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Thinking about scuba diving ?

Scuba DiversScuba diving is a fantastic sport. It's the closest we can come to being in a weightless environment while yielding sights that few get to see. While some may consider it an "extreme" sport, it's no more dangerous than driving a car. If you follow the rules it's very safe and enjoyable. SCUBA is an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus which is why you'll occasionally see it spelled using all capital letters but spelling it in lower-case has become common.

Living in Milwaukee affords area divers opportunities that make us the envy of scuba divers in many other areas of the nation and the world. Due to its' history as a shipping port there are numerous ship wrecks right off the Milwaukee shoreline, as well as many others along the Wisconsin shoreline, particularly around Door County. The cold, non-salt water of Lake Michigan helps preserve these underwater relics ranging from old wooden schooners to more modern steel-hull frieghters.

In addition to Lake Michigan, there are numerous inland lakes available to the recreational diver which are close to Milwaukee. My all-time favorite of these is Lake Geneva (see the maps and dive information below). The lake, with its' sorted past, holds many interesting artifacts with some dating back to the 1800s. (I personally recovered a wine bottle circa 1860.) Its' sandy bottom and relatively clear water negates the need for dive lights and its' warmer water temperatures are a refreshing change from the chill of Lake Michigan, especially for wet suit divers. It's less than an hours drive from Milwaukee on I-43 (the "Rock freeway"). You can have a nice, free Visitors Guide featuring maps and information on lodging, boat rentals, recreational activities, and eateries sent to you. Simply call the Lake Geneva Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-345-1020.

Getting Started

There are several dive shops around the Milwaukee area that offer scuba diving training classes, equipment sales and rental, and dive charters. I got certified through Underwater Connection.

Scuba DiverThe entry-level training class is the PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) "Open Water" certification. (PADI is the certifying agency and you must have a certification in order to rent tanks or get them filled.) The cost to complete this class, which includes classroom instruction and pool training along with an open water check-out dive at the completion of the course, is around $300. Lessons cover the use and operation of equipment (tanks, regulators, buoyancy compenstator vests, pressure gauges, depth gauges, etc.), the physics of diving (pressures, buoyancy, weight, etc.), proper diving behavior and techniques, as well as dive planning and underwater communication via hand signals. The cost of the class includes all of the necessary equipment rentals but you'll want to have your own mask, fins, and snorkel. (They also have a "Scuba Tune-Up" class if you're a certified diver who's been out of the water for awhile.)

If you wish, you can progress to the "Advanced Open Water" certifcation training which includes lessons in night diving, underwater navigation and search techniques, and deep diving. In addition, there are numerous specialty certifications offering training in underwater photography, rescue diving, equipment specialist, wreck diver (for penetrating inside ship wrecks), and for areas such as ours, ice diving (chopping a hole in the ice and diving under it). Most of these specialty certifications include both class room instruction and pool lessons.

Scuba InstructionThe best way for the beginner to get their feet wet so to speak is to sign up for a "Discover Scuba" session. This is a two to three hour introduction to scuba diving where you wear scuba equipment in an indoor pool. The cost is about $35. All you need to bring is a swim suit, towel, and (preferrably) you own mask, fins, and snorkel if you have them. You can sign up for a session at Underwater Connection on line.

Going Diving

As with dive shops in most areas, you can book trips to tropical destinations. And as with dive shops in most areas, the local dive shops are your best source for Milwaukee-area outings.

Outings to inland lakes and quarries are scheduled requently throughout the summer, and occasionally for ice diving excursions during the winter.

Lake Michigan charters to ship wreck sites are held weekly during the summer months. These charters (just the boat ride) typically cost $75 to $80 and usually last four to five hours from dock departure to return. Most weekend charters are "two-tank trips" meaning you dive a tank, come up and take a break on the boat, and then go for a second dive. Weekday evening one-tank charters may also available and cost less. There are several different dive charter boats used by area dive shops and they normally dock at locations on the Milwaukee River south of downtown. The most popular wreck is the Prins Willem (aka "the Willy"), a 258-foot steel-hull frieghter that went down about five miles off of the Milwaukee harbor entrance in 1954. Its' deck is at about 55 feet with a maximum depth of 85 feet.

