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May 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Do You Need a Dive Watch?

or is it just expensive arm candy for divers?

from the May, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Look at any scuba dive magazine, and you'll see plenty of full-page, full-color advertisements for dive watches, touting their multiple benefits and professional endorsements.

Take the Oris ProDiver Chronograph, with automatic mechanical movement and helium valve, and water-resistant to 3,300 feet. The Luminox Deep Dive Automatic is Swiss made and touted as the most dependable watch used by the Coast Guard, Air Force and Navy SEALS. Ball's Engineer Master II Diver Worldtime is endorsed by freediving champion Guillaume Nery, who uses it while diving under the icy surface of Lake Long in the French Alps, and it has "self-powered micro gas lights that glow 100 times brighter than luminous paint for up to 25 years." The ad we saw for the Citizen Eco-Drive lists 13 features, including light-powered technology, a screw-back case and screw-down crown, and an ISO certification, if you care about that sort of thing. Then there is the Rolex Submariner, introduced in 1953 as the first watch to be water resistant up to 300 feet, and now its "triple-seal triplock winding crown" make it resistant to down to 1,000 feet.

All those sound good for anyone wanting to follow in James Cameron and Richard Branson's submarine- exploring footsteps. But boy, are they expensive. Looking at online retail prices for these watches, the Oris ProDiver averages around $3,500, the Ball watch prices range between $2,000 and $3,000, and the Luminox averages $1,500. The Rolex Submariner is much higher, with an average retail price starting at around $7,500 and easily going into five digits. We saw an 18-karat gold Submariner going online for $21,000 - - and that was for a pre-owned one, not brand new. Compared to all those, the Citizen Eco-Drive is a mere bargain, averaging $400.

But why do you need a dive watch, especially when dive computers are so prevalent now? There must be a market for them, as manufacturers run full-page ads in dive magazines regularly. But priced in the thousands of dollars, these watches seem more like flashy jewelry than essential dive gear, especially for those use two dive computers. Can they still serve a purpose? Or are you just a total sucker for buying one?

John Bantin, who regularly writes dive equipment reviews for our pages, says yes to the last question. "A dive watch says something about a man just as diamonds do a woman. I own a Rolex, but it's safe at home in the bedside drawer while I am in the Maldives diving. People buy expensive dive watches for the same reason they buy expensive cars -- because they want them."

Mark Derrick, owner of Dive Gear Express in Pompano Beach, FL, doesn't even sell dive watches. "In fact, I hesitate to even call those things 'dive watches'. They have nothing much to do with diving, they are really just submersible wristwatches. As such, they're just jewelry, and experienced divers don't wear jewelry when diving. The wrists are valuable real estate, which means we need them for a dive computer, a backup, a compass and, if rebreather diving, a handset as well."

One person in the pro-watch corner is Colin Miller, a former Navy diver and currently a dive medical officer and moderator of the dive watch forum at Watchuseek.com (which gets a high volume of traffic). He says the number of divers he knows who eschew dive watches is equal to those who do wear them, and he is one of the latter. "For diving, it's essential as a backup timer, both as a bottom timer and to time dive excursions and safety stops. I use a dive computer, and I have a backup computer in my BC pocket and a watch on my wrist to time my safety stops. While a watch, a snorkel and a knife are viewed as optional gear for recreational divers, military divers are trained to dive with them. They're support equipment, and I don't like to leave things to chance. You don't want to abort a mission if your battery died or your computer malfunctioned. So a watch is essential equipment as an old-school, low-tech backup."

But Miller agrees that pricey dive watches aren't any better than inexpensive ones. "The reason for expensive dive watches is the reason for expensive cars. You can't get to work any faster in a Mercedes than in a smart car. I own more Citizens than any other type of dive watch. Citizens and Seikos are great watches, and they run from $150 to $300."

Note that there is a difference between a "dive watch" and a "bottom timer." Derrick says he sells bottom timers because they continue to have a place in technical diving. "A bottom timer that automatically begins counting runtime upon immersion and also keeps track of depth is not the same as a submersible wristwatch. Modern digital bottom timers include a logging function, ascent rate monitor, maximum depth indicator, and some include a digital compass. Particularly notable is that bottom timers are designed to be easy to read, with large and often backlit displays. No diver wants to be on a dive at an equivalent narcotic depth of 150 feet and trying to interpret what Mickey's hands mean. "

Whether you follow Miller's lead with a dive watch or Derrick's suggestion of a bottom timer, you need to use either properly in case your dive computer goes on the blink -- and you'll need to remember how to read dive tables. Miller recommends combining a dive watch or bottom timer with a depth gauge, a traditional pressure gauge (or a combination depth/pressure gauge) and submersible dive tables so that you can continue a dive and finish it safely. The important thing is that you keep track of your decompression status or dive profiles so you can switch comfortably from computer to tables.

Keeping track of your ascent rate is critical if your computer malfunctions. A 30-foot-per-minute ascent rate means rising one foot every two seconds. By keeping a hand on the anchor line and your eyes on your backup watch and depth gauge, you can manually track your ascent rate. But you can still count "a thousand one, a thousand two," and accomplish the same thing.

For some divers, it's the history of the dive watch that appeals. "Remember that Rolex and Omega have a long history in professional and sport diving," says Miller. "So there's the cachet that goes with those names, which essentially created the dive watch as we know it today." Note that Rolex was the company that got its watch taken down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, attached to James Cameron's wrist.

And if you have an old dive watch lying around that you no longer use it, consider selling it. You may be surprised by how much you could get for it. Back in the late 50s, a U.S. Navy doctor known to us only as "Bob" bought a Rolex from the Navy Exchange on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. He only needed a dive watch to time his air reserves so he reluctantly spent $70 on the Rolex, as that was the only watch in stock. His wife was not happy. However, Bob wore the watch every day for 35 years before finally putting it in a drawer, where it sat for another decade. Then last fall, he put the watch and some other items for auction on eBay to get some extra cash for Christmas gifts. He started the bidding on his banged-up timepiece at $9.95, but the bidding quickly went over the $30,000 mark.

Befuddled, Bob and his son did some research and discovered that his watch was a Rolex Submariner, Ref 5510, the same model worn by Sean Connery in the James Bond classics Dr. No, Goldfinger and Thunderball, and considered the rarest and most sought-after version of the watch. In his eBay auction listing, Bob wrote that he didn't have any of the original papers, but that he hoped to get $50 or $100 for the thing. The final selling price when the auction closed on December 4: $66,100. Bob's wife was probably pretty happy then.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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