble beach of Bali, or just getting ready to dive off a small dive tender – open-heel fins make a lot more sense to me now than before. Being able to wear thick neoprene socks or booties to protect my feet in all these situations is a huge plus over having bare feet.

I am not a fan of booties, however. In my late thirties, I had a job filming mangroves in Bonaire using a large film camera. I wore some booties that zipped up the ankle. They were not particularly tight, but they nevertheless caused incredible pain when I was filming mangroves in Bonaire. This had not happened to me before. Just a few months before that, however, I had tried downhill skiing, and wearing the boots for those skis caused me similar incredible, debilitating pain. I believe that my feet widened as I aged and gained weight. Because of the problems with my booties (I had brought only open-heel fins, realizing that I would be tramping through mangroves), I bought some inexpensive snorkeling fins in town. I realized quickly that these fins really, really sucked. I won’t name the brand or model, but these are inexpensive fins marketed toward beginning snorkelers. The moral of the story is that serious divers, who are carrying a great deal of bulky gear on them that creates water resistance, need to find fins that are professional grade. Don’t get fins meant for novice snorkelers at the ABC shop in Maui and expect those fins to work well. These flimsy fins are downright dangerous, since you won’t be able to swim against the slightest current to get back to your boat.

Because my feet are so sensitive to booties that are tight, I use booties that are ankle-high rather than the ones that zip up past the ankle (I prefer neoprene slippers, not booties that are tight and inflexible). I test them before bringing them on any trip, to make sure that they do not constrict my feet. I like the Tilos booties that I have now, but I still get foot cramps and pain when swimming with them. If I can get by without using booties, I much prefer wearing thin neoprene socks, that protect my feet from blisters but don't put any pressure whatsoever on my feet. I've been using Henderson's great Microprene Fin Socks for years and years.

My good friend Douglas Seifert invited me on a trip to swim with sperm whales in Dominica in 2010. I learned, during this trip that involved trying to keep up with pods of whales (and the speedy Douglas!), that open heel fins, with lycra socks under a pair of booties, was the best combination for me in this situation of intense, all-day, frantic swimming. Full foot fins had always worked for me in the past in this situation – even with weeks of swimming with dolphins in the Bahamas Banks in the early days. However, as I aged, I had to take care of my feet more. Now, trying to swim too much with full foot fins, even with a lycra sock, causes a blister almost immediately. Almost nothing is worse than a blister on your foot during a diving trip. It will cause you to sit out the rest of the trip, and so I take great care now to wear Henderson Microprene fin socks (or lycra socks) under booties, along with open-heel fins (not full foot). I discovered the best pair of open-heel fins for this kind of fast snorkeling by doing this review – the surprising light, speedy Sherwood Elite open-heel fins. I discuss these fins in more detail below.

My old Henderson Microprene socks, well-used.  Thanks, Henderson!

I also dive a great deal in cold water. I live on Monterey Bay in California, and the water temperature here ranges from 45 to 55 degrees F. It's cold, and I always wear a drysuit when diving here. Diving in northern California waters was great practice for my diving in Antarctica in 1997 through 2001, and later in 2008 and 2009. I used Cressi full-foot Frog fins for all of my diving in Antarctica in 1997 through 2001. They worked fine but are outdated. In recent years I have used Scubapro Twin Jet split fins (open heel) with my drysuit. I've been happy with the Twin Jet fins. They are floppy, not stiff, but the foot pocket is super-comfortable over my drysuit booties. I have been interested in how these Twin Jet fins compare to other open-heel fins.

Split Fins verus Conventional Fins:
I also wanted to see how split fins compare to conventional fins. We photographers need power sometimes, but we also need our fins to be flexible so that we can position ourselves easily and without throwing up a lot of sand. I have noticed that many divers with split fins swim too close to the bottom for some reason, kicking up clouds of sand behind them.  I have heard that with split fins, divers should use a smaller, more frequent flutter kick for maximum performance.

I mentioned buying fins from dive stores' bargain bins – I likely won't be doing this in the future. I bought a pair of split fins and a pair of conventional fins in the past two years, and they were so bad that I can't use them. One was a split fin, open heel design that has good reviews online. The split fins were stiff. I found that they work fine when swimming laps and sightseeing, but they were so stiff that I could not maneuver with them. With any kind of fin, as a photographer, I need fins that allow me to swim against currents, but just as importantly, I need fins that will accommodate a slow style of drifting and maneuvering. Photographers will swim a bit, notice a subject, then have to turn around or back up using a backwards stroke of the fin. The Scubapro Twin Jet fins allow me to do this; the bargain bin split fins did not.

