Let’s start by stating the obvious: women are different from men. Consequently, when it came time to evaluate a handful of new women’s BCs, we knew our regular contingent of test divers–mostly male—just wasn’t going to be able to pull off this assignment.
So we assembled a group of test divers consisting entirely of the fairer sex, mostly dive masters and dive instructors so they had a lot of in-water experience, plus they had a history of working with female dive students so they were already familiar with the difficulties women sometimes face finding Women BCs that fit right and that are stable and easy to control in the water.
Years of testing dive equipment has shown that, as a general rule, female divers tend to be a lot more critical about dive gear than male divers. And when you think about it, this makes sense. If a piece of gear doesn’t fit or perform to perfection, men, due to the advantages of size and strength, will often simply muscle through any shortcomings.
Recommended Women BCs by RDC Experts
But women, being physically smaller, don’t always have this luxury, so for them it’s a lot more important that a woman’s scuba diving gear works right. For example, a BC without something as simple as a usable lift/carry handle may be no big deal to a big guy, but to a small gal it can make a huge difference in her ability to muscle around a 60-pound dive rig. Or a BC that slides around on the back or suffers from tank wobble can have a diver expending all her underwater energy just trying to maintain stability and a comfortable swimming attitude. Anyone, male or female, who has ever had to contend with that knows that sort of diving is no fun at all.
So our team of test divers approached this project with a level of seriousness that told the RDC staff that we should stay out of the way and just let them work. But before we turned our test BCs over to the ladies, staffers collected some objective data on them. We measured their inherent buoyancy and buoyant lift, and we tested to see how each BC’s valve system stood up to some rigorous flow rate tests (click here for Objective Test Results).
Once this lab-coat stuff was behind us, we divided the ergo portion of our tests into two phases with two dive teams: the first team put the BCs through their paces in a large salt-water test pool; the second team hit the water off SoCal’s Anacapa Island.
In each phase BCs were rated in 23 performance categories, from ease of assembly to stability at depth to valve performance to the efficiency of the weight ditch system. Scoring was done on a 1 to 10 scale—1 being the worst, 10 being the best, with 5 being a solid “Good.” All scores were supported by diver comments click here for Ergo Test Results).
While testers rigged their Women BCs, did their water work, recorded their scores and made their comments, RDC’s support staff stood at the ready to organize sizes, reload slates with underwater score sheets, and offer cold drinks. The following are the results of the test team’s efforts.
Women’s BC Reviews
Women’s BC reviews are presented in alphabetical order by manufacturer. RDC Favorites from this round of testing can be found at the end of these write-ups. Also, don’t forget to check out RDC’s Top Gear archive where you’ll find five additional top-rated female-specific BCs that were previously reviewed by the RDC dive team and are still available in dive stores.
Aqua Lung Libra BC – An Old Favorite Gets a Make-Over
The Libra is the female version of Aqua Lung’s Balance. It comes with a shorter torso and a smaller backpack, two rather than three pre-bent stainless-steel D-rings, a removable sternum strap, and a choice of black/pink or black/charcoal color schemes. First introduced in 1998, the Libra underwent a recent make-over. Its integrated weight system has been replaced with Aqua Lung’s premiere weight system, the Surelock II, old-school exhaust valves are now low-profile flat valves, and the original plastic harness tri-loaders are now stainless-steel. The new Libra also has what Aqua Lung calls a “Self-Adjusting Lumbar Support” system, which is a half-round flex pad about three inches wide that’s positioned between the backpack and backpad. As the weight of the tank settles against your back, a portion of the flex pad flattens beneath the tank while the rest of it puffs out to fill the hollow in your back. This provides more tank support plus ramps up the comfort factor.
The Libra’s soft over-molded carry handle doubles as a tank positioning strap, making easy work of rigging the Libra on a tank. Shoulder swivel buckles allow straps to find the best route under your arms. The BC offers a really user-friendly waist-strap setup. Each strap end runs through slides on the front lobes of the harness, then feeds back toward centerline. This way, when cinching down the straps, rather than having to pull back and away from centerline, you push the strap ends forward, away from you. This provides a much better angle of attack, allowing for an easier, more efficient cinch-down.
