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Snorkel Set

High-quality masks, fins and snorkels can make your dives more enjoyable.

By Gibbs Milliken

On your next vacation or weekend trip to the lake, river or ocean, don't forget to pack a mask, fins and snorkel for some amazing discoveries down under. Priced from youth sets to high-end professional separates, they are made to fit all ages, shapes and sizes.

The Pro Pack ($85, U.S. Divers, (877) 873-3483, www.aqualung.com)is a good introductory set that includes a high-quality mask, adjustable fins and dry-top purge snorkel, plus a special ventilated compartment shoulder bag for easy transport. For snorkeling, I recommend adding a flotation vest for safety.

Masks

The most important thing to look for when you select a mask is a comfortable fit. The better designs have soft, hypoallergenic, silicone face seals, large viewing plates of tempered glass and low-volume interiors. To make sure the mask fits properly, hold it to your face and lightly inhale through the nose. The mask should remain in place without holding, indicating a good air seal. (Any mask will seem to fit if the suction applied is strong, so be sure to sniff lightly.)

One of the better masks tested is the professional-grade Shadow mask for men ($79.95) or the Mini-Shadow for women and youth ($74.95, Oceanic, (510) 562-0500, www.oceanicworldwide.com). Made of very soft matte-black silicone, it offers excellent unobstructed vision thanks to the wide single lens and low-volume interior. For an even wider view, try the panoramic Tri-View Edgeless Mask ($59.95, Oak Hill Scuba (512) 892-4900,www.oakhillscuba.com) with beveled-glass peripheral-vision side windows.

Very popular are the clear silicone-skirted masks. These masks look cool, are comfortable - and they don't deteriorate like rubber. The unique Lite Vision 1 Mask ($124.95, Oceanic) has an LED waterproof headlamp and flashing signal light that runs on four watch batteries. Very effective in low-light conditions, it adds a major safety element to an already fine design. Many other excellent masks are available to fit every size and shape of face.

Fins

Dive fins should fit properly; adjustable heel straps allow you to wear them with aqua socks, neoprene booties or light canvass boating shoes. This will prevent rubbing plus let you take your fins off and navigate difficult locations without hurting your feet on sharp rocks, barnacles or sea-urchin spines.

A good choice for beginners is the Fab Force SK ($125, Force Fin, (800) 346-7946, www.forcefin.com). Intended primarily for snorkelers and youths, they have comfortable, fully opening, padded foot pockets and widely adjustable Velcro closures for easy fit and removal.

Among the top dive fins are the unusual, curled-blade Tan Delta Force Fins ($279, Force Fin). Built to U.S. military standards of a special polyurethane, they feature reduced fin size, light weight and distinctive shape for easy maneuvering. A toes-free foot pocket reduces cramping and leverages power, producing an efficient kick.

Advanced swimmers who want great power and speed should try the Vortex V12 Fins ($189.95, Oceanic). These long professional fins feature the new, high-efficiency split-blade design in a heavy-duty duroprene material. Lighter weight, yet very high in performance, are the Tusa X-pert Zoom SF-8 Fins ($189, Tabata USA, (562) 498-3708, www.tusa.com). These split blades have all the advanced features plus a radical downward angle for greater propulsion. A third high-tech design is the excellent pivoting-blade Mares Volo Fins ($199.95, Mares, (203) 855-9400, www.mares.com). These sleek, multi-ribbed and vented blades perform a flexing action that forces the fins to work continuously at the optimal angle, thus minimizing fatigue and producing a fluid movement through the water. Most dive fins can be matched as a set with the same-brand mask and snorkel.

Snorkels

Most traditional snorkels have been improved by the addition of soft silicone mouthpieces for comfort and splash guards to reduce wave wash. One of the newest innovations is the Dry Snorkel ($55, Ocean Master, (626) 582-8000, www.oceanmaster.com), with a sliding valve that automatically closes off the breathing tube each time the unit is submerged. A purge valve below the mouthpiece allows clearing any excess moisture.

What's the point of spending more on dive and snorkel gear? With good equipment, you can forget about your equipment and put all your attention on the amazing underwater world that surrounds you.

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