Jason Heaton Picks His Five Favorite Dive Watches
“What’s the best dive watch?”
I get that question a lot, since over the past decade I’ve had the opportunity to take well over two dozen different watches diving in almost every imaginable scenario—inside deep wrecks, with tiger sharks, breath-hold freediving and even under the ice. The fact is, it doesn’t take much to make a good dive watch. Even from the earliest days of this aquatic breed of timepiece, most watch companies got the formula right. And that’s because dive watches have a pretty simple design brief: track elapsed time accurately and legibly, while being sturdy enough to go underwater and endure some rough treatment. Even the first dive watches did that pretty well. So every one that has come since has just aimed to improve on those basic functions.
Some watches go too far. Locking bezels, exotic materials, and arcane complications have no place on a dive watch in my opinion. Abyssal depth ratings often only add bulk with no real world purpose. The simpler the watch, the less chance it can fail. So if it seems like I’m dodging the question of “the best dive watch,” I’m not. The fact is, there are dozens of great ones that will all work equally well for actual diving, from a $200 Seiko to a half-million dollar Richard Mille. But pressed to narrow the field a bit, I hereby present my short list of favorites, from watches I’ve had the opportunity to take into the depths.
Omega Seamaster 300 Master Co-Axial
Diving the shipwrecks around Isle Royale in Lake Superior in the summer of 2014, the water temperatures barely got above freezing at the 150 feet depths. Cold can have nefarious effects on diver and equipment alike. Regulators can freeze up and free-flow a tank dry in less than a minute, a flooded drysuit can bring on hypothermia, and in a wristwatch, gaskets can shrink from the temperature shock, causing a catastrophic leak. Diving among the rusting hulk of a 500-foot long freighter full of magnetic iron ore can play havoc with timekeeping as well.
The Omega Seamaster 300 Master Co-Axial was the perfect companion on this challenging adventure. The caliber 8400 inside is immune to even the strongest magnetic fields and the 300 meters of water-resistance , perfected over half a century of Omega’s rich dive watch history, inspired confidence. Its ratcheting expandable clasp allowed for a secure fit on my thick drysuit sleeve. And the 41-millimeter steel case, coin edged-bezel and matte dial with faux-aged luminescent markers had a timelessness that seemed oddly fitting diving on wrecks that had sunk during the heyday of diving and dive watches.
The Seamaster 300 makes my list of favorite dive watches due to its purity of form. Lacking a helium valve and even a date, it does exactly what is required of it—tracking bottom time in adverse conditions.
Doxa 50th Anniversary SUB 300 Professional
Doxa isn’t a name that comes up often in most watch publications anymore. A shadow of its former heyday of the mid-20th century, the company’s lasting legacy is in the niche field of watches purpose-built for scuba diving. The SUB 300 was introduced in 1967 as perhaps the most capable and full-spec’d dive watch ever conceived. That may sound like hyperbole but consider the watch itself: an oversized minute hand with “dwarf” hour hand for displaying bottom time, a saw-toothed rotating steel bezel engraved with no-decompression depth limits, bright dial colors for maximum visibility, and a spring loaded expanding clasp made to take up slack on a compressed neoprene sleeve. So advanced was the Doxa for its time that no less than Jacques Cousteau endorsed it, selling it through his US Divers gear company.
Fast forward 50 years and I’m diving off the coast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean with the 50th Anniversary SUB 300. The watch is a 1:1 recreation of that 1967 original, from the case dimensions to the quaint font used on the dial. The only concession to modernity is a sapphire crystal, but one whose high domed shape made me swear it was 1960s acrylic. I am essentially diving with a 50 year old watch, and you know what? It might be better than anything that’s come before or since.
The bezel is among the best ever made, its toothy profile sitting high off the tonneau-shaped case, easy to grip with or without gloves. The orange dial of the Professional I’m testing provides matchless contrast against the broad minute hand. And though my digital dive computer has rendered the no-decompression bezel obsolete, a connection to the days of more analog diving links me to great underwater explorers of the past, like Cousteau himself.
Bremont Supermarine 2000
Among the storied brands and watches already mentioned, who trace their roots back to diving’s golden age, Bremont is a young upstart, a millennial, born in the early 2000s. But clearly, the British brand did its homework when it debuted its deep diving Supermarine series of diving watches. The Supermarine 500 came first, a 43-millimeter diver with a sapphire bezel, 500-meter water-resistance and aesthetics that walk (or swim) a balance between refined and rugged. But in 2013, the Supermarine 2000 debuted, a 45-millimeter leviathan with four times the depth rating of its smaller sibling. Bremont put everything it knew into this watch—an anti-magnetic cage around the chronometer-certified caliber, a patented shock-absorbing movement holder to protect from vibration and knocks, a hardened steel case and a domed sapphire crystal with nine layers of anti-reflective coating.