Some fins are just too stiff and do not work for me in any way. I bought a pair of flourescent green conventional (not split fin) open-heel fins from a local dive store. These were from a very well-known manufacturer of diving fins. Here's what I wrote in my notes: "Tried them in the pool twice over six months to be sure. Seems to give a lot of power and maneuverability but is also a bit stiff, very hard on the knees, when diving with a drysuit. Could not swim with these in the pool, just too heavy and stiff. Worst fins ever, don't name them. Tried swimming underwater with them, a little better but still slow. Very stiff, hurt my knees, did not swim well with them. Size Small fit my feet with booties perfectly" 

About sizing of fins: Most manufacturer's websites and the Leisurepro website list US shoe sizes matched up with sizes Small, Medium, Large, and Extra Large. These tables don't specify if the sizes work if wearing a bootie or drysuit bootie. I have a size small foot (US men's 7.5). I found that with a dive bootie, most fins (Mares, Sherwood Elite, Scubapro Twin Jets) match my shoe size. In other words, my shoe size of 7.5 with a bootie corresponds to a size small open-heel fin for most fins. My drysuit booties are much larger than my wetsuit booties, and fins that are another size or even two sizes up work with my drysuit (eg size Medium or Large in the Scubapro Twin Jets work with my drysuit booties).

How the fins fit is obviously extremely important.  My size 7.5 foot in a bootie or thick neoprene sock would fit in most fins that are called size Small by the manufacturer.  Some fins are sized larger, so that a size small for them might be a size Medium  for others.  For instance, I found the Sherwood Elite fins size Small to fit my feet with booties just fine.  The Apollo fins in size Medium were way too big for my feet with booties, and in my opinion should be called size Large.  I have noted if fins are a "standard" fit or oversized. 

Spring Straps versus Rubber Straps:
Some fins have posts on them which allow you to put on stainless steel spring straps instead of rubber straps. I like these steel spring straps, and I commend those manufacturers who make them and who make their fins with the post, thereby making it easy for divers to put in after-market spring straps. For instance, the Sherwood Elite fins come with their own rubber straps and with the proper type of post to mount other straps on them. I was able to put on EZ Spring straps (from leisurepro.com) which I preferred over their stock rubber straps. Scubapro's fins do NOT have these posts, but their stainless steel spring straps (from their Twin Jet Max fins) could fit into the Sherwood Elite fins since they had the same size buckle (which goes over the post). The Atomic's buckle arrangement does sort of fit onto the “standard” post of the Sherwoods but not well or elegantly. Atomic fins have a one-off arrangement where the entire buckle comes off, not a quick release.

Testing fins:
These tests are largely subjective, but I did try to test the fins consistently. I discovered a pool close to the Monterey area where I was able to swim laps consistently in the past year. After a couple months of swimming a standard routine (three sets of 400 yards using exercise fins, and two sets of 400 yards swimming underwater and using the crawl stroke), I felt that I was in decent shape and would not get much faster. For my normal swimming with fins, I used a pair of “Pod” fins, which are simple fins used for exercise and boogie-boarding (also called bodyboarding). These are short-bladed fins made of stiff rubber.

I tested each pair of fins two or three times. I swam a quarter mile with the Pod fins first to warm up, then swam a quarter mile with the test fins, timing myself. I strived to be as consistent as possible when swimming; but in the end, the times with the fins are subjective. I rate the fins as 0, +1, +2, or -1; with “0” based on swimming times with the Pod fins. Please keep in mind that body shape and height is likely a large factor in how fins work for each person. I am a short, round guy who is not particularly athletic but nevertheless has fairly strong legs. If you are a tall, slim, collegiate swimmer, then the fins that work best for me may not work well for you. Taller folks might prefer fins that are longer than the ones that worked well for me. 

I tested all these fins using the flutter kick, swimming on the surface, holding onto a swimming float, and kicking my legs up and down.  I then swam underwater with the fins, sometimes stopping underwater and trying to swim backwards a bit.  I did not test the fins using the frog kick, which is a kick I use often underwater.

My friend Alan Studley mentions: 
You didn't mention the Cave kick, which is a modified frog kick...I mention the Cave kick because it is very efficient for long swims. I can go for hours without low back pain.
In my recent course, I mentioned the efficiency of the Cave kick to a student who was large and the same height as me. He was always lagging behind with his traditional Flutter kick. So the second day he tried the Cave Kick and was keeping up with me and with much less effort.  Cave kickers usually use a Stiff blade fin vs Splits. I've used the Atomic Split and they work fine when Cave Kicking.

