Midwest Scuba Diving

You can learn to scuba dive in the dead of winter, without having to break any ice. But don’t even think about peeing in the pool.

Illustration by Kevin Canon

“What fresh hell is this?” the wit Dorothy Parker is supposed to have muttered when her doorbell rang. That’s the line that walked through my mind when I heard the terrible “BOOOSH!” of high-pressure air escaping from my scuba tank much, much faster than it was supposed to.

I was disassembling my equipment beside the indoor swimming pool after my final training session at Northland Scuba in Eden Prairie. I had performed the task correctly at least twice before, and it took a moment to realize that this time I had started with the wrong valve. This meant that all of the air pressure I hadn’t consumed in the pool was still right there, scratching at the door, seeking a quick way out. Which I had just helpfully provided. 

“BOOOSH!” The sound echoed around the pool enclosure like a rifle shot.

My five classmates, also breaking down their gear on the edge of the pool, looked alarmed, then pitying when they realized that the old guy had just made a fool of himself.
(At 60-plus, I was the senior student by a good 15 years.)

I wanted to explain to my instructor, Todd, that I knew which valve I was supposed to turn, and it was just that my brain had momentarily vapor-locked—but he already was shaking his head sadly.

I construed his casual disdain as payback for an earlier, ill-received jest about how much I looked forward to peeing in his pool. But, hey, he was the one who raised the subject of urinating in wet suits in the first place. It turns out that this is a routine part of the curriculum in introductory scuba training. Everybody does it, Todd explained, and sooner or later we would do it, too. If you’re 50 or 60 feet down, and the water pressure is compressing your bladder, what’s your alternative? Just not in the swimming pool, though, he warned.

Adventure Dive and Photo Center in Maple Grove. Photo by Steve Philbrook

“Scuba diving school” is not a phrase one typically associates with February in Minnesota, but in fact certification programs are easy to find. At least half a dozen scuba schools operate in the Twin Cities, with more scattered elsewhere around the state. Some have their own indoor swimming pools. Others use pools belonging to schools, YMCAs, or other parties.

This is where the plot thickens. No matter where you are—in Minneapolis or Micronesia—the process of becoming a certified diver begins with background reading and classroom work (or an online course), then moves to a swimming pool. Only after you pass a multiple-choice test and perform a number of required skills in a pool (flood and clear your mask, lose and recover your regulator, share air with a buddy, etc.) are you allowed to pass on to the open-water part of open-water diving certification. That’s where you perform the same skills and more in a lake or ocean during a minimum of four dives, spaced over at least two days.

In other words, if you are planning a winter getaway to the Caribbean, say, and you want to try scuba diving, but you wish to proceed straight to a dive boat instead of wasting valuable vacation time trying to achieve neutral buoyancy in a hotel swimming pool, there is no reason not to do the class-and-pool stuff right here in the frozen north. It is mainly this kind of thinking that keeps Minnesota scuba schools in business over the winter. Of the six people in my Eden Prairie class, two were headed for Australia, three for the Caribbean, and me for Hawaii.

Programs typically cost about $250 and might run for two evenings and a Saturday (not counting background study). You also must supply your own mask, snorkel, fins, and probably scuba boots, which easily can add up to another $200. Assuming you pass your test, the school will give you a referral letter that will be recognized by just about any dive operator anywhere, stating that you are prepared for your four open-water dives. Just present the letter to your new certifying instructor on the boat at your vacation destination. The open-water dives will cost whatever the local market will bear. I’m told that the $350 I paid for two days of diving with an instructor on Oahu was above average, globally speaking.

In the summer, of course, you can complete the entire certification process in Minnesota, without switching instructors, performing your open-water dives in fresh water (see below).

St. Albans Shipwreck in Lake Michigan. Photo by Steve Philbrook

If you are a decent swimmer, comfortable in the water, and especially if you are an experienced snorkeler, you probably won’t have much trouble with the swimming-pool end of scuba training. You aren’t deep enough to get into any serious trouble. Indeed, learning your way around the equipment and practicing those skills are what keep the swimming pool interesting. I mean, yes, it’s fascinating to realize that you really are breathing underwater and that you sound just like Darth Vader doing it but, truth be told, scuba diving in a swimming pool would get dull very quickly if you didn’t have some tasks to perform. Nobody learns to scuba out of a desire to do it in pools.  

