Field Test: SCUBA Diving in Belize With Four Popular Dive Watches from Seiko, Oris, and Rado

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I finally go SCUBA diving and am immediately vexed to learn that wearing a dive watch underwater can be considered far more pretentious than sporting one on dry land. I didn’t see that bit of irony coming when I happily hauled multiple dive watch reissues to a tiny island in Belize’s Turneffe Atoll, part of a significant coral World Heritage Site where I spent a week venturing into this incredible sport.

Indeed, if anyone groks the gratuitousness of dive watches, it’s divers themselves, all of whom use dive computers. So foreign are watches in today’s SCUBA scene that exactly zero of the many avid divers on my trip wore one, and my dive master—legitimately concerned I’d ruin the glimmering Rado Captain Cook on my wrist—reminded me to take it off as I kitted up for my first dive. I sheepishly explained, “Oh yeah, that. I’m actually going to wear a different watch each day we dive and write about them.” One of her eyebrows shot up, and then she broke into a melodic Belizean belly laugh.

Despite their presumed uselessness, the watches turned out to be helpful for timing my safety stops. Upon ascending, recreational divers hover at a depth of 15 feet for three minutes to assure that enough pressurized nitrogen has left the body. Many modern dive computers automatically start a three-minute countdown, but my rented unit had neither this function nor a stopwatch. Craftily, I relied on the old-school bezel timers, and after a couple days my fellow divers and I were signaling time confirmations back-n-forth. Eventually, an inkling of watch-pride began to surface with me after each dive.

Oris Divers Sixty-Five (Original 1965, Reissue 2016); Seiko SRP775 “Turtle” (Original 1976, Reissue 2015); Rado HyperChrome Captain Cook (Original 1962, Reissue 2017); and Seiko SPB053—(Original 1965, Reissue 2017).

The four watches I dove with are all reissues of 60s and 70s mechanical divers, part of a trend that may very well constitute a renaissance of the era’s styling and technology. To name a few, Blancpain, Breitling, Bulova, CWC, Doxa, Longines, Omega, Oris, Panerai, Rado, Seiko, Tudor, and Ulysse Nardin have all recently resurrected mid-20th century dive models. For my trip to Belize, we rounded up four fine examples from this ever-expanding category.

Because the watches have already been amply evaluated above sea level, I’ll focus on my experiences with them underwater. I had no idea how beautiful, intriguing, useful, and downright different these anachronistic marvels would be when submerged, but I soon learned that everything changes under the sea.

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Day 1

Dive Spots: Great Blue Hole, Halfmoon Caye Wall, Long Caye Wall

Max Depth: 73 feet

Notable Species: Caribbean Reef Sharks, Lemon Sharks, Southern Sting Ray, Tarpon

Watch: Rado HyperChrome Captain Cook on Coyote ADPT Strap

By chance, my first real dive after certification was into The Great Blue Hole, a 400-foot (125 meters) deep sinkhole formed over 150,000 years ago. Jaques Cousteau was the first to explore it in 1971, quickly declaring this geological wonder the best dive spot on Earth. Decorated with enormous stalagmites and stalactites, The Great Blue Hole is also filled with sharks.

Perhaps I chose the Rado HyperChrome Captain Cook for this inaugural dive because, like me, the Rado was the most meagerly rated among the pack. If the Rado could make it, so could I. With just 100 meters (10 atm) of water resistance and no screw-down crown, it’s easy to dismiss the Captain Cook as a surface-skimming lifestyle watch, but I took it down to 73 feet (22 meters) without incident.

The refraction of visible light follows a wholly different calculus underwater than in air. Watch crystals quickly become mirrors; slight distortions stretch to psychedelic proportions; and colors disappear, starting with red and orange at around 50 feet (15 meters). Despite the Captain Cook’s boxy crystal and extra-small dial, this watch is a time-telling billboard underwater. The chapter ring leaps off the dial, the main hands are unavoidable, and the elongated arrow-shaped seconds hand waves like a homecoming queen. As warm colors disappear, the sunburst brown dial radiates a lovely silver-gray.