I did find that some fins just didn't work well for me at all. I have purposely declined to name these fins and their makers by name. I have found that folks in the diving industry don't take criticism well. This attitude is regrettable – enlightened makers of dive gear should welcome honest and constructive criticism of their gear. Fortunately, most divers and photographers like my reviews a great deal because they are honest and informative.

Here's a listing of the fins that I have tested to date, including the weight per single fin, price (at leisurepro.com unless otherwise stated); speed rating (based on time to swim a quarter mile); buoyancy; how the fins fit; and miscellaneous observations.

Pod bodyboarding fins; 1 lb 5 oz; $40 at an Oahu North Shore surf shop; +0 (baseline) speed rating; positive buoyancy; standard fit; these are considered “beginners bodyboarding fins and are good for exercise swimming because they are not too stiff." I discuss bodyboarding fins in another blog post. These fins float, which is a good thing for surfing but a bad thing for diving. I always prefer fins to sink rather than float, so that I can place them on the seafloor if needed and count on them to stay there.  From http://www.churchillfinsreview.com/what-are-the-best-bodyboarding-fins-to-buy/ : Smaller training fins provide resistance without overloading joints, ligaments and tendons. They also help shift effort to the foot, increasing leg strength by encouraging propulsion with a leg kick in the form of a pedaling motion that’s the same as a flutter kick without a fin.

Open-Heel Fins: 

ScubaPro Twin Jet open-heel Split Fins in black; 2 lb 0 oz; $169; -1 speed rating (slower than baseline); standard fit. I've had a pair of these fins in gray, size Large, for several years. I use them with my drysuit; they are extremely comfortable. They let me swim around in my drysuit without creating pains in my knees. My feeling prior to testing these is that they were comfortable but a bit slow, and my testing bears this out. I tested the Medium size, which were a bit large for my foot in a bootie. Swimming with these is slow but very pleasant. I felt like I was hardly using any effort, but I was still tired after swimming 400 yards. One strange thing is that my thighs cramped up almost as soon as I started moving around in these fins, something which did not happen with any other fins so far. Seems to give enough power and is very maneuverable. Very comfortable to put on and wear. The rubber strap with the quick-snap buckle system has worked well for me for years.
These fins came with traditional adjustable rubber straps, but I can see that there are stainless steel straps that fit the buckles on these Twin Jets. 

The buckle on the Twin Jet fins are non-standard.  There are no posts, so you can't add "standard" spring straps from other companies.  I have seen spring straps made specifically to fit Twin Jet fins.

These fins were black in color. Back in 2001, Sergio Angelini, a longtime star engineer, designer, and executive in the diving industry (who has helped me a great deal over the years – thanks Sergio!) gave me some Twin Jet fins, which were brand new at the time. Here's what he wrote, “I am sending you out two sets of fins. There is a soft version (blue or grey...) and a stiff version (black). Typically, people not used to the split fin technology will immediately love the black, and maybe be perplexed by the soft version. But once you get used to them, the soft ones are better: faster, more efficient, more comfortable. Some people use the black for cold water diving with lots of gear that causes drag, and the soft ones in warm water. I myself use the soft ones, and I dive with drysuit, pony bottle strapped to the front left, 3 big lights strapped to the front right, and we have very big currents ....  Both pairs will be size L, which will definitely fit over your drysuit.

“Of the Three Colors, the Black Fins are the most Rigid and offer a more traditional fin experience. The Black Fins are slightly negatively buoyant. The Blue Fins model is made of a more buoyant and flexible compound than the black models. This allows you to achieve the most Bang-for-your-Kicking Buck. These fins are slightly positively buoyant. The Yellow Fin option is made of a compound similar to the Blue model, but offers the greatest opportunity for you to be seen underwater. The Yellow fins are slightly positively buoyant.”

This Twin Jet fin is size Large.  It is much too large for my normal dive bootie, but it fits my drysuit bootie just fine.  I consider these fins to be normal in terms of standard sizes, meaning a size small would probably be appropriate for my foot in a dive bootie. 

I checked with Scubapro.  They no longer make the gray version, but still make the yellow and blue colors.  These fins are indeed more flexible, if the above comments still apply. I do a lot of shark diving trips, where the leaders of the trips only allow all-black or all-dark diving gear – so using fins that are yellow or have bright colors is not a good option. On the other hand, long, bright yellow fins make a good signaling device when you are in the middle of the open ocean (say, at Cocos Island) and drifting away from the dive tender or mother ship.

