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Exposure suits for SCUBA - by Lenica

Exposure suits are the main ingredient for your personal comfort
at all times in the water. Mainly they keep you warm which is important since w
ater conducts your body heat away from you ~20 times faster than air. Every dive
r is different in their preferences of suits. From my experiences women get cold
er a lot quicker than men and thus require more protection i.e. thicker suits. T
he same goes for very skinny people. If you're a skinny woman like me you will p
robably always freeze unless you get at least a well fitting 5mm suit for tropic
s and a semi-dry or dry suit for anything else. Guys can usually do with a lot l
ess. A general trend can be seen when divers get more and more experienced, they
need more protection because they get more relaxed in the water making them fee
l cold sooner.
Wet suits are made of neoprene, a material that is water tight a
nd compressible. It comes in different thicknesses which insulate the body. The
thicker the suit, the warmer you stay. They are called wet suits because you do
get wet, so water enters the suit, but the flow rate at which this water passes
by the body and thus transports heat away from you is greatly reduced by the tig
htness of the suit. It is evident that a suit that is baggy will not perform thi
s task very well, because it would let a lot of water rush by your body constant
ly. Suits that don't cover parts of your body such as shorties obviously don't p
rotect those areas and are thus less warm.
Some wetsuits are made to be worn layered for colder waters. Thi
s reduces the amount of water passing by your body even more, keeping you warmer
. The draw backs of thick suits or multi-layer suits is that with increased neop
rene you also increase buoyancy and reduce freedom of movement. These can make d
iving somewhat of a challenge, especially if not used to this kind of wear. I ad
vise all of my students who learn in tropical or warm waters wearing only shorti
es to expect a learning curve when diving in colder waters.
If you are not an average person concerning body weight or heigh
t you may not be able to find a suit that fits off the shelf. While it may seem
like it won't matter much, if it's a bit baggy around the sholders, or doesn't q
uite fit here or there, you might be better off getting one custom made. There a
re companies that make them for relatively good prices (not at all much more tha
n an off the shelf one - try sepadiver.com for example) and getting a good fitti
ng 5mm can be warmer than a poorly fitting 7mm, so it might just save you some e
xtra buoyancy and give you more comfort in the water.
Personally I'm a big fan of (custom made) two-piece suits like t
hey use for free-diving because they give me an extra layer of neoprene around t
he torso to keep me super warm, but don't add all that much extra buoyancy. I li
ke custom made because everything from the shelf is either too short or too wide
to fit me well. Two piece suits are very comfortable to me and give excellent f
reedom of movement. I'm also a big fan of hoods - they keep the long hair out of
the mask straps and out of the face and they keep my head warm, preventing head
aches and the loss of well needed energy.
All neoprene suits compress with the depth of your dive due to t
he increase in water pressure. This makes them lose buoyancy and insulation capa
city. The deeper you go, the colder you will get, regardless of actual water tem
perature. Compensating for buoyancy loss is one of the key skills in diving. If
you've learned diving only in a 3mm shorty or full suit, you might find diving w
ith a 7mm plus ice vest a bit tedious in the beginning, since the buoyancy chang
e is much more dramatic in the latter.
Semi-dry suits are neoprene wet suits that use dry seals (i.e. u
nlined neoprene that seals off with your skin) on the wrists, ankles and face or
neck. They should also have a sealed zip. The seals are not meant to prevent an
y water from entering but simply limiting the flow even more than a regular wets
uit would.
A good tip for people who have custom made suits or suits that f
it very snugly and hence are hard to get on: Use bio degradeable soap with water

to get in. This will make the suit slippery and you can slip right in.
Dry suits are like semi-dry suits - with seals around the wrists
and the neck and with socks or boots integrated in the suits. Dry suits are mea
nt to be completely dry; the zipper is also sealed. The seals are usually made o
f either latex or neoprene. Though easier to break latex seals seem to preform b
etter. In order to get into the seals you can use talcum powder.
The suits themselves can be made of neoprene or a membrane called trilam
inate. Neoprene offers some insulation from the cold while "trilam" doesn't, how
ever trilam suits don't change in buoyancy while neoprene suits do. This means t
hat once the right amount of weights are found for the trilam suit you will have
to do a lot less buoyancy compensation under water. With both suits you usually
wear some kind of under-suit or clothes to insulate you against the colder wate
r temperatures.
Dry suits are only moderately suitable for tropical climates, ma
inly because of the time outside of the water in which divers in dry suits could
easily overheat. Depending on how fast you get cold, you might want to use a dr
y suit at water temperatures below 24C already - I do.
It makes a lot of sense to have someone show you how to use a dr
y suit, or to try it in a very controled environment. Dry suits are a bit differ
ent in handling and there's a few tricks you need to know when you use one, befo
re you can feel confident in the water with them. For example air can collect in
your feet making your position akward and making it very difficult to get rid o
f the air again for proper buoyancy control. Additional ankle weights or heavier
fins can be considered, but sometimes it's just a matter of getting used to it
and adjusting body position and buoyancy control of the suit appropriately. Thes
e things take a bit of practice and tweaking to get right.