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Elmer's Watersports is a scuba diving shop at 1310 Oakton St. in Evanston.

Evanston scuba shop explores new depths

by Michael Smith
Feb 20, 2014

Bright blue skies, warm sandy beaches and deep aqua water. Those are the sights most people imagine when they think of scuba diving. And not what you think of when you picture Chicago.

But thanks to Elmer’s Watersports, scuba divers can still get their deep-water fix while exploring in the Windy City.

Elmer’s Watersports has been serving divers since 1971 when founder Elmer Munk opened the doors in Skokie. After several years and a couple of relocations, Elmer’s Watersports eventually settled in 1991 at 1310 Oakton St. in Evanston. By then, Monk had retired and left the store to Myron Siciak, Munk’s former student and employee.

Because there are hundreds of shipwreck locations on the edge of Lake Michigan, there are plenty of old ships for Midwest divers to explore. (This type of diving is called wreck diving.) There are more than 75 known wreck sites on the southern tip of Lake Michigan alone, according to a map at Elmer’s.

Bill Sterbens, a three-year employee at Elmer’s, says Chicago is known as the “third coast” of the U.S., and its proximity to Lake Michigan makes it a prime location for scuba diving.

Today, Elmer’s is not only a diving equipment store, it also operates diving trips to Lake Michigan and abroad. Elmer’s has five regular employees and a number of dive masters and instructors who work as contractors.

Siciak, who has been diving for 42 years, teaches diving classes through Elmer’s in downtown Chicago and to students at Northwestern University.

Bill Oakley has been a regular customer at Elmer’s for more than a year. Oakley said that during his first visit to Elmer’s, a 15-minute chat with Siciak turned into a 3-hour conversation.

He knew he would be longtime customer after that.

Because diving can be dangerous, Oakley said he felt much safer doing business with a person that takes diving seriously — not just someone who is looking to drum up business.

“He [Siciak] makes certain he teaches [how to dive] you the way he was taught,” Oakley said. “I felt better putting my life into his hands.”

Siciak’s classes are for young people and adults and range from beginner level to advanced. The number of students in each class varies from five to more than 20.

Like any other retail shop, Elmer’s isn’t without competition.

Elmer’s competes for business with Underwater Safaris in Chicago, Scuba Emporium in Orland Park and DJ’s Scuba Locker in Brookfield. But Elmer’s biggest rival is Dive Chicago, which is located at Chicago’s Burnham Harbor. “Probably one of our main competitors,” Polinksi said. “They carry a lot of the same products we do.”

Even with all the competition, Elmer’s had a modest increase in profit in 2013 compared with 2012. Polinksi credited the good year to a general turnaround in the economy as well as new dive contractors who are giving Elmer’s plenty of business.

Diving in Chicago is different than in other parts of the world, Siciak acknowledges, but it isn’t as bad as one would expect.

“It’s definitely fairly hearty diving compared to the Caribbean,” he said. “I think it’s excellent diving. Everyone is always surprised at how good the visibility is.”

On an average dive in the clear waters of the Caribbean, a swimmer can see up to 100 feet, Siciak said. In Lake Michigan, it’s only 50 feet but that’s more than most people expect.

Because of the colder weather and cloudier water, scuba diving here requires more gear, which Elmer’s is happy to provide.

That includes oxygen tanks, dry and wet suits, water boots, goggles and other apparel needed to jump in the cold waters of Lake Michigan. “There’s definitely more stuff involved,” Siciak said.

No one knows this better than Oakley: “I think I may have maxed out my toys for the time being.”

The water in Lake Michigan during an average winter falls to around 35 degrees, according to Siciak. In the summer, when Elmer’s Watersports is at its busiest, the temperature can reach up to 72 degrees on the surface of the water.

“Temperature here is usually the biggest deterrent for people,” Siciak said.

This winter has been much colder than normal. With the two polar vortexes that helped make this winter the coldest in 30 years, the lake temperature was significantly lower than 35 degrees. On many days, the water was frozen, which makes it unsafe for scuba diving because the ice can block divers from surfacing.

Though summer brings in the most customers, Elmer’s doesn’t have many slow periods because Siciak is always teaching two or three classes a week.

“He [Siciak] is trying to build a community of divers,” Oakley said.

The two most common locations for diving explorations operated through Elmer’s are Burnham and Belmont harbors. But when Siciak and his employees and students aren’t organizing dives in Chicago, they are doing so internationally.

Each year, Elmer’s organizes between six and eight diving trips. The next trip, planned for March, is in Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean. There are also trips planned to Grenada and Palau, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean.

The prices for international excursions depend on location. There are two types of trips: resort-based trips and live-aboard trips, according to Mike Polinksi, an Elmer's salesman who is training to become a dive master. The least expensive trip is to Cozumel, Mexico — a resort-based trip . It costs between $1,500 and $1,700, which covers diving, hotel and food for a week.

Oakley went to Cozumel last year. “It was incredible,” he said. “Incredible to be around people who were into it as much as I was. I probably would have never gone there if it wasn’t for Elmer’s.”

The most expensive trip planned by Elmer’s is still a year away. The store’s staff will lead a diving adventure to Yap, an island that’s part of Micronesia. It will be led by Siciak in 2015 and will cost more than $5,000 for two weeks of diving, food, hotel accommodations and airfare. The Yap vacation is a live-aboard trip with the tourists staying on a furnished boat.

Siciak says he doesn’t have any current plans to expand the store or add another. But Oakley and other loyal customers are happy to have Elmer’s to hang out in — even if they don’t need any gear.

Asked what he would say to anyone who asked about Elmer’s, Oakley said, “Absolutely, you should come. In fact, I’ll go with you.”