During in-water tests, the Libra earned above-average scores for comfort at depth as well as stability. The standard Aqua Lung Powerline power inflator and low-profile flat valves provided testers with pinpoint buoyancy control; button action was responsive, and the pull dump didn’t require excessive tugging. The power inflator itself is compact and was deemed well-shaped for smaller hands. The SureLock II weight system outshined a pretty impressive array of integrated weight systems. Testers loved being able to easily load weights while wearing the BC, and ditching weights and controlling the ballast pouches was a breeze.
The Libra’s cargo pocket is a two-tier design. To stow small items there’s the zippered main compartment. If more space is needed, a tug on the tab expands the lower portion of the pocket, virtually doubling cargo carrying capacity.
Test divers did have a couple of nitpicks. The knobs at the ends of the remote exhaust valves were considered small and a bit difficult to grab for test divers wearing gloves. Also, while the quick-release shoulder swivel buckles made strap routing much more efficient, some test divers, again those wearing gloves, had a problem activating the quick-release buttons. All test divers felt having only two D-rings wasn’t quite enough.
For divers who like rear inflation BCs but don’t want to sacrifice comfort or performance features, the Libra is hard to beat. For years it’s been a favorite among women divers; this newer version with its many upgrades is just that much better.
Aqua Lung Lotus i3 BC – A Fresh-Sheet Design
The Lotus i3 is the female version of Aqua Lung’s Dimension i3. Predictably, the Lotus i3 has a shorter torso, a little more contour to the shoulders, the lower edge has been cut to allow it to ride more comfortably on the hips, and its color scheme includes some pink accents.
The Lotus i3 is a ground-breaking BC in a couple of respects. First and foremost is its i3 remote buoyancy control system. Replacing the traditional corrugated inflator hose with a thumb-lever control located on the left side of the BC, this lever ties into a pair of low-profile one-way exhaust valves. Lifting up on the lever inflates the air cell, pressing down deflates the air cell. Push rod technology activates both exhaust valves simultaneously so buoyancy control can be maintained regardless of your position in the water. Then you have the Wrapture Harness System, which mates the BC’s shoulder straps to a semi-rigid wrap-around panel supporting the lower back. An ultra-thin backplate bolts to this wrap-around panel. A tank band positioned low on the backpack and an adjustable tank valve strap complete the system.
It took only a few minutes for test divers to abandon their tried-and-true power inflators for the i3, which was crowned the most streamlined, user-friendly and just plain fun inflate/deflate system around. Even the oral inflator tube, which stows folded up on the left shoulder and is normally used only in emergencies, was deemed an easier method to manually inflate the air cell than traditional oral inflators. Ocean divers wearing gloves would have liked a larger knob to grab onto to activate the right shoulder exhaust, but that was their only gripe with the Lotus i3 valve system.
The Wrapture system also surpassed expectations, even with test divers using short tanks. The primary band grabs the tank low, while the adjustable tank valve strap secures the top end of the tank. This dual security system locks the tank in solidly, delivering a super-stable ride at depth. The Wrapture system also let divers thread both LP i3 inflator and HP console hoses through the back of the air cell; this streamlined their swimming profile and helped organize hoses.
The Lotus i3 uses the same push-forward waist strap system as the Libra, which made waist strap cinching about as easy as you can get. Shoulder straps adjusted easily too, due primarily to the swivel buckles that routed the straps comfortably under divers’ arm. The sternum strap offers a choice of seven vertical positions so test divers were able to find the height that best matched their torso length.
With its neoprene neck roll and thick open-cell foam lumbar padding, combined with the rock solid positioning of the tank, the Lotus i3 outscored all comers in comfort and stability at depth.