Pirates Cove, Milwaukee's oldest dive shop, also operates the Len-Der dive charter boat with frequent trips to Lake Michigan shipwrecks for the wreck diving enthusiast.

Lake Geneva

The dive shop on Lake Geneva closed some time ago but there are several boat rental operations around the lake. If you have your own boat there are three public boat launches on the north, east, and west shores of the lake with launch fees under $10 for state residents. Take the Hwy. 12 exit off of I-43 to go into the city of Lake Geneva. Take the Hwy. 67 exit to go into Williams Bay and Fontana.

Lake Geneva Map

There are even a couple sizable ship wrecks in Lake Geneva. The 115' Lucius Newberry went down in 65 feet of water in 1891. It burned to the water line so there isn't much left. The 93' hull of an earlier Lady of the Lake excursion boat (there's a newer one running now) rests in only 35 feet of water. It went down in 1893.

Milwaukee Map

One caution about diving in Lake Geneva is that there is a lot of boat traffic (which can be a hazardous thing for scuba divers). While boaters are supposed to know what a dive flag looks like and stay at least 100 feet away from any vessel flying one, I've seen instances where they motored right up to a dive boat to ask what the flag means. Play it safe and don't ascend in open water. Use your boat's anchor line for an ascent. If you have your own boat or plan to rent one, Princeton Tec manufactures the underwater Aqua Strobe with a velcro strap (cost is around $35) that you can attach to the bottom of your anchor line to make it easy to find your way back to it at the conclusion of your dive.

IMPORTANT:  Every scuba diver must register (preferrably in person) with the Water Safety Patrol (262-245-6577) before you dive Lake Geneva your first time. (This applies whether you have your own boat, rent a boat, or even if you use a dive charter service.) The registration is free and is good for a lifetime, but you must have your registration card with you every time you go scuba diving on the lake. In a recent e-mail this was their response to a query about diving restrictions:
"The only time restrictions are that there is no scuba diving allowed at night. There are some areas of the lake that are off limits to scuba diving during the summer months. Those areas are Geneva Bay, Williams Bay, and Fontana Bay. Divers must dive from an anchored boat, and a scuba flag must be displayed from that boat. All divers must register with the Water Safety Patrol prior to diving, and you will receive a complete list of rules at that time. Our office is located at 301 Constance Blvd., Williams Bay, WI. Registration is free."
In a subsequent e-mail I received the following information about the registration process:
"We would prefer that they do it in person because there is a registration card that we give out that has a map outlining the restricted areas, etc. It also lists the scuba ordinances for Geneva Lake. It is a one-time registration that is good for a lifetime, and they can do it any time before diving. It does not have to be done the day of the dive. If they cannot come in person, we could get the information by phone and fax them (or mail) a copy of the card."

Lake Geneva Map

Their office is located about mid-way between the Williams Bay and Fontana boat launches. Note that shore diving is not allowed. You must use a boat. The summer restrictions to diving in the "Bays" is due to heavy boat traffic near the public launches. If you plan on using your own boat or renting one, let them know this when you register. They likely also have rules governing boating activities that you'll need to be aware of as well.

Equipment

Scuba diving equipment isn't cheap. However, dive shops will rent all necessary and even optional equipment (like underwater cameras and metal detectors) for those just getting started. This is a good way to see what makes/models work good for you. The decision to rent or buy depends on how often you plan to dive.

The "basic" scuba unit actually consists of four items:

  • Scuba TankTank - A thick-walled aluminum cylinder that is pressurized to 3,000 psi to hold 80 cu. ft. of regular air (NOT oxygen). The tank is equipped with a "K valve" to which one end of the regulator is attached.

  • Scuba RegulatorRegulator - The regulator has two pieces connected by a thin black hose. One end (called the "primary stage") attaches to the K-valve on the tank and the other end (called the "secondary stage") has a mouth-piece and exhaust vents. Its' purpose is to drop down the high pressure air of the tank to the correct pressure needed for breathing (which changes depending on the depth you are at). There are also "ports" on the primary stage for attaching hoses for devices like a tank pressure gauge, BC vest inflator, and a backup second stage known as an "octopus".