The book-learning part is arguably more interesting than the swimming-pool part. There is plenty of spine-tingling information about the effects of increasing pressure as you go deeper underwater, and about why it is a terrible mistake to pop up to the surface too quickly. Then there’s the catalog of embolisms and assorted horrors that can befall you if your body absorbs too much nitrogen in the depths and you fail to decompress.

Square Lake. Photo by Jim Matzke

You’d have to behave pretty foolishly for those things to happen, however. And even if you don’t obsess about them, or crank yourself up by imagining an encounter with the shark from Jaws, there is nothing dull about scuba diving in the ocean—at least not in the places where dive operators are likely to take you.

On a dive boat in Hawaii three weeks later, when I was completing the actual open-water part of my Open Water Diver certification program, my new instructor, Matt, demonstrated yet again that wetting one’s wet suit is a recurring topic in dive training. He did this while we were changing tanks after our first dive by subjecting me to what I assume is an old gag in the scuba world. It goes like this: If the novice diver’s wet suit is black, for instance, you say, “Do you know how to tell if somebody has peed in his suit? The suit turns black.”

The Man-Made Lake Ore-Be-Gone near Gilbert, MN. Photo by Steve Philbrook

Not in a league with Dorothy Parker’s doorbell witticism, maybe, but I didn’t care because even the first taste of ocean diving had proven that the experience is every bit as cool as you might expect. True, moving around on a boat’s deck in swim fins with a 30-plus-pound air tank strapped to your back is at least as awkward and cumbersome as doing the same thing on the side of a swimming pool. But as the pool had demonstrated, once you’re in the water, the weight of the tank vanishes. You don’t so much swim as hover, like an underwater blimp, weightless, using only your fins to move around.

Unlike the pool, however, the ocean contains a whole lot of interesting things to discover. In the course of four dives, I got up close and personal with three small reef sharks, two eels, a big sea turtle, and a bright-orange octopus with a body nearly the size of a baseball and tentacles maybe a foot long. Matt held the octopus while it slowly wrapped a few tentacles around my fingers. Its mildly sticky, bumpy grip was as close an encounter as I’d ever had with any ocean creature—and well worth all those hours in the pool.

Midwest Scuba Spots

Minnesotans don’t have to travel to a salty ocean to find interesting places to scuba dive. “We have an active local diving community right here,” says John Avery, manager of the Eagan location of Scuba Center, which bills itself as Minnesota’s largest scuba diving school.

He means all year round, too. For instance, Avery notes, people ice-dive routinely in Lake Minnetonka, which contains plenty of sunken boats to view.

In warm months, scuba divers can pop up almost anywhere in the state, including even Minneapolis’ Lake Calhoun. Here are a few of the best local and regional dive spots recommended by Twin Cities experts:

Square Lake, near Stillwater, is where most dive schools take students for open-water certification. Visibility can be iffy, depending on weather and diver traffic, but Avery notes that the lake is convenient, has a fair number of fish, and offers sunken training platforms, as well as an aircraft tail section.

The Sea Life Aquarium at Mall of America hosts a “Swim with Sharks” program that lets certified divers do exactly that, provided they have their own scuba equipment (except for air tanks) and about $200.

Things get more interesting for Twin Cities divers willing to drive two or three hours. Steve Philbrook, owner of Aquaventure Dive and Photo Center of Maple Grove, swears by the excellent visibility in Lake Wazee, a flooded former ore mine near Black River Falls, Wis., advertised as Wisconsin’s deepest and clearest lake.

Even better, Philbrook says, is Lake Ore-be-gone, on the Iron Range in Gilbert, Minn. Each August Aquaventure hosts an event called Scubapalooza, in which 100 or so divers explore sunken military helicopters and other artifacts in Ore-be-gone’s clear depths.

The water gets a little nippy, but the gold standard of regional scuba diving is, of course, Lake Superior, says Myron Hayes, an instructor for Northland Scuba of Eden Prairie. On the lake’s North Shore, even novice divers can poke around the easy-to-reach, century-old wrecks of big ore boats including the Madeira, near Split Rock Lighthouse; the Hesper in Silver Bay; and the Ely in Two Harbors.

For more advanced divers, the best wreck diving in Lake Superior is in the vicinity of Isle Royale, experts agree. Hayes recommends three days or so on one of the live-aboard dive charters that run out of Grand Portage, Minn. Avery’s Scuba Center hosts an annual five-day trip operated by Isle Royale Charters, based in the Grand Portage marina.

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