Scuba divers are not created equal. We go diving for different reasons and we enjoy a variety of underwater activities, so when we get to depth we tend to like to do our own thing. That’s why gear manufacturers offer so many different styles of regs and BCs and dive computers and yes, fins—to satisfy our eclectic tastes.
The best open heel fins collected here represent the latest kickers to hit the dive market, and they illustrate the range of fins available to divers today, from split fins to modern paddle fins to a couple of traditional designs. The question is, how do they stack up against each other in terms of performance and price, and how do they compare to the fins that are already out there? We decided to find out.
First stop was the test pool. Armed with underwater speedometers designed specifically for the task at hand, the Scuba Gear Reports test team laid out a 50-meter underwater straight track and then subjected each fin to a series of speed runs (see Speed Run Rankings).
Recommended 2 Best Open Heel Fins
Why test for speed? Because years of evaluating scuba fins have shown us that there is a clear correlation between how fast a fin is able to move a diver through the water and its overall performance. A fin that can crank out good speeds with a minimum of leg stress is much more likely to be a powerful fin and a highly maneuverable fin than one that’s sluggish on the straightaways. This may not be so important to divers who don’t cover much ground or don’t tend to use their fins that much at depth. But for divers who do like to move around a lot, who engage in long kicks out to dive sites or who regularly deal with currents, having a fin that can deliver power and thrust without trashing leg muscles can mean the difference between an enjoyable dive and pure water torture.
Once speed tests were completed, test divers moved to a more real-world environment, where they got to engage in the fun stuff. Evaluating each fin on a dozen performance criteria, test divers went down and kicked and turned and stopped and backed up, all the while rating each fin on a scale of 1 to 10 (see the Ergonomic Performance Chart). After a couple days of this, speeds were averaged, scores were tallied and test diver comments were recorded.
So how did each fin fare? Read the following individual reviews and find out, and also check out RDC’s top three favorites. But don’t stop there. After you get the run-down on this year’s best kickers, turn to our Top Gear section for more top-rated fins and RDC Favorites that are still available in dive stores everywhere.
These best open heel fin reviews are presented in alphabetical order by manufacturer. RDC Favorites for this go-round follow the final review.
Apollo Bio Fins Pro C-Series: Long Live the King
Apollo Sports has been making the Bio-Fin Pro for more than 10 years. During that time, they’ve adjusted the rubber durometer, enabling them to offer three slightly different versions, from super flexy to a little bit stiffer; they’ve expanded the color range to satisfy just about everybody’s color pallet; and they’ve added the option of a heavy-duty spring strap. But in the midst of these modifications, one thing has remained constant, and that is the Bio-Fin Pro’s Top Gun position when it comes to kicking performance and pure comfort.
Compared to most kickers, the Bio-Fin Pro is pretty heavy—it weighs close to twice as much as many of its competitors. Its blade is shorter than average, it sports big beefy side rails, and even the stiffest Bio-Fin Pro is flexier than virtually any fin you’ll strap to your foot. These design characteristics don’t tend to endear the Bio-Fin Pro to all divers, especially techies and photographers who often prefer longer blades that offer more feedback and more minor movement control. But for the average scuba diver who likes to cover a lot of underwater acreage with minimal effort, who wants to be able to chase a down bat ray without thrashing their leg muscles, and who loves to dart in and out of finger reefs like a sea lion, the Bio-Fin Pro is a dream-come-true.
For 2011 Apollo has released two new models, the Bio-Fin Pro Orange and Bio-Fin Pro Pink. Both are built with a rubber durometer hardness of about 70—this is a little stiffer than the Black and Blue (65 durometer), a little flexier than the Gray (75 durometer), and about the same as the White and Yellow. Standard Bio-Fin Pros come with a buckle and heel strap assembly, but our test model was a “C-Series” equipped with a spring strap.
Consistent with its color cousins who dominated past fin tests, our Orange Bio-Fin Pros got things started by smoking the competition in RDC’s speed tests. From there they shifted over to the ergo tests where they earned the best scores of the group for acceleration and power vs. stress, and then tied for best in class in maneuverability. Test divers rated it their favorite fin for the flutter kick, and among the better fins for the dolphin kick.