The SureLock II weight system, also found on the Libra, pretty much dominated the competition, both in loading and deploying weight pouches. Test divers also loved the octo pouch and console sleeve that kept dangling hoses in check. Some divers felt that two of the four D-rings were positioned a bit too high on the shoulders, but other divers felt the octo pouch and console sleeve made any D-ring issues almost superfluous.
There are two cargo pockets on the Lotus i3: a small zippered pocket and a large fold-down pocket. The smaller pocket is easy to access but test divers found that its volume tends to get eaten up by the bulk of the weight pouches. However, the expandable fold-down pocket offered divers lots of unencumbered cargo carrying capacity.
The Lotus i3 is good-looking, and its design innovations are fresh and forward-looking. You’d be hard-pressed to find a tank band system that works as dead-on as the Wrapture, and the i3 system is effective and a lot of fun. Combine this with its stability, various convenience features and creature comforts, and it becomes clear why this BC led the pack.
Mares Hybrid She Dives BC – Plush and Comfortable
The new Hybrid She Dives BC is a womens’-specific version of Mares’ standard Hybrid, offering a shorter backpack to better match a female’s shorter torso. Overall sizing has also been scaled down to correspond to smaller diver shapes, and it can be argued that the accent trim and colors on the She Dives version are a bit more eye-catching than what’s found on the standard version.
The Hybrid She Dives has some interesting design characteristics. To start, the entire BC is built around a honey-combed hard backpack that’s hinged in the middle. The hard backpack enhances in-water stability and also lets Mares offer a first-rate molded-in lift/carry handle, while the hinge allows the backpack to be folded into a more compact shape and size for packing and traveling. The BC is also somewhat modular; the harness is detachable from the air cell which in turn is detachable from the back pack. Some thick padding can be found in the shoulder and upper-back areas. There’s also a padded band Mares calls its “Suspension System” that spans the lobes of the lower portion of the backpack and provides lumbar support. The air cell offers a combination of wrap-around front inflation as well as back buoyancy. The BC is equipped with Mares MRS+ mechanical integrated weight system, a couple of large cargo pockets and seven powder-coated aluminum D-rings.
At first look the Hybrid She Dives appears rather complicated. But the method-behind-design quickly reveals itself as you start to use it. It’s surprising how what appear to be minor features can end up having such a major impact. The molded lift handle is a good example. Test divers felt it was one of the best parts of the Hybrid She Dives because it made it so much easier to heft, carry and rig the BC. Test divers also lauded the Hybrid’s plush padding and the strap system that combined to comfortably hug the body. However, the straps (particularly the shoulder pull-downs and the tank band) tend to be longer than necessary which can make rigging and adjusting the BC a bit confusing. Also, the squeeze buckle on the cummerbund overstrap is bigger and stiffer than test divers would have liked.
In the water the Hybrid She Dives proved to be a comfortable and stable BC. The MRS+ weight system was rated relatively easy to load when wearing the BC and very easy to load when not, although divers weren’t always sure they had successfully secured weight pouches due to a somewhat soft “click” that indicates weights are locked and loaded. However, pouches ditched without a hitch and handles were easy to hold onto when passing up to the dive boat. The rear trim weights, on the other hand, were a bit more problematic. Located along the lower edge of the harness behind the backpack, they tend to be hard to access. Because of that, some testers found it easier to load them before strapping BC to tank.
The Hybrid She Dives’ valves system earned above-average scores for ease of use and efficiency in moving air. Test divers particularly liked the shape of the oral inflator and the powerful dump action of the right shoulder exhaust. They also like the two zippered cargo pockets, which are extra large and offer baffles to provide additional cargo space if desired. D-rings were numerous and test divers considered them to be well-positioned.
The Mares Hybrid She Dives proved to be a very plush, very comfortable BC. Its wrap-around hybrid design makes for a little more bulk up front than you’d find from a straight-up back-buoyancy design, but you gain a more secure-feeling BC with nice stability both at depth and when floating on the surface. Overall, it’s a nice compromise. The foldable hard backpack is a bonus for traveling divers. Another bonus: the Hybrid She Dives, for all its plush padding, carries less than a pound of inherent buoyancy.
