Winter Doesn't Stop Divers from Taking the Plunge

Article excerpt

Byline: Marcia Sagendorph Daily Herald Correspondent

Early on Valentine's Day, a group of eight men stood at the water's edge in Lake Zurich ready for a plunge.

Mentally, they tried to erase the thoughts of the chilly 40-degree temperature and the brisk, knifing wind. As they stepped over the ice at the water's edge, these scuba divers tugged on their waterproof gloves, pulled down their masks and waded into the frigid water.

And they call this fun.

Most people in these parts think of scuba diving when planning to fly south for a warm vacation. When they return home, they think their new hobby has to wait for their next trip.

Not so. Experienced, Chicago-area divers can extend the diving season from a few months to the whole year with cold-water diving.

Bill Harting, co-owner of Chicagoland Scuba Center in Lake Zurich, loves it.

He organized the group of eight divers on Valentine's Day, just like he does most weekends.

"It's great. There are no boats to disrupt the water and little or no algae," Harting said. "Underwater visibility is increased by 15 to 20 feet."

His wife, Val, thinks he is crazy.

"I love to dive - in warm water. When they go out in this cold, I just shake my head," she said with a laugh. She helps take divers out on charters in Lake Michigan in the summer.

Cold-water diving is reserved for the advanced diver, said Harting's partner, Greg Caldwell of Des Plaines.

"It's stimulating and challenging, but you have to know what you're doing," Caldwell said, as he stepped into his dry suit.

As opposed to wet suits worn in warm-water dives, the dry suit is the key piece of equipment in cold water. Costing between $800 and $2,500, it is a rubber or nylon shell that lives up to its name by keeping the diver completely dry.

Beneath that, divers wear a light-weight undergarment similar to a thin snowmobile suit. Made of insulating material called Thinsulate or Polartec, the undergarment keeps the warmth in between the diver and the dry suit.

Divers can be so warm, in fact, that they can overheat just suiting up for the dive. Fortunately, the dry suits have two gauges on them to control the amount of air trapped inside the suit.

Even with a dry suit, Harting recommended that divers keep exposure to about 30 minutes.

If divers wear dry gloves to protect their fingers, the maximum diving time could be extended. …