Scubapro Twin Jet Max open-heel Split Fins; 2 lb 8 oz per fin; $189; -0.5 speed rating (slower than baseline); standard fit. These are a stiffer version of the Twin Jet series. They came in a nice mesh bag, with super-comfortable stainless steel straps. The size Mediums were just a bit large for my feet with booties; they fit my drysuit booties well. A pair of these fins will weigh 5 pounds, which is a fair amount of weight for fins (in comparison, a pair of Sherwood Elite fins, size Small, would weigh only 3 pounds). Swimming with these fins felt effortless, but fairly slow, coming in at 10 seconds slower than my standard Pod fins. Given the weight difference and my sense that these stiffer split fins won't maneuver as well, I'd choose the older Twin Jet fins over these for drysuit diving.

The Twin Jet Max fins do offer what look like standard posts to attach spring straps from other companies.  However, the posts were just slightly too large to fit the EZ spring straps that I bought from Leisurepro.  The Twin Jet Max fins did come with their own spring straps, which I could use on the Sherwood Elite fins because the buckles --not the posts -- fit together. 

Atomic open-heel split fins: 2 lb 7 oz per fin; $209; +1 speed rating; positively buoyant; standard fit.  Upon first seeing these fins, I expected them to be slow.  I was wrong.  They are pretty heavy out of the water (a pair of fins will weigh almost 5 pounds); but once in the water, they are comfortable and pretty fast.  Here are my notes after using them a couple of times: I really liked these after trying them.  Pretty fast, powerful, and maneuverable. 

The post for a strap on the Atomic fins looks like a standard one -- but it is not...I was not able to put an EZ spring strap on the fin. 

Full Foot Fins:

Mares Plana Avanti Quattro Power full foot fin; 2 lb 2 oz; $144; +2.5 speed rating; negative buoyancy. I tested these twice over six months. These are long, heavy full foot fins. The fins are 29" long, and the size 8-9 fit me pretty well (just slightly large) with lycra socks. These fins are great, although heavy and stiff, for tropical diving. They are fast and powerful. Using these fins gave me foot cramps when I tried them first, but I did not get much discomfort when trying them again six months later. I was able to shave 20 seconds off the normal time with the Avanti Quattro Power fins and it would have been even more time (faster) if I did not have to turn around at the ends of the pools each lap. I found the fins to be extremely fast and powerful, but also very tiring to use. Someone who has longer and more powerful legs than me will love these fins.

Cressi Free Frog full-foot fins; 1 lb 12 oz; $34 at scubastore.com; +1 speed rating; negative buoyancy; fins are 25 inches long and fairly flexible. Using the Free Frog fins, I was able to go slightly faster that I was with the Pod fins. It took a bit longer to get moving, but once I got moving, I moved slightly faster. My legs felt more tired. Part of this was due to the bad fit of the Free Frog fins; they were not tight on my feet. These full foot fins can be hard to get on and off quickly. After using the longer fins, using the Pod fins almost felt like I had nothing on, and that they were not doing anything. These fins have been around a long time and I used them with success for years. However, I'd recommend newer models of full-foot fins rather than buying these, even though the price is low.

Atomic full-foot Split fins; 1 lb 7 oz; $89; +2 speed rating. The Atomic full foot split fins were very stiff, but good after I got used to them. It took a while to get up to speed, but then they were fast and efficient. Divers interested in ordering these fins should order a size up. I ordered a size 7.5-8 but the fins were a bit too tight for my feet. I'd like to try a size up with lycra socks, and to re-measure my swimming time with these fins.

Mystery Brand Split Fins that I Do NOT recommend:

I've bought two sets of fins by known, famous manufacturers from the bargain bins of dive stores.  Here's a pair of fins that I will be putting in the trash.  I bought these in a dive shop in West Palm Beach.  They allowed me to swim in a straight line, but they were absolute impossible to use when I was underwater and trying to maneuver.  I have never used any fins that were so problematic underwater.  I've covered the name of the fins so the manufacturer doesn't take offense at this post.  Sorry, these fins just did not work for me. 

Mystery split fins -- these would not allow me to manuever underwater at all. 

