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Norbert Wu: Fins for Underwater Image Makers Part 2

Fins for Underwater Photographers: Part 2

By Norbert Wu

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: My original fin review is here. I have now added Mares Volo and Force fins to this article.

The fins that I rate highest (for speed, light weight, and comfort) are:

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.

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 manoeuvre.

About the author:

Norbert Wu is an independent photographer and filmmaker who specializes in marine issues. His writing and photography have appeared in thousands of books, films, and magazines. He is the author and photographer of seventeen books on wildlife and photography and the originator and photographer for several children’s book series on the oceans. Exhibits of his work have been shown at the American Museum of Natural History, the California Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Museum of Wildlife Art.

He was awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) Artists and Writers Grants to document wildlife and research in Antarctica in 1997, 1999, and 2000. In 2000, he was awarded the Antarctica Service Medal of the United States of America “for his contributions to exploration and science in the U.S. Antarctic Program.” His films include a pioneering high-definition television (HDTV) program on Antarctic’s underwater world for Thirteen/WNET New York’s Nature series that airs on PBS.

He is one of only two photographers to have been awarded a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship, the world’s most prestigious award in ocean conservation and outreach. He was named “Outstanding Photographer of the Year” for 2004 by the North American Nature Photographers Association (NANPA), the highest honor an American nature photographer can be given by his peers.