Tusa Selene II BC – Truly For Women Only
There is no male counterpart to the new Selene II; this BC is female-driven from the ground up. The bladder is high-cut to allow unfettered hip movement. The sternum strap can be positioned high or low or removed altogether. This new version (the original Selene was introduced in 2004) has a simplified upper shoulder design, an upgraded integrated weight ditch system, upgraded—and more numerous—cargo pockets, and the addition of a really cool pneumatic purge assist integrated into a redesigned power inflator. You get three decent-sized stainless D-rings, one of which is pre-bent, and two small plastic Ds positioned over the pockets to clip off octos or console retractors, plus lots of nice padding, especially in the lumbar area.
The Active Purge Assist (APA) was the test diver talk of the Selene II. A pneumatically assisted deflate button (this is in addition to the standard deflate button found on any power inflator), it activates the left shoulder exhaust valve without pulling on the corrugated hose. Test divers loved this additional method of venting air because it greatly enhanced their buoyancy control without requiring them to reach up and tug to activate the exhaust valve. Also, having the APA means if you want you can get the corrugated hose off your shoulder by running it under your left arm, while still being able to activate the left shoulder exhaust valve. Beyond the APA, test divers found the power inflator itself to be compact enough to fit into a female hand, and the rest of the valve system was deemed efficient and easy to use.
The Selene II’s integrated weight system is a little different than what was found on its predecessor. The locking mechanism itself looks to be the same (albeit white instead of orange). However, while the pouches on the old system used to be set at about a 20 degree angle relative to the bottom edge of the BC, on this new system pouches are more parallel to the bottom of the BC. The new system generated mixed reviews. Half of test divers found it hard to load weights when wearing the BC, and felt the locking mechanism was a bit complicated. The other half of the team were able to load weights while wearing the BC, and they actually liked the locking mechanism. Everyone agreed, however, that ditching weights was easy, and the rear trim pouches were well-positioned and offered good access.
The Selene II was considered very “comfy and stable” at depth and provided an arm-chair-like floating position on the surface, although being a jacket-style BC, body squeeze is possible if the bladder is overinflated. When it came to cargo pockets, the Selene II earned the only “10” score of these tests. Offering five pockets—two small, two large and one drop-down, all are zippered, all are easily accessible, and the two large and one drop-down offer lots of stowage space.
The Selene II is available in four sizes, which is more sizes than what’s offered by the other BCs in this go-round; however, the range of buoyant lift isn’t as high as you might expect (19 pounds for extra-small, up to 32 pounds for large). For warm water divers this wouldn’t present a problem, but temperate or cold-water divers who find themselves in the smaller sizes will need to make sure the BC offers enough buoyant lift to match their style of diving.
For those who prefer jacket-style BCs, there’s a lot to love about the Selene II, from its female-specific styling to its APA system to its ample padding and numerous cargo pockets.
All votes counted, the Aqua Lung Lotus i3 was the overwhelming favorite female-specific Women BC in this go-round, earning a first-place pick among every single test diver. It was comfortable, stable and had a great integrated weight system, but in the end what really put it over the top was the i3 system—test divers just loved it. Coming in a solid second was the Aqua Lung Libra. While it didn’t offer the cutting-edge design chops of the Lotus i3, what it did offer was function, comfort and ease of use. The third-place spot was divided equally between the Mares Hybrid She Dives and the Tusa Selene II, depending in large part on comfort and fit and individual preferences for the basic design and weight systems.