Mystery” flourescent green open-heel fins from a famous brand; $40 at Bamboo Reef's clearance bin; could not finish 400 yards with these; negative buoyancy; standard fit. These fins came in a size Small, which fit my foot in booties just fine. I had high hopes for them. Unfortunately, they just weren't for me. My notes: Seems to give a lot of power and maneuverability but is also a bit stiff, hard on the knees, when diving with a drysuit. could not swim with these in the pool, just too heavy and stiff. Worst fins ever, don't name them. Tried swimming underwater with them, a little better but still slow. Had a bad experience using them with drysuit in Channel Islands. Very stiff, hurt my knees, did not swim well with them.

Reviewed after 9-1-2014: 

Apollo Biofin Pro with stainless steel straps; 3 lb 2 oz per fin; $200 or so; +1 speed rating; oversized by one size (+1). I have a pair of these fins in size Medium. The size Medium is pretty big – too big for using in a wetsuit bootie.  Be careful when buying these fins as they are oversized.  These are heavy fins.  I’ve used them for a bit of diving in the tropics but the weight is too much for me to travel with.  They've therefore been sitting in my garage for several years. 

 Apollo does offer a stainless steel strap for these fins, but it attaches using screws on the fin -- a proprietary attachment.  You therefore can't use other companies' spring straps on these fins nor can you use the spring straps on other fins.
Note the stainless steel strap uses a proprietary attachment. 

The Apollo fins are oversize -- these are size Medium and are equivalent to most size Large fins. 
For this review, I swam a few laps with them to confirm my earlier thoughts.  They are fast, they are maneuverable, and they are heavy.  If you want power, speed, and the ease of swimming that comes with a splitfin, then these fit the bill – but the Atomic splitfins are just as powerful, fast and maneuverable, and they weigh less.  I’d go with the Atomic splitfins over these heavy suckers.  

 In summary: The Apollo fins are oversize -- their size Mediums are equivalent to size Large fins from other companies.  They are the heaviest fins around.
was lower down in the foot pocket, my feet would likely have cramped before my calf muscles.  In short, I felt like I was able to use all my leg and ankle muscles with these fins, because my entire foot was not encased. 
After writing the above, I took out the Power Plana and Avanti Quattro Power + fins that I tested recently, and which felt different from this fin.  With these fins, the foot pocket seemed deeper, so that the heel of my foot was completely encased.  I did not like this feature; I felt more restricted in my finning with my entire foot encased inside the fin foot pocket.  Photos at the end of this section confirm my hunch: the foot pocket for these fins is about 8.25"; whereas the Power Plana has a foot pocket of 9" deep and the Avanti Quattro Power + has a foot pocket depth of almost 10 inches! 

Mares X-Stream open-heel fins: 1 lb 10 oz per fin; $180 as of 9-2014; +0 speed rating.
These fins look great on the web and in photographs.  They have a cool name also.  I understand that they are very popular with many divers.  However, I am sorry to say that I was not overly impressed with these fins.  They are fairly light fins, but I found them to be fairly slow to swim with.   I felt that they would not provide me with enough power once I was carrying even a small scuba diving load. 

These fins are about 22.5" long, and they have the standard Mares ABS buckle system with a rubber (or perhaps it is silicone) strap.
After testing these a second time, I found that the foot pocket is deep at 9.5 inches -- covering my entire foot past the heel.  I prefer foot pockets that are not as deep. 

Mares Avanti Quattro+ (Plus) open-heel fins; 1 lb 15 oz per fin; $130 on Leisurepro (Amazon as of 4-10-15 has this fin paired with a free mask at the same price!); +1.5 speed rating.

These are long, powerful, stiff fins. They might be ideal for divers carrying heavy cameras and wearing rebreathers.  I should state that my tests of fins just involves swimming laps on the surface of a pool, without a load.  Few divers are going to use their fins to try to swim 400 yards quickly.  Instead, they may need more power from their fins intermittently, rather than feeling comfortable swimming quickly for a long distance.  These fins might be perfect in such instances.  I look forward to trying them along with my favorites on a diving trip.

These fins use the new Mare bungee strap.  From the Mares description: "The buckle system has also been replaced with a bungee strap for easy donning and removal of the strap and fins from the foot."

I found the bungee strap to work fine.  I liked the older ABS buckle system just fine too. 

Mares Power Plana open-heel fins: 3 lb per fin; $143.95; +0 speed rating; negative buoyancy.
These fins are Mares' answer for divers who still use Scubapro Jet fins, which have been around for as long as I remember.  They are made of rubber and are very heavy at 3 pounds per fin.  They feel good in the water, but I did not like the wide foot pocket, which covered my entire foot past the heel.

