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A diver explores the Hetty Taylor, which sank in Lake Michigan off the coast of Sheboygan

Wrecking Crew

by Rebecca Taras | Men's Book Chicago magazine | July 10, 2012

The water is crisp—but thanks to the wet suit you just shimmied into you’ll be just fine. From attaching your BC (that’s buoyancy compensator) to checking your regulator (because breathing is good), you’re all set for a scuba adventure to see old shipwrecks, and maybe even some marine life, in the grand waters of Lake Michigan. While destinations like Australia’s coral reef or Barracuda Point in the famed Sipadan Islands tend to get the spotlight, taking a dive in the same source of H2O that supplies your drinking water and invigorating morning shower, good ol’ Chicago tap, offers rewards all its own. Call it a Jacques Cousteau adventure, city style.

Like learning to walk before you can run, there are prerequisites you must meet before being able to get your flippers wet. There are several scuba diving schools in the Chicago area, but not all of them venture out into Lake Michigan like Underwater Safaris (UWS). In biz since 1986, UWS is a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) five-star scuba center. The five stars, which not all PADI schools have, means the facility excels in its diver-education programs, excursions and equipment selection. It also gives you the ability to earn an exclusive PADI five-star certification card—how’s that for bragging rights?

UWS is also the only Instructor Development Center in Chicago, meaning they can train divers from the beginner to instructor levels.

Underwater Safaris takes qualified divers on Lake Michigan wreck dives but doesn’t actually teach in the waters. “Lake Michigan has two issues,” says Marianne Preker, the owner of the company. “The weather can change quickly, which means big waves and some storms. Issue two is that it is illegal to dive from beaches in Chicago. We teach in a small lake where there are no waves.” Trained as an instructor in 1986, Preker has helped the school instruct more than 10,000 divers. With more than 3,000 worldwide dives under her belt, and the honor of being a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, it’s safe to say she has seen it all, particularly around Chicago.

Wreck dives take place June through September, and start at $115 per person. One must mind the rules: To penetrate a wreck, you must be wreck certified. To dive a wreck in a dry suit you must be certified as a dry suit diver in order to rent a dry suit. If you own your own dry suit, you don’t need to be certified as a dry suit diver. To dive a wreck in a wet suit, you just have to be a certified diver. Got that?

Next, it’s all about “great shipwrecks and great fun,” says Preker. “We hire boats and captains who have 15-plus years experience. They know where the wrecks are and understand visibility and weather issues.”

Highlights include the David Dows, which was the grandest cargo schooner ever to sail the Great Lakes and once the largest five-masted schooner in the world, and the Material Service Barge, a 240-foot steel hulled motor barge. The depth of the wrecks varies greatly, from the George Morley, sitting in 12 feet of water off the coast in Evanston, to about 120 feet, near the limit of recreational diving. No matter how deep you go, conditions can greatly affect the experience: “I have a photo in the store where I’m diving on a wreck and visibility is more than 50 feet,” says Preker. “That means you can see more than 50 feet horizontally. You could see the entire wreck, and that is awesome.”

And you never know exactly what you’re going to come across. “We dove on a site called the Caissons and [a customer] found a rifle that he donated to us that we have at the store,” says Preker. “I had it dated and found out it was from the Chicago Fire.”

You might also run into an ancient petrified forest that has been dated from more than 7,500 years ago, Preker says. As for marine life, you’ll swim among salamanders, lake and brown trout, king and coho salmon, clams, mussels, burbots, sponges and various other creatures. But, also adding to the appeal of diving in Lake Michigan, almost certainly nothing too frightening.

Underwater Safaris, 2950 N. Lincoln Ave., 773.348.3999, uwsafaris.com