2020 Women’s BC Ergo Test Scores (Scored on a 1 to 10 Scale)
|Aqua Lung Libra||Aqua Lung Lotus i3||Mares Hybrid She Dives||Tusa Selene II|
|Rigging & Assembly||7||8||7||7|
|Sternum Strap Position & Adjustment||6||7||6||5|
|Loading Wts: Not Wearing BC||8||8||6||5|
|Loading Wts: Wearing BC||8||8||5||4|
|Stability at Depth||7||9||7||7|
|PI Assembly: Inflate Button Operation||8||9||7||8|
|PI Assembly: Deflate Button Operation||8||9||7||8|
|PI Assembly: Oral Inflate Operation||6||8||7||6|
|PI Assembly: Pull Dump Operation||8||n/a||6||8|
|Right Shoulder Exhaust Operation||7||7||8||7|
|Lower Rear Exhaust Operation||5||n/a||5||6|
|Surface Floating Position||6||6||7||8|
|Lack of Body Squeeze||8||8||5||4|
|Ease of Ditching Wts.||8||8||7||7|
|Ease of Controlling Wts or Pouches after Removal||8||8||7||7|
Testing for Inherent Buoyancy
In scuba diving it’s all about maintaining neutral buoyancy. The less buoyancy you have built into your rig, the less ballast weight you to need to carry to counter-balance it. Next to a wetsuit, the biggest buoyancy-carrying culprit in your dive system is your BC. That’s why when we review a new BC the first thing we do is test it for inherent buoyancy.
In a test pool, the BC is submerged and all air is expelled using the exhaust valves. Still submerged, the BC is then allowed to settle so any trapped air can escape from nooks and crannies. The BC is then slowly rotated and shoulder and lumbar pads are manipulated to release any additional trapped air. Exhaust valves are repeatedly bled until testers are assured as much air as possible has been removed from the BC. Then the BC is released into the water column. If it starts heading for the surface, we carefully add pound and half-pound weights until we find that sweet spot where neutral buoyancy is achieved.
The following chart shows the amount of weight each BC required to achieve neutral buoyancy.
RDC Inherent Buoyancy Test Results
|None||Less than 1 lb.||1 – 2 lbs.||2 – 3 lbs.||More than 3 lbs.|
|Aqua Lung Libra||Aqua Lung Lotus i3 (1.3 lbs.)|
|Mares Hybrid She Dives||Tusa Selene II (2.0 lbs.)|
Testing Flow Rates
Cruising along at 80 feet deep, you grab hold of your power inflator to feed a little air into your BC and suddenly your inflator button sticks open. Which—if any—of the exhaust valves on your BC is going to be able to stay ahead of this stuck inflator to prevent your BC from filling with air and rocketing you to the surface? That’s the question RDC’s flow rate tests are designed to answer.
We start our tests by putting the BC in a heads-up position, simulating a standard ascent. The BC is fully deflated and then loaded with ballast equaling 20 percent of its mfg-stated buoyant lift. Then we activate the inflation valve for 20 seconds while also activating each of the applicable exhaust valves, one at a time. After each 20-second cycle, the BC is checked to see if it continues to be negatively buoyant. If it is, that means the deflate valve was able to keep up with or even overtake the inflate valve; if it isn’t, that means the deflate valve couldn’t keep up.
Industry standards require that at least one of a BC’s heads-up position deflation valves be able to keep up with its inflation system. All of the BCs tested here were able to meet that industry standard. Note: tests consistently show that the exhaust valve most effective in staying ahead of a stuck inflator is the right shoulder exhaust.
RDC Flow Rate Test Results
|PI Deflator When Held Overhead||Corrugated Exhaust Hose Pull Dump||Alternate (Right) Shoulder Exhaust||Additional Deflate Methods|
|Aqua Lung Libra||Yes||Yes||Yes||n/a|
|Aqua Lung Lotus i3||n/a*||n/a*||No||n/a|
|Mares Hybrid She Dives||Yes||Yes||Yes||n/a|
|Tusa Selene II||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes (APA)|
* Since the i3 buoyancy control system ties both inflate and deflate actions into a single lever, we weren’t able to conduct our standard flow rate tests on the Lotus
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.