These fins use the new Mare bungee strap.  These Power Plana fins are incredibly heavy and are average in speed.  They are obviously powerful fins, and are likely suited  for tech divers and cave divers.   Two folks who are expert divers have recommended these fins highly.  They are therefore worth a look although they are too heavy for me.  

Note on Mares foot pocket depth: 

I noticed that I felt that the foot pocket in the Mares Avanti Quattro+ and Mares Power Plana seemed to be deeper than the Mares Volo Power open-heel fins.  With these fins, the foot pocket seemed deeper, so that the heel of my foot was completely encased.  I did not like this feature; I felt more restricted in my finning with my entire foot encased inside the fin foot pocket.  Photos here confirm my hunch: the foot pocket for the Mares Volo Power fin is about 8.25"; whereas the Power Plana has a foot pocket of 9" deep and the Avanti Quattro Power + has a foot pocket depth of almost 10 inches! 


To come:

Scubapro Nova Seawing open-heel Split Fins; 2 lb 2 oz per fin in size L; $139; speed rating to be tested; standard size.  

Weekly Series Number Nine: Photographs of Big Waves on the North Shore

I've always been amazed by photographs of big waves and surf.

Back in 2003, my friend Jim Watt learned about my interest in photographing big waves, and invited me to join him on the North Shore of Oahu to photograph big waves breaking in Waimea Bay.  He had gone there a few times before and worked out the right times to be there to see big waves.  Like all good surfers, Jimmie followed weather, buoy, and tide reports, and gave me a ring when he figured it was a good time to come out.  My assistant at the time, Mike Ready, and I flew out to Oahu and met Jim (thanks Jim, we had some good times and you were so generous with your time and conversations). 

I've been to Oahu before but had not spent much time on the North Shore, other than consuming the famous shaved ices at Matsumoto's, in the surf and North Shore town of Haleiwa.  There are no "big" or "name brand" hotels on the North Shore.  It's about an hour drive from Honolulu, and even now, the North Shore feels much more peaceful and countrified than the city of Honolulu.   That's a plus, but everything has both advantages and disadvantages.

One disadvantage was that we had no choice but to stay in a flea-ridden, seemingly dangerous set of shacks near Waimea Bay.  I think it was called "Surfers Paradise"; it was not expensive, but it was not a desirable place either.  Rumors abounded of an Italian photographer who had spent the past three months there, photographing surf and surfers, and had just days before had all his camera gear and even worse -- his entire bag of exposed film -- stolen.  If there were bedbugs anywhere, then this place would have had bedbugs. We were careful not to show off our camera gear and managed to get some sleep.  By the way, the Foodland grocery store on the North Shore is nothing short of a miraculous paradise of food and custom-made sandwiches. And the North Shore itself is incredible -- just a few short miles of beach, usually not too crowded, a small road going through it -- boasting the names of a dozen world famous surf spots. 

As it turned out, I got a few decent shots from that trip, but nothing spectacular.  I realized that if I really wanted to get good wave shots, I'd need to rent a room and spend more than a few days there.   In November and December of 2008, I rented a two bedroom condo in the town of Wailua on the North Shore from Tom Walsh, the brother of my good friend Dan Walsh (thanks for putting up with me, Tom).  This condo was on the seventh floor of a drab building in an area nicknamed "Concrete City."  The entire area was depressing -- but convenient to all the famed surf spots of the North Shore.  My living room was pleasant, with a view of the ocean and a nice breeze.  Luckily Tom had loaned me a futon to sleep on.  My friend Eric Cheng visited, I put him in the furniture-less, view-less back bedroom, and he did not bat an eye.  That guy can put up with anything.  I'd like to tie him up to a chair and take away anything computer or smartphone related, though, and then see him sweat! 

Oh, by the way, once you are near Waimea Bay, photographing the waves could not be easier.   Dozens of photographers, on days that the swell and weather is right, will gather on the north side of the road that passes Waimea Bay.  It could not be easier; you just have to get the timing right.  You are NOT in the water -- you are on a hill overlooking Waimea Bay, shooting the waves with a long lens.  Starting at sunrise, the sun will light up the waves dramatically.  I like shooting waves from the water, but there's no effing way I was going anywhere near big waves in Waimea or anywhere else.  I am not stupid; like Clint Eastwood says, "a man has to know his limitations."  

In 2008 and before, I knew, without a doubt, that my office and my agents would license the resulting wave images and eventually make a profit.  I just needed to put in the time and money, and be reasonable with my expenses.  I did not stay in the Turtle Bay Hilton at $400 per night; I rented a condo for two months for $2400 or something like that.  I did not rent a convertible Mustang to drive around in; I rented a cheap compact from some place called "Car Rent 4 Less."