But beyond pure kicking performance, the Bio-Fin Pro C-Series also earned high marks for comfort and ease of use. The spring strap allowed for easy donning and doffing, and test divers never had to bother with strap adjustments. The all-rubber construction made for a soft pliable foot pocket that testers deemed found to be super comfortable while also providing some effective non-skid.
Any way you slice it, the Bio-Fin Pro C-Series is a pack leader. It generates ear-bending speed and power with virtually no leg stress, it’s responsive in turns and nimble when negotiating tight places. Plus it’s comfortable and easy to use. Of course, it’s also the priciest fin in this go-round. But when you plunk down your money on a Bio-Fin Pro C-Series, you’re buying into scuba fin royalty.
APS Mantaray: Ultimate Open Heel Travel Fin
The APS (Advanced-Aqua Propulsion System) Mantaray is small in size, simple in function, and pretty impressive when it comes to kicking performance. The fin is made from a thermal plastic elastomer/monoprene compound and is offered in two versions; one has a flexy blade, the other is a bit stiffer.
The Mantaray is super short, measuring less than 20 inches long overall, and it’s really light. Its blade design is interesting; you’ll find a sort of a gill pattern on the main body of the blade, hidden beneath a molded cover that reminds one of a hood scoop on a ‘60s muscle car. The fin’s designer says the gills and the scoop work together to focus kicking thrust, reduce water resistance, and provide stability to the fin blade.
So how does all this translate into kicking performance? Turns out, pretty good. On RDC’s underwater straightaway the finsaps3Mantaray turned in the second (flexy version) and third (stiff version) fastest speeds in this shootout. Like on the speed course, when it came to ergo performance the flexy version held a slight edge, and it also garnered more favorable comments from test divers. Overall, it was able to crank out better power strokes with less leg or ankle strain, and its ability to get up and go when divers wanted some acceleration was second only to the Bio-Fin Pro.
Both versions turned in above-average scores for both maneuverability and stability, the flexy version just did it with less leg stress.
That’s not to say nobody liked the stiffer version. On the contrary, a couple of test divers preferred the stiffer blade with its increased feedback. All test divers appreciated the light weight and fins aps uw1comfortable foot pocket found on both versions, as well as the universal fin strap. It’s simple to use, holds the fin on the foot well, and installs easily.
The Mantaray is a pretty nice kicker. Both versions are relatively fast, stable, very maneuverable, and easy on the feet. While perfectly suited for any dive environment, traveling divers who prefer to use open heel fins so they can wear booties when traversing rocky beaches or climbing encrusted ladders in the tropics should pay close attention to this fin. Its size and weight make it an easy fin to pack (it will fit in a carry-on bag better than virtually any fin we’ve ever seen), yet its kicking performance outshines many full-size fins. The RDC test team preferred the flexier version, but either one will get the job done. The flexy version comes in pink, metallic blue, and white, while the stiff version comes in bright yellow (a test diver favorite) and basic black.
Aqua Lung Express ADJ: A Fin for Cruisers
At first glance the Express ADJ looks like a traditional paddle fin, but closer inspection reveals some modern touches. One example is the blade/foot pocket joint. Rather than connecting at the toe, the blade attaches about midway up each side of the foot pocket. Aqua Lung calls this the “mid-foot flex joint,” and it’s intended to take the strain off your toes and ankles during a kicking stroke. Filling the gap between toe and blade, Aqua Lung installed a rubber membrane they call the “Armadillo” to provide some additional elasticity and prevent water from flowing through the open space which otherwise would have created turbulence.
Measuring about 26 inches overall (size Regular), the Express ADJ is the longest fins in this group. Its big blade is reinforced with molded-in longitudinal ribs and flanked by rubber side rails. The foot pocket is made from varying thicknesses of rubber, the heel plate is extended to improve stability, and the fin comes with a really nice buckle system with a large finger pull-on loop centered on the heel strap and finger loops on each strap end for easy adjustment.
Get the Express ADJ in the water and you find it’s a pretty stiff fin compared to most of the other fins in this go-round. While a couple of test divers appreciated the increased feedback created by the stiffer blade, the majority of test divers found the fin put too much stress on their legs and ankles, especially when they tried to pour on the power. However, they also found if they didn’t try to break any speed records they could propel themselves through the water at a decent clip with a greatly reduced effort. When it came to maneuverability, the Express ADJ, in spite of its size, turned in some pretty good test scores. During stopping, turning and backing-up drills the fin proved to be responsive and easy to control.