  • Scuba Buoyancy CompensatorBuoyancy Compensator - Most commonly referred to as a "BC" it is a vest with an air-tight bladder inside. Air is added to it with the push of a button via a hose attached to the regulator and there is a valve for releasing the air. As your depth changes you add/remove air from the BC to make you "neutrally buoyant" so that you neither sink down or float up. This in effect makes you weightless so that all you need to do to maneuver around is kick your feet.

  • Backpack - The BC is installed on a backpack. It has a single wide strap or band in the back that holds the tank and has shoulder and waist straps in the front for securing it to you. Given that the BC stays attached to the backpack, these two items are handled as a single item.

One common beginner question is "How long does a tank of air last?" The answer is "It depends on your depth." The deeper you go the greater the pressure (exerted by the water) against your body. Because your body is mostly water this isn't a problem. But it does mean that you need more air to be able to inflate your lungs against this pressure. The pressure of the air you inhale must be the same as the pressure of the water around you (that's what the regulator does for you). Each 33 feet of depth equals one additional "atmosphere" of pressure. At the surface there is one atmosphere (14.7 psi) of pressure. You'll use up your air twice as fast at 99 feet (four atmospheres of pressure) than you will at 33 feet (two atmospheres of pressure). Because your depth typically changes during a dive, and given the differences in peoples lung sizes and respiration rates, it's impossible to determine how long a tank of air will last for any given dive. In my experience it's about 20 minutes at 100 feet and 45 minutes at 30 feet.

Starting out you should have your own mask, fins, and snorkel. If you wear glasses you can order a mask with corrective lenses (but it may be cheaper to switch to contact lenses). If you wear hard contact lenses check with your optometrist to make sure they are the "gas permeable" type. Most are these days but check to make sure.

US Divers Rocket FinsFins come in heel-strap and full-foot models. The heel-strap models tend to stay on better. It's common to wear wet suit or dry suit boots (dry suits will sometimes come with attached boots) under the fins. This not only protects your exposed heal but allows for a more comfortable fin fit because fin material tends to be rather rigid. When adjusting heel straps or sizing full-foot fins be sure to allow for the boots you'll be wearing.

The basic scuba unit outlined above can be rented. However, there are additional items you'll need to rent or buy. One of the most important is a diving suit to keep you warm during your dive.

Scuba Wet SuitA wet suit is a tight-fitting porous neoprene suit that allows a layer of water to flow in between you and the suit. This water becomes trapped (which is why you want it tight-fitting) and is warmed by your body and helps to keep you warm during your dive. Due to all the air bubbles in the neoprene material, a wet suit makes you very buoyant and you need to wear a weight belt so that you can get below the surface. Wet suits come in different thicknesses so you can get a thicker suit for our colder waters. 5 mm is usually the minimum for this area with 7 mm recommended because wet suits will get compressed by water pressure and lose some of their insulating ability as a result. Cold-water wet suits are typically two-piece suits with a jacket-type top and "farmer john" bib-type pants which offer additional insulation for your torso. There are also wet suit hoods, gloves, and boots. The thicker the suit the more weight you'll need on your weight belt.

Scuba Dry SuitIf you are going to be doing a lot of Lake Michigan wreck diving you'll want to invest in a dry suit. Water temperatures below the "thermocline" in the lake stay around 38 degrees year-around. A dry suit is a looser-fitting, one-piece, water-tight suit and you wear insulated under-garments (similar to long johns) underneath for warmth. It is recommended that you take the PADI Dry Suit Diver course before diving with a dry suit. These suits have fill and exhaust valves like a BC. Air can be added to the suit to relieve "suit squeeze" but this introduces additional buoyancy considerations that you need to know how to deal with.