I did not care that there were thousands and thousands of surf and wave shots already out there, many looking exactly like the ones I was going to shoot.  A big part of the business was and still is simply getting the images into distribution.  I was right; the resulting images have sold repeatedly, and I've made a profit on that particular trip.   Of course, that was not the real reason I went out there.  Being able to spend two months on the North Shore of Oahu, and justifying it financially, was very cool...and fun. 

I am sorry to say, though, that I can no longer depend on traveling to a place, taking great images, creating a photo story, and eventually making a profit on the resulting images.  The business has changed completely.  Just about all of my old magazine and book clients are gone.

Oh well.  The surf has been up at my local beach the past week, and I had two epic days of bodyboarding in the cold waters here.  I am always amazed at the big wave surfers that I saw in the North Shore and around California -- my limit is probably 6 or 8 foot waves.  I get plenty scared, with good reason, around even those relatively small waves.

How to CANCEL Your Verizon Service on an Ipad, Without DELETING Your Account

This article will be helpful if you have an iPad with Verizon modem and am having trouble trying to suspend your monthly service with them.  I have an iPad3 with Verizon modem and just figured out how to suspend my service when given only the option on my iPad to DELETE the account -- a big no no if you want to keep your life easy.  

Short story -- if you can only DELETE your account on your iPad, then don't do it!  Go online to verizonwireless.com, log in with your iPad phone number and password, register, and then cancel/suspend your account on the Verizon website.

Update 3-15-15: 

Verizon now states when you suspend their service:

*Continue to use your data plan until it expires or you use all of your data, whichever comes first.

  *Your plan will no longer automatically renew at the end of the month.

  *After 4 months of inactivity, your account will be deleted from Verizon Wireless.


Note that Verizon will now burn your SIM card if you do not use it for four months, rather than the five months that it used to be. 

Update 4-27-16: 

Perhaps Verizon has fixed this problem in a bid to be more customer-friendly.  Today I tried starting up my iPad 3 with a Verizon SIM card that I had not used for 10 months or so.  I fully expected that the SIM card would be burned.  Instead, when I went to Settings-->Cellular Data and View Account, I was taken to a page that offered me a free 500Mb trial of Verizon cellular data for my Ipad.  I clicked through, and received the free trial as per this screen.  Verizon did not even ask for a credit card.  Wow.  Perhaps enough folks have complained to Verizon about the problem described here that they fixed the problem.  Maybe Verizon has lost enough customers and is finally starting to be nicer to their customers.  One can only hope.  


OK, here's the original post from August 2014:

When I tried to suspend my Verizon data on my iPad, I was given ONLY the one choice to Delete Account Now.  Doing this would cause a lot of problems down the line.  To suspend your Verizon account, go to your account at verizonwireless.com, where you will have that option.  Why Verizon only gives you the BAD option above of Delete Account Now is probably because it wants to sneakily make money by forcing iPad customers to buy their SIMs at a store and put them on postpaid, rather than prepaid, data plans, which involve charges for the new SIM, activation fees, 2-year contracts, early termination fees, etc.  A big part of the reason that I bought an iPad rather than an iPhone was so I could just use my iPad on months that I needed it, rather than being committed to a long-term contract.  Verizon is duplicitously trying to fool customers into "burning" their SIM and thus not being able to suspend and then start up their prepaid accounts later.  SNEAKY and downright dishonest! 

Read on if you want to learn the details of this problem: 

Verizon is appallingly sneaky, downright duplicitous. If you read various forums, you will find many folks like me who bought an iPad 3 or higher, with Verizon service, because Verizon allows folks with iPads to use their iPad as a wifi hotspot at no extra charge. The other promises from Verizon were that you could buy their data for a month at a time, could cancel your account anytime with no penalty, and there would be no activation fees.

You would never think to ask that if you chose not to use Verizon data on your iPad for a few months, that Verizon would inactivate (“burn”) your SIM card and then refuse to give you a new card unless you paid for it (and got involved in other costly complications, such as being forced to enroll in a postpaid plan that involves a two-year commitment, charges activation fees, etc).

I was happy as a clam when I first got my iPad3 with Verizon modem. I could use this in my summer home in Washington state and when traveling; and I could set up the iPad3 as a wifi hotspot, so I could compose emails and surf the internet on my laptop as usual.

