Saturday, July 20, 2024

Review: Orca Zen Competition Freediving Wetsuit

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‘…It was late when we dove.. No one knew who we were, nor how many; only that we must dive…’

The Orca Zen arrived in mid-September… in Northern Michigan.  Our first hard frost was still a few days off, but night temperatures plummeted.

I’d hoped to do our photo shoot in the clear open waters of Lake Michigan. Still, temperatures in the big lake were in the 50s (10-15c), and early fall storms had churned the marl beds offshore, reducing visibility and taking days to settle – assuming the weather calmed down.

A Zen Moment in Dark Waters
A Zen Moment in Dark Waters

Thus my trusty photographer and I set out for smaller, warmer, and less turbulent waters the following weekend.  The weather mocked us.

Air temp on site was 58f/14.4c with heavy overcast and wind. Then the rain began – large drops splatting percussively against our wetsuits.

Ready to test the Orca Zen in bad weather
Ready to test the Orca Zen in bad weather

The water temperature had dropped 6f/3.3c degrees in a week.  It was now 68f/20c, with a fairly radical thermocline starting at about 12 feet/3.6m.  At this temperature, I typically wear either a 3mm two-piece or a 2mm one-piece suit with a 3mm vest underneath and a hood if I’m doing a dedicated workout. With the Zen, I used the hood and no vest.

Visibility was miserable.

I was, among other observations, surprisingly comfortable for two hours.

First Impressions

I’d sent Orca my measurements and skeptically went with their size recommendation.  Typical off-the-shelf suits do not work well for me.  They are either too loose or not long enough (usually both). When the Zen arrived, it looked tiny.

Initial inspection revealed a suit with uncompromising design, materials, and workmanship. Seams are glued and sewn with reinforcement at all stress points. The suit is skillfully tailored for compression, comfort, and flexibility. I found no manufacturing flaws.

Naturally, I had to try it on immediately.  It has been a good while since I’ve worn a suit with this degree of compression. Getting into it the first time was challenging.  (The phrase ‘painted on’ occurred to me.)

Fifteen minutes later, the sense of accomplishment was worth the struggle (subsequently, this has become much easier – now under five minutes – but when going to the pool, I still put the suit on at home to avoid social pressure as I struggle with the zipper).

The Ten-Second-Headstand test. (Set the timer, run away, flip up into a headstand)
The Ten-Second-Headstand test. (Set the timer, run away, flip up into a headstand)

Despite the tight fit, the Zen is incredibly comfortable.  Movement is not restricted, and the suit does feel like a second skin.

An interior panel stretches across the back, between you and the zipper. This channels any water that gets past the very robust neck seal down to a set of vent holes at the base of the zipper without touching your skin.  Once your arms are in (Use the included cotton gloves for this project!), you pull the inner neck seal over your head from behind – creating a double seal around the neck. Next comes the top-down zipper – a bit fiddly to hook up but very sturdy and practical.

In the water

Zen Breathe-up
Zen Breathe-up

I experienced slight flushing across the shoulders during my first few monofin sprints (I tested this in the pool – without the hood).  This became unnoticeable after swimming about 100m, as the suit settled on my body.

The Zen is surprisingly warm for a suit with back zip and only 2mm neoprene.  It is intended for very warm water, yet I was pretty comfortable at 68f/20c with cool air, wind, and rain.  The high-quality neoprene, fit, and mitigation of flushing combine to enhance heat retention, making it warmer than my usual 2mm suit and 3mm under-vest combo.

That's a lot of 'most' - but it's all true!
That’s a lot of ‘most’ – but it’s all true!

Monofinning in the Zen is a kinesthetic delight. The suit’s compression and hydrodynamics make it easier to sense the whole body as a unit, while the thin Yamamoto 39 neoprene and perfect fit let you feel the water sliding by without much body heat going with it.

Relative energy expenditure is difficult to quantify, but crossing 200 meters in 3 relaxed sprints felt easier than my other suits, with far superior glide and shorter recoveries.

Monofin Downstroke in the Zen Competition Wetsuit
Monofin Downstroke in the Zen Competition Wetsuit

Buoyancy – or lack thereof – is one of the things I like about these thinner suits.  Depending on the depths you are working with, very little to no weight is needed, and changes due to compressibility are minimal.  The Zen felt slightly less buoyant than my training suit of the same thickness.  With a 3.4lb/1.55kg Alchemy neck weight, I was neutral between 3 and 4 meters but did not feel like fighting buoyancy during shallower horizontal swims.

Conclusions

The Orca Zen is a superbly designed and executed state-of-the-art competition freediving suit. As such, it is not inexpensive.  It is, however, skillfully tuned to optimize your freediving performance and experience.

The compression enabled by the suit’s design and construction enhances kinesthetic awareness, warmth, and efficiency of motion. Flushing at the neck and zipper, the main drawback of one-piece freediving suits is almost eliminated by the innovative zipper and neck closure.

Will Trubridge, an Orca ambassador, set a new world endurance and distance record for underwater swimming in November 2022, while wearing the Orca Zen.

Check out this video of Will Trubridge taking the Zen through its paces:

Features

  • Outstanding fit and finish: High-quality materials, excellent design and construction.
  • Superb Hydrodynamics: Advanced coatings on the Yamamoto 39 neoprene help optimize the suit’s excellent hydrodynamic profile.
  • Enhanced Kinesthetics: The cut and materials of the Zen enable whole-body compression – enhancing comfort, circulation, and efficiency of motion.
  • Perfect fit: Tailoring and materials combine to make this suit extremely comfortable  – even for those not easy to fit.
  • Minimal to no water entry: A double neck seal, insulating back panel, top-down zipper, and precise fit combine to minimize or eliminate water entry, even during hard sprints.

Price

  • Orca Zen Competition Freediving Wetsuit – $499 USD / £399 GBP / €549 EUR

Buy It Now

REVIEW OVERVIEW

Performance
Comfort
Appearance
Price
Durability

SUMMARY

The Orca Zen is a superbly designed and executed state-of-the-art one piece freediving suit. Fine tuned for competition, it can be challenging to get into, particularly if your body is wet, but is well worth the effort for the outstanding comfort and performance.
Christopher Morey
Christopher Moreyhttp://www.michiganfreediving.com
Christopher Morey has been free diving since age nine. He has trained with Eric Fattah, Emma Farrell and Will Trubridge and is a RAID advanced instructor and Master Freediver. He lives in Traverse City, Michigan with his wife, son, three monofins and seven (7) Spheras.

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The Orca Zen is a superbly designed and executed state-of-the-art one piece freediving suit. Fine tuned for competition, it can be challenging to get into, particularly if your body is wet, but is well worth the effort for the outstanding comfort and performance.Review: Orca Zen Competition Freediving Wetsuit