The Cadillac of dry suits are those made by DUI. Their higher-end dry suits can run in excess of $2,000. For the occasional diver, lower-cost dry suits from manufacturers like Bare Sportswear would suffice and can be had for under $1,000. By comparison, wet suits usually cost under $500. (Bare also makes wet suits including the 7mm "Arctic Hooded Fullsuit" for around $300.) This is a good case where renting the different types of suits can help you decide if the benefits of a dry suit are worth the additional cost. Dry suits also require the purchase of the Thinsulate or Polartec under-garments. These types of under-garments are mentioned because you don't want cotton or wool under-garments. These natural fibers will absorb perspiration, making them wet and getting you chilled. By contrast, Thinsulate and Polartec synthetic under-garments wick moisture away keeping you dry. (This applies to high-activity winter under-garments as well.)
Pressure Guage and Tank Guage ConsoleTwo required gauges are the depth guage and tank pressure guage (to monitor your air supply during your dive). The tank pressure gauge attaches to the primary stage of the regulator via a hose. Both gauges are often combined into a single "console" There are also three-position consoles where an underwater compass takes the third position. Most rental regulators contain a tank pressure gauge and may also include a depth gauge. (You can rent a wrist-mounted depth guage if it's not included.) When buying a depth gauge, get one with a "maximum depth indicator" needle. It gets pushed up the depth scale by the main indicator needle but does not move back on its' own. This shows you how deep you were at the deepest part of your dive. Digital gauges and "dive computers" have become more common but analog gauges are fine and are less expensive.

Scuba Dive LightThe murky nature of Lake Michigan near Milwaukee means that a dive light is another necessary piece of equipment for wreck diving (even when not penetrating the wrecks). Dive lights are water-proof, pressure-resistant flashlights. They range from cheap and not very helpful to powerful sealed-beam lights that can cost over $200. The more powerful dive lights are meant to be used only under water as the water is needed to cool the front plastic lens. The Ikelite SuperLite model I own came with a warning that using it out of the water could cause the plastic cover lens to start to melt. Due to the physics of light and water, light in the blue spectrum makes it to deeper depths. A moderate dive light can be advantageous even at dive sites where there is a decent amount of ambient light because it will allow you to see things in their true colors. They are also helpful when diving on overcast days when the ambient light is reduced. However, wreck diving in Lake Michigan off of Milwaukee calls for a high-power dive light, especially if you plan to advance and get your "Wreck Diver" certification so you can penetrate the wrecks.

Last but not least is a gear bag. These are basically just big duffle bags with mesh panels that allow water to drain out (after putting wet equipment in them). Gear bags are especially important on charter boats because you need to keep your equipment collected and organized so you don't mix your equipment up with that of other divers. Dive shops will typically give you rental gear in a gear bag but you should pack the items in the reverse order that you will be removing them (i.e. your fins on the bottom). A gear bag is another relatively inexpensive item that you may want to buy early on.

Getting started in scuba diving does not have to be expensive. Beginning scuba divers pursuing a certification should have their own mask, fins, snorkel, boots, gloves, and gear bag at a minimum but these items represent a minimal investment in your new hobby. The more expensive equipment can be rented. As you seek to add to your equipment, get items that are specific to your size first, like a wet suit or dry suit. Get a weight belt with the appropriate amount of weights for your size and suit also. The rest of the gear is pretty generic size-wise. A BC can be next. Keep in mind that when buying a regulator you'll also want to buy a console with a tank pressure gauge and depth gauge, and octopus at the same time so that this can be a rather expensive purchase. The tanks should be the last peice of equipment you buy. Why? Because they're heavy (less carrying them around when you don't have to take them home with you), require periodic "hydro" testing, and are readily available for rent from any dive shop. You don't even take them with you when you are going on a tropical dive trip.

December is a good time to buy new equipment because business is slow and the dive shops want to reduce their year-end inventory for tax purposes. In addition, dive shops will often sell older rental equipment at quite a discount. Used items can also be found on eBay but make sure you know what your are buying. Generic items like dive knives, compasses, and snorkels are not such a big deal but for things like regulators and BCs it's best to be familier with the make/model you bid on either through renting it or knowing another diver who has it. Even then, make sure the item is listed as being in good condition. I've seen quite a few auctions for US Divers "Rocket" model heel-strap fins which is a popular model among scuba divers. I wouldn't recommend buying a used tank on line because there's no way to no what the inside is like and due to their weight they would be expensive to ship. And stay away from the "snorkeling packages" consisting of a mask, fins, and snorkel as these low-end models aren't really made for scuba diving. Some auctions use the word "vintage" in their descriptions but when it comes to scuba equipment vintage is just a better way of saying really old.

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