Then I went home for several months and did not need to use the Verizon access on my iPad. When I tried to start up Verizon service again – I was unable to. My SIM card had been burned because I had not started up the Verizon service for more than 4 months.   The problem is described in many forums.  My favorite is MacMaven, who ended up suing Apple for these problems in small-claims court and won.


After reading these forums, I was going to buy a Verizon SIM on Ebay for $8 to solve the problem of my SIM being deactivated, but instead I happened to visit an Apple Genius Bar with this and a MacBook problem. The Apple Genius gave me a new Verizon SIM card at no charge, and I was set to go again. Great! I signed up for a month of data recently, the iPad and Verizon modem worked great in Washington state and when I was traveling, and I was literally a happy camper.

But I was careful. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice – not happening, at least this time. I used my Nikon camera to take photos of each Verizon screen that came up when I started up my subscription. Here are the screens that come up when you sign up for a month of Verizon data:

Tonight, I noticed that Verizon had charged my credit card a $35 activation fee (sneaky, they charged this on 8-18, 25 days after my first charge for 2Gb of data!). This is patent bullshit, incredibly fraudulent.

Verizon's own website states clearly that for tablet data plans, there are no activation fees!  Here's a screen grab from today, 8-20-14:

 I also quote from a CNET article:
That said, Verizon charges a $35 activation fee when you sign up for service. But this fee is waived if you activate your device using a credit card and pre-pay for the monthly service, according to a Verizon spokeswoman.”

Now suspicious and annoyed, I  decided to cancel my month of data a few days early, just to be sure that I would not be charged for another month of service that I did not need.  I show the screen grabs below.  All of you iPad Verizon users, take notice of what these screens say, and DO NOT choose the option "DELETE YOUR ACCOUNT"!!!

I had read this forum before, and so I was very careful when I saw only a DELETE ACCOUNT option.  Here's a discussion:


When you suspend your prepaid account you choose the DELETE LATER option.
This will stop automatic billing of you credit card and let you continue to use the remaining data you have paid for.
There will be a caption message that read ( after 5 months of inactivity your prepaid account will be deleted.
So be sure and use it at least every 5 months.

Now once your automatic billing has been suspended. If you go back to managing your account settings you will see that he only option you have concerning your account is    DELETE NOW
DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT  EVER CLICK ON DELETE ACCOUNT NOW . It will cancel your SIM card and you will have to go to the verizon store o get a new SIM card with a new phone number.

So when it comes managing you prepaid plan always when given an option choose DELETER LATER.If not given two  options ,then do nothing.
If you are only given one  option then do nothing for you credit card is not set for automatic bllling. [I disagree with this statement from the forum; I was given only one option and it was obvious that Verizon was going to keep billing me automatically!]

Here are the screens that appeared when I attempted to cancel/suspend my Verizon account on my iPad: 

Note that the ONLY option that Verizon gives on the iPad3 when you are trying to stop your month-to-month service now seems to be DELETE ACCOUNT.  There seems to be no way to simply cancel or suspend your account for a few months, then to restart it (see below for the solution that I eventually found).

I believe that Verizon is trying to fool its customers.  It is not offering the ability to suspend its monthly prepaid data plans on iPads, but instead only offers the option to nuke your SIM card.  This way, Verizon forces the customer to go to their stores to buy a new  iPad SIM card and to be sold into a postpaid plan that involves 2-year contracts, early termination fees, activation fees, etc.  It's downright fraudulent. 

I'll repeat -- I could not get the option to suspend or cancel my prepaid data plan with Verizon on my iPad.  I could ONLY get the option to DELETE the account.  DO NOT choose "DELETE YOUR ACCOUNT. " You will then have to go back to Apple or Verizon and ask for another SIM card.  Verizon will try to charge you all kinds of fees at this point, according to my experience and the collective experience that you can read about in forums.  Most Apple staff will not be able to help you. 

Here's the solution that I found:
I noticed in the legal language above, that the legalese presented when I started up my prepaid plan stated "If you are unable to log in from your device, visit verizonwireless.com and log into your My Prepaid account to cancel service."  I went to the site, entered my Verizon ipad phone number and password, selected an image, and entered my account.  My account details were there.  I was able to CANCEL, not DELETE, my Verizon iPad account.  Success!

Now I just have to deal with Verizon and my credit card company tomorrow to get that fraudulent, duplicitous, sneaky $35 activation charge removed.  This is how unethical companies are making money these days.  They sneak fraudulent charges onto a credit card hoping a customer won't notice.  There's no penalty to them when they get caught, and they waste the customer's time.