Bremont’s tagline is “Tested Beyond Endurance” and I intended to see what those limits were when I took the S2000 diving in opposite extremes a few years ago. First, I wore it in the relatively easy environment of the Gulf Stream-bathed waters of San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, diving the deep underwater canyons among schools of persistent reef sharks. Needless to say, the Supermarine hardly broke a sweat here, so it was time to raise the stakes. A month later, back in Minnesota, I strapped the watch on over my drysuit sleeve and slipped through a triangular hole chain-sawed through two feet of lake ice. Restricted by a rope tether, I explored a 100-foot radius of the lake bottom’s moonscape, lethargic fish hanging as if frozen for winter as I drifted by. By the time 30 minutes passed on the dutiful Bremont, I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore so gave a tug on the safety rope and was reeled in, upside down, skating on the bottom of the sheet of ice.
Though the Supermarine 2000 is a large and heavy watch, larger than I usually prefer, it imbues me with a sense of capability every time I strap it on, ready for whatever adventures may come. It is a sort of talisman, a good luck charm proven in past harsh conditions, and when you’re embarking on new adventures, whether in the tropics or beneath the ice, even the smallest advantages help.
Rolex Sea Dweller 4000
Another iconic dive watch with its genesis in 1967 is the Rolex Sea-Dweller. Though similar in appearance to the ubiquitous Submariner, the burlier Sea-Dweller was adapted to the very specific needs of aquanauts, those men who lived and worked in helium saturated undersea habitats for days and weeks on end. And though I have a general disdain for helium release valves, if there’s one watch justified to have one, it is the Sea-Dweller. It is this watch’s raison d’être, one that was, interestingly enough, developed in partnership with Doxa. After a hiatus of a few years, Rolex re-introduced the Sea-Dweller in 2014 and it is the most capable one yet.
In August of 2014, I snapped shut the Glidelock clasp of the Sea-Dweller 4000 and descended to the upturned hull of the sunken SS Cedarville, a 600-foot long freighter that sank in the turbulent waters of the Straits of Mackinac. I wasn’t breathing helium mixed gas on my dive, nor would I be living for days inside a diving chamber hundreds of meters underwater. But the traits of the Sea-Dweller 4000 still served me well on multiple dives to 100 feet. Its clasp was easy to adjust over my thick suit, the bezel grippy enough to operate with gloves on, and at depth, under the shadow of the wrecked ore freighter, the Chromalight luminescent markers glowed a legible and soothing blue, reminding me how much bottom time I had left before I had to surface without needing decompression.
In a world increasingly obsessed with obsolescence, it is comforting that Rolex, despite its prestige and status, still embraces its roots in building rugged specialized watches for specific purposes. Sure, the Sea-Dweller is overkill for all but a handful of commercial divers in the world who need its specialized features. But 100 feet underwater, exploring an icy shipwreck, overkill is still something to appreciate.
Though Tudor has a long history of building eminently capable dive watches, many of which were worn by military forces and adventurers, perhaps its best one is its most recent. While so many of Tudor’s past divers have been derivatives of big brother Rolex’s Submariner, the Pelagos was designed on a blank sheet of paper and nothing was overlooked, from the bezel to the movement to the spring-loaded clasp. The watch has been called by many the best modern dive watch, full stop, and I’m not inclined to disagree.
I’ve had the chance to dive with two versions of the Pelagos in two very different environments. The first time was shortly after the watch was released. I wore it for a week shadowing a research group tagging tiger sharks on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. More recently was this past summer when I strapped on a new blue Pelagos with Tudor’s sensational in-house caliber MT5612, to free-dive off the coast of Tenerife in the Canary Islands.
Make no mistake, a watch like the Pelagos is overkill for my level of freediving, which never exceeded 66 feet of depth. But to be fair, tracking elapsed time is more relevant to scuba diving anyway, which left me free to enjoy the razor sharp aesthetics of the watch. Its 42-millimeter case is carved out of titanium and there’s nary a polished surface to be found. The minimalism is born out of pure, stripped-down utility, saved from brutal sterility by the cerulean blue of its dial and ceramic, which is mesmerizing both topside and underwater. And then there is the clasp, perhaps the Pelagos’s pièce de résistance. For the cold waters of the Atlantic, I donned a thick freediving wetsuit and snapped shut the clasp. Micro-adjustment notches allow for fine-tuning while the floating section expands to accommodate a thick suit and contracts to take up slack as the suit compresses under water pressure. I was able to observe this effect in real time as I descended to two atmospheres of pressure and almost 30 pounds per square inch acted on the seven millimeters of neoprene.
The five watches I chose for this list of favorites represent a cross section of the myriad of divers being made, from the nostalgic to the thoroughly modern, from modest depth ratings to those well beyond human survival. But the common thread running through them all is a clear design goal, purpose-built for optimum timekeeping, legibly, under harsh conditions. Just as a dive watch should be.