Being only slightly negative in the water, the Express ADJ feels light on the feet. The foot pocket is pretty comfortable too, and according to test divers, no fin equipped with a buckle assembly offered better strap adjustments than this one. On the other hand, the fin’s non-skid pattern, while it looked soft and sticky, wasn’t able to maintain its grip on our wet test surfaces as well as we thought it would.
For divers who like to swim with fins that provide a bit of feedback, the Express ADJ is a solid kicker. At cruising speeds it delivers a comfortable, stable ride on the straightaways and good maneuverability down among the reefs, and it feels pretty good on the feet. If you want to crank on the power, you better prepare to feel it in your leg muscles. But as a slow-kick cruiser, this is a good performer. The Express ADJ is available in black trimmed with black, red, blue, pink or orange.
Dive Rite EXP: A Blast from the Past
Old salts, tech divers and a lot of photographers are going to love the EXP, which is made from traditional monoprene and sports an old-school design and shape. It also comes with an efficient marine-grade stainless-steel spring strap with an overmolded rubber heel guard. Dive Rite’s literature says the EXP is a lighter fin than traditional rubber fins, and that’s true, but it’s heavier than just about everything else. It’s also, no surprise, one of the stiffest fins in this go-round. Divers on RDC’s test team who have tech diving backgrounds, as well as those who were trained with and have remained loyal to the traditional fin style, had no problem with the stiffness or performance characteristics of the EXP. They were, however, outnumbered by those who felt the EXP was too long, too stiff, and too hard on both their ankles and the tops of their feet when it came to kicking.
Of course, these complaints echoed loudest when test divers were trying to push the EXP as fast as they could for as long as they could, and this fin is just not designed for that. The EXP is not a rocket fin; rather, it’s a slow-kick fin that performs best when sculling or frog kicking, and it does a decent flutter and dolphin if you take it easy. It’s also a stable fin, and more maneuverable than you might think considering its size.
The EXP is an easy fin to don and doff, thanks to the nice spring strap that’s fitted with a big comfortable heel pad and easy to grab finger loop. In addition, the fin provides some good non-skid to keep you from slipping and sliding on wet boat decks.
This fin is clearly not for everyone. But for divers who lean toward old-school kickers, who like a stiff fin that’s stable and delivers a higher level of feedback than what can usually be found in more modern flexier designs, the EXP has a lot to offer. It’s not our cup of tea, but a lot of divers are partial to this type of fin. The basic design has been around for a long time, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Mares Wave: Kicking in Style
Mares’ new Wave is a big kicker. Sporting the longest and widest blade in this go-round (measured from its widest point and from blade tip to the end of the foot pocket), this fin is made from a combination of thermoplastic rubber and technopolymers. You have a large flex panel in the center of the blade that’s flanked by a couple of stiffening strips, which are in turn flanked by a pair of overmolded siderails. The foot pocket sports soft uppers and a slightly extended heel plate. The fin is equipped with Mares’ ABS Plus buckle system, which allows you to get in and out of the fin without losing your strap adjustment.
The Wave turned in solid kicking performance in virtually all test categories. In the speed tests it came in right behind the Bio-Fin Pro and the Mantaray. A nice surprise for such a big fin, test divers also rated it high for maneuverability, and noted its ability to negotiate turns and perform stop and back-up maneuvers with minimal foot movement. When turning on the power, the flexing of the soft blade tip seemed to help minimize ankle stress. Rating specific kicks, test divers found the fin performed well using the frog and flutter kicks, but its big blade shined brightest when doing the dolphin.
While not any lighter than many of the other fins in this group, the Wave felt light on test divers’ feet. The foot pocket was comfortable and the ABS plus buckle offered a convenient way to don and doff the fin; rather than having to lose your strap adjustment each time, you leave the strap alone and open and close the swivel buckles instead. There are, however, more moving parts to the ABS Plus than a standard buckle system; beach divers should take extra care to keep the mechanisms from getting clogged with sand. Finally, the fin’s soft-rubber non-skid pattern was found to be more effective than most in preventing slips on a variety of wet surfaces.
