August 10th, 2006
Split fins have recently taken the dive industry by storm. These untraditional fins may look a bit strange at first, but once you think about it, nature itself produces such forms to propel animals through the water. As human engineering adopts what nature perfects, consumers are granted more choices.
A little background: Traditional fins, or ‘paddle fins’ as they’re commonly called, have been in use for a long time. The reason there has been little evolution in terms of shape is because of the historically disproportionate use of fins in warmer waters. As exposure suit technology has improved over the years, more and more people have been finding themselves needing some propulsion power in the chillier waters of the North. Also a byproduct of a thicker/larger suit and more equipment is more drag. Thus arises the need for a fin that doesn’t require an Olympic deadlifter’s quadriceps for use. That’s right, split fins are designed to give you the same propulsive power over a greater number of kick cycles, which in turn requires a fraction of the muscle power needed to complete kicks with paddle fins.
Newer is not necessarily better. I’m a firm believer that there exists a need for both types of fins, split fins and paddle fins. I love my Mares Plana Avanti Quattros, the workhorse of the tropical dive industry. Others swear by the ScubaPro Jet fins. Both of these models require some extra effort for long-distance swims, but for maneuverability – the split fins can only vie for second place. A twitch of the big toe can rotate you around to snap a photo of that elusive mandarin fish, flitting about amongst the staghorn coral. Yet, diving in a drysuit and doing long surface swims compelled me to find a more suitable fin for the long-term. As I’ve come to appreciate the colder waters a bit more, and perhaps become lazier, I’ve also begun to appreciate split fins as well.
I started out with the lightweight ScubaPro Twin Speed fins. I have the full foot variety for bringing on dive trips in the warm waters, where packing light pays off. They’re great for snorkeling in-between dives and are very comfortable, due to the ultra-soft foot pockets. Though I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here about full foot fins, I’ll say that I’ve used quite a few pairs of rental fins of this type, and they can be extremely annoying if they don’t fit your foot well. This includes areas that rub your ankle/heel. A nuisance in the beginning, this can turn into a sore a few days into a dive vacation that detracts from your overall enjoyment. So, when picking any full foot fin, pay attention to minor pinches and areas that rub. That’s just my 2 psi.
For more utility, you might want to look into the ScubaPro Twin Jets, which are used around the world by underwater film crews and commercial divers who spend many hours in the water. These are very easy on the legs. On the downside, I’ve found them to be particularly hard to maneuver in tight areas where it’s important to avoid stirring up the silty bottom (swimthroughs, caves, etc.), due to the large vents between the toe and the beginning of the planar surface of the fin. Also, the boot pocket is very shallow on top, something I never quite understood from a design standpoint. No matter what fin you buy, be sure to try the fin on first with the boot(s) you plan to mate them to, before purchasing them. Some rubber/plastic boot pockets are tough to slide into with the rubber soles of boots, and a little silicone spray goes a long way in making that boot slide in with ease. 😉
Next, I gave the Atomic Aquatics SplitFin a try. Though I read their marketing material and understood that their ‘unique design’ meant less expenditure of energy, the real thing that drew me to them was their darn good looks! (okay, it’s not all about function, folks). These babies are some of the best darn looking fins on the market, and if they work half as good as they look, then I’m sold. They even come in a wide variety of colors. In diving though, this type of mentality wears off quickly, as practicality takes over (sorry Atomic, but I still think your regulators second to none!). For one, they are slightly positively buoyant. Which, believe it or not, actually made a difference underwater in terms of sending me into a feet-up position when horizontally balanced. Though this is good for finding them when you lose track of one in the water, it is not good if you need to counterbalance them with ankle weights. Another thing, I just felt that they bent too easily when stepping on the gas in a drysuit and all the gear you need for the cold water. Later, I attributed that out of sync kick cycle to a delayed rebound, probably due to being too soft for the amount of drag I was carrying w/ all the gear. Still, they work great in a 3mm wetsuit, so I think I’ll be keeping them for trips to the tropics. Finally, the Atomics have the best darned finstrap clasp on the market. These things clip in and out so effortlessly that I’d buy these fins again, just for that single feature.
Continuing my search, I turned to a fin that I had avoided from the beginning, the Apollo Bio-Fin. I had left this one out primarily because they look so darn simple that they couldn’t possibly be the best. In the end though, I decided to give them a shot. After all, they did pioneer – and later patent – the Nature’s Wing technology (a fin with a slice down the center). Thus, they must’ve known something that the others did not from the outset.
Right off the bat I was impressed. The bottom line was that they produced great propulsion with effortless kicks, yet did not cap out like the Atomics did in cold water. My only complaint was that they were a little too noodle-like for my tastes, as a photographer who needs to make some tight turns at times. It was likely just the fact that I had come from using paddle fins for so long. It felt as though the kicks were coming too easy, though people buying their first pair or upgrading from other types of split fins would likely not notice this at all.
The personal preference for a fin with some degree of perceptible resistance led me straight to the Apollo Bio-Fin XT. These ‘meaty’ versions of the Bio-Fin are made from a stiffer material. Thus, they provide more resistance – and thrust – than do the regular Bio-Fins. Right from the start, I knew I had found a fin to suit my needs here in the Pacific Northwest. They provided the exhaustion-saving benefits of split fins, yet held the maneuverability of traditional paddle fins, resulting in the perfect blend of efficiency and utility. In fact, I loved the XTs so much that upon losing my first pair (I left them at the dive site!), I opted for another identical pair instead of opting for another pair of fins for this review. In my world, this means that I’ve really settled on a piece of gear, since my dive buddies will attest that I’m typically always up for trying something new, for better or worse.
On the final note, I’d like to add that if you’ve found yourself a good pair of fins that you plan to stick with, I highly recommend getting a pair of spring straps for your fins. These will make your life much much easier! Instead of fumbling around at the shore, trying to get them on with your buddy holding you upright, you can hop into the water with your BC inflated, and flip each spring over your heel. You’re ready to go. Different manufacturers have different aftermarket spring straps, and some even provide their own versions (either out of the box or retrofit), such as those that come with the Apollo C-series Bio-Fins. The best retrofitted spring straps I’ve come across are those made by Innovative Scuba. For the Apollo Bio-Fin, you’ll need the EZ Spring model, which fits right onto the native pegs that the stock buckle-clasp fin straps attach to. The Innovative Scuba versions are the best, most cost effective aftermarket spring straps I know of.
In summary, picking a good fin has to do with several key factors:
- Deciding Between Open Heel or Full Foot (tropics only)
- Ease of Use vs. Maneuverability (split vs. paddle; material and shape)
- The Shape of Your Boot/Foot + Fin Pocket
- Buoyancy Characteristics (some might not notice the difference as I did)
- Last but not least: Cost & Cosmetic Appeal
Entry Filed under: SCUBA