So foreign are watches in today’s SCUBA scene that exactly zero of the many avid divers on my trip wore one, and my dive master—legitimately concerned I’d ruin the glimmering Rado Captain Cook on my wrist—reminded me to take it off as I kitted up for my first dive.

The Captain Cook’s bezel clicks like a dolphin and feels surgically precise. The dime-edge protrudes beyond the case, making 1/2-second adjustments a cinch, and, surprisingly, the subdued bezel markers light up underwater (provided there’s some light).

I was watching a school of fish swim into the blue oblivion off the Halfmoon Caye Wall when a fellow diver pointed behind me. I turned to face a six-foot (two meters) Lemon Shark so close I could have touched it. Tranquility flooded through me as I watched the shark saunter by with its innate grace, sleek beauty, and self-assured detachment—not entirely unlike a supermodel. A fellow diver, Todd, snapped a pic of me suspended in this mind-blowing moment, and upon surfacing Todd was as excited about this excellent watch photo as I was. The experienced divers were slowly becoming supporters of my esoteric, horological cause.

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Day 2

Dive Spots: The Elbow, Front Porch, Grand Point

Max Depth: 71 feet

Notable Species: Hawks Bill Turtle, Porcupine Puffer, Nurse Shark, Garden Eels

Watch: Seiko Turtle SRP775 on Sage ADPT Strap

I wish we could reissue real turtles. At the edge of extinction since the 1970s, the Hawks Bill Turtle can grow over three feet (one meter), weigh well over 200 pounds (90 kilograms), and take up to 30 years to reach maturity. Given that these air-breathing reptiles can rest underwater for up to seven hours on a single breath, turtle might just be the best dive watch name ever, though no brand has officially claimed it. Poetically enough, I was wearing the nicknamed Seiko Turtle when I first saw this amazing Hawks Bill.

The Seiko Turtle, reissued in 2016, harkens back to 1976, the heyday of burly mechanical dive watches. With its charmingly plump shape, the 44mm case looks at home wrapped around a fattening layer of neoprene. It’s a big, bold watch with unabashed 70s style.The Turtle’s recessed, flat Hardlex crystal minimizes distortion, but I actually missed the visual play of underwater refractions passing through curvy sapphire lenses. Hardly a complaint, but it is interesting to note how some “improvements” can dash charm.

The knurling on the Turtle’s bezel edge is rounded, polished, and sloped toward the watch’s center, making it difficult to grip, and the beefy 44mm case protrudes significantly beyond the bezel, leaving room only for fingertips. As such, rotating the Turtle’s bezel requires significant force.Despite these small notes, the Turtle is indisputably a great watch, especially as it hangs tough with these pricier divers. Also, the Turtle was a true comfort when my breathing apparatus (i.e. a rented regulator) failed at over 60 feet (20 meters) deep. Using sign language, I let my dive master know I was OUT OF AIR and to SHARE AIR—signals you hope never to use but are grateful to know. As she handed me her backup air source, we firmly gripped each other’s right elbows, locking into a choreography that mostly concealed our dive computers. We relied on the Seiko Turtle to time our safety stop, then surfaced and high-fived. As a consolation prize of sorts, she did seem more interested in the watches after this ordeal.

Day 3

Dive Spots: Joe’s Wall, Dead Man’s Reef

Max Depth: 68 feet

Notable Species: Nurse Shark, Rough Tail Ray, Green Turtle, Green Moray Eel

Watch: Oris Divers Sixty-Five on stock rubber strap

As good as the 40mm Oris Divers Sixty-Five looks in pictures, it is wildly alluring in person. You might think those blocky numerals look dated—even goofy—until you see them underwater where, suddenly, they’re as legible and smart as the fattest rectangular lume-mounds out there. The date window is brilliantly discrete, a huge improvement over the original’s three-o’clock clunker, while the 40mm case is slender, curvaceous, and traditional. The bezel insert is aluminum, though it looks just like the original’s plastic affair. The Sixty-Five is a deft reissue with 1960s vibe laid on thick.