The Wave is a good-looking, well-performing slow-kick fin. You can coax some pretty good power out of it but it takes a little more effort than what’s required from some of the more flexible fins. This will be welcome news for divers who prefer diving with stiffer fins, not so much for divers who prefer a flexier feel. With a choice of five colors to choose from (black, blue, grey, yellow and red), you can dive this kicker in style.
Note: size XS will be available in July.
Scubapro Jet Sport: Good Performance at a Great Price
Scubapro’s Jet Sport comes with a tri-material blade featuring a pair of soft rubber panels framed in semi-stiff plastic and flanked by narrow rubber side rails. The blade and soft rubber foot pocket are two pieces; they connect via a pair of short braces that are supported by the side rails. The fin is fitted with a standard buckle and strap system, and comes in red, blue, yellow, pink and graphite trim colors.
The Jet Sport not only looks good, it’s one of the lightest fins in this go-round, and it delivers some pretty solid kicking performance. Speed-wise, it falls about in the middle of the pack, delivering respectable propulsion in return for not too much leg stress. But if you try to turn on the juice, you’ll top out pretty quickly in spite of expending a lot of energy.
On the other hand, when you employ a casual slow kick and slip into cruising mode, the Jet Sport comes into it own. Its stiffer-than-average blade provides stability and makes efficient work of frog and dolphin kicks, yet the design of the blade/foot pocket joint seems to knock the edge off of potential leg strain. The fin is easy to maneuver, it’s very responsive in turns and does itself proud negotiating tight corners. The rubber foot pocket molds to your foot, making for a comfy fit, and the strap adjustments and quick release buckles performed as expected. Standing around on a wet deck, test divers found the Jet Sport’s non-skid did a better-than-average job of keeping their feet underneath them.
The Jet Sport is not going to be breaking any speed records or delivering any jaw-dropping performance. On the other hand, it’s a comfortable middle-of-the-road fin that delivers solid kicking power, decent acceleration and pretty good maneuverability with relatively low leg stress, and you all get this for a very good price. That’s not all bad.
SubGear Wake: A Traditional-Style Paddle Fin
Subgear’s Wake is another traditional-style paddle fin that used to be sold under the Tilos Torrent banner. It sports a relatively stiff polypropylene blade interspersed with strips of thermoplastic rubber. The belly of the blade has a couple of contoured thermoplastic rubber ribs to give the blade some stability, and the side rails are notched to assist in blade flex. The body of the foot pocket is part of the polypropylene mold with a thermoplastic rubber panel inserted on top to provide some stretch and comfort to the top of the foot.
This is a pretty standard paddle fin that delivers pretty standard performance. It’s stiff but not overly so. While not a speedster, it will get you through the water if you maintain a steady kick. It tops out really fast, though, so try to push it and all you’ll do is trash your leg muscles without really gaining any horsepower. Test divers found the Wake did best when they shifted into the frog kick, and they found it could do a dolphin kick pretty good too. While not real nimble in the turns, the fin does okay at maneuvering, and it’s relatively stable. Test divers felt the quick release buckle and strap system did its job. The non-skid, on the other hand, while it looks really aggressive, is actually too hard, which prevented it from biting into wet surfaces to keep test divers from slipping.
The Wake is not a great fin, but it’s not a bad fin either. Its foot pocket is cut narrow which caused some comfort issues among some test divers, and the non-skid could be more effective, but the price isn’t bad at all. So if you can find a pair that fits, you could do worse. Available in black, blue, yellow and pink.
After spending a couple days kicking with these fins, the Apollo Bio-Fin Pro C-Series Orange turned out to be the head-and-shoulders favorite among RDC test divers. Which was really no surprise. Combine maximum performance and minimum effort, and throw in the comfort factor, and it’s hard to beat the Apollo. But the APS Mantaray flexy version came close. It’s a high achiever in its own right, and its compact size makes it the most versatile kicker of the bunch, good for local diving and an easy traveler. Third place was won by Scubapro’s Jet Sport, a fin with performance and comfort attributes a click or two above average, that you can pick up for less than 80 bucks.
I’ve been a diving addict since my 14th birthday when my parents took me to the Bahamas and had my first scuba diving experience. I’ve been an active diver ever since but in the last few years my focus shifted on sharing my thoughts and experience on diving gear, writing product reviews and gave up on organizing dive tours.