The experienced divers were slowly becoming supporters of my esoteric, horological cause.

While diving, the Sixty-Five looked entirely anachronistic and outmoded, which was lots of fun. The boxy crystal mischievously distorts all markers, and the watch becomes a fun-house mirror when viewed off-axis. As I was growing comfortable diving, this watch proved to be a jolly companion, dislodging childhood adventure fantasies, which included elaborately imagined SCUBA expeditions to recover top-secret maps of crucial (though always vague) significance.

Having drifted slightly ahead of my group, I discovered a Nurse Shark sleeping in the sand under a small coral bridge, its flat snout poking out one end, its tail reaching at least nine feet out the other. Beckoning my fellow explorers to come see my discovery, I felt like a legit diver, and the Oris complimented my budding confidence perfectly. Despite its 40mm size, I nominate the Oris Divers Sixty-Five as the most vintage-y of these four reissues. It’s gorgeous in air, and it becomes a trippy delight underwater.

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Day 4

Dive Spots: Majestic Point, Secret Spot

Max Depth: 66 feet

Notable Species: Female Loggerhead Turtle, Drum Fish, Queen Trigger Fish

Watch: Seiko SPB053 on Black ADPT Strap

The only other novice diver on my trip was Todd’s daughter, Zoe, an 11-year-old, nationally-ranked competitive swimmer. Offering Zoe the four watches to choose from one day, she elected to wear the 42mm Seiko 62MAS reissue in blue (reference SPB053).

Zoe got a kick out of posing with the watch underwater, and we got some great shots of her looking very cool in the Seiko, a testament to how universally stylish dive watches can be. I know why Zoe chose the watch, as there’s an undeniable visual appeal to this vintage-flavored diver.Out of the box, the crown threads were stubborn, the bezel was stiff, and I scratched the domed crystal during one of my slaphappy certification dives. However, underwater this watch has a presence and ease of use that abolished all perceived shortcomings. Off-axis legibility was fantastic (the crystal being gently domed, not boxed), and the sharply knurled bezel edge grips fingerprints like velcro. The bezel on my sample has been loosening up with use, too, and has become one of my favorite fidgeting gizmos.

On my final dive, I hovered just 10 feet (three meters) away from a magnificent female Loggerhead Turtle resting in a sandy patch in a coral canyon. She was very mature, well over three feet (one meter) long, and weighing, we guessed, as much as 400 pounds (180 kilograms). As she woke and gently swam away, I fogged my mask with tears of adoration and compassion for this fellow air-breather, a creature who embodies both the majesty and vulnerability of the oceans. Her mere presence opened my heart. I’m keeping this watch for the long haul, as it now holds this treasured memory.

The Big Safety Stop

I get it now, why so many divers become passionate marine conservationists. It seems an inevitable conversion. While we can’t revive the marine health of the 1960s the way we can recreate a mechanical watch from that era, perhaps these backward-looking timepieces can remind us of a time, not long ago, when human activity wasn’t so devastatingly toxic. These watches seem to speak to me from that era, urging me to help bring our oceans back to health, and I’m now convinced that dive watches can, indeed, play a role in opening us to the beauty—and frailty—of Earth’s marine life. Could humanity make a grand safety stop one day, pausing long enough to assure that we guard Earth’s vital organs from the peril of our exploits? The bezel timer may be the perfect symbol for such an idea.

Photography by Allen Farmelo

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At age 7 Allen fell in love with a Timex boy's dive watch his parents gave him, and he's taken comfort in wearing a watch ever since. Allen is especially curious about digital technology having inspired a revival of analog technology, long-lasting handmade goods, and classic fashion. He lives in a one-room schoolhouse in The Hudson Valley with his partner and two orange cats.
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