By John Tapley
A beacon of the Midwest, Chicago has captivated the minds of people from all over the world. Through famous deep dish pizza, the musical exploits of Jake and Elwood Blues, and the awe-inspiring Sears Tower, the Windy City has developed a character and culture of its own. As Frank Sinatra once famously crooned, “Chicago is my kind of town.” Visitors to this Midwest metropolis share the same sentiment, and as we will find, guests who crave scuba experiences become enamored by the convenience and hospitality of local dive destinations and organizations.
Connected to Lake Michigan, Chicago offers plenty of scuba diving opportunities for those with the right drive and skill. However, according to some, the effort may not be worth the reward due to unfavorable water conditions, such as poor visibility and inclement weather. Sea life is also sporadic, with fewer habitats in comparison to warmer environments. Still, there is something to find for divers who have just enough gumption to surpass these limitations.
“Lake Michigan is the obvious point of interest for scuba divers,” explains Jack Lohan, shop manager for non-profit scuba institution Learn Scuba Chicago. “It tends to be a little underwhelming in terms of visibility, and temperatures… even in the summer time, it’s pretty chilly. But there’s some stuff to see if you know where to look.”
Although the Chicago and lower Michigan peninsula area lacks the stunningly vibrant creatures and pristine, expansive reef systems frequently enjoyed in tropical environments, there is a certain value in training under less than ideal conditions. Like bodybuilders who use weighted vests to increase the challenge, chilly, cloudy waters have the potential to bring out the best in scuba divers: preparing them for future endeavors at home and abroad. Lohan himself started his scuba training in Thailand, and while he and his crew often prefer warmer, safer environments, he values the confidence garnered from training in less hospitable conditions.
“The conditions we train and teach in Chicago really gives us an appreciation for when we get to dive in clearer conditions,” he explains. “I consistently find myself on a dive boat in the Caribbean or else in the world…even after diving in the quarries, I’ve built a tough skin in terms of temperature tolerance.”
Drawing from his experiences as a dive master, trainer, and trip organizer, Lohan shares three of his favorite locales near Chicago: each one offering its own flavor. Given their closeness to the Windy City, these sites are convenient for travelers who need solid accommodations, and for scuba divers in training who enjoy a good beverage and meal after extensive regimens.
When it’s time to dive local, Chicagoans often make a 60-mile trek south to the city of Kankakee and its star scuba attraction, Haigh Quarry. A haven for recreational divers and trainees, and hub for groups around the Midwest, the facility is renowned for its hospitality and amenities suited for scuba explorers of all stripes.
Adorned by pink flamingos, the former limestone quarry, often called “The Caribbean of the Midwest”, is enjoyed for its welcoming atmosphere, temperate waters, and cool submerged features, such as a collection of tricycles and a fire truck. The quarry is well maintained and stocked with freshwater fish, particularly sunfish and paddlefish. The facility also includes scuba equipment rentals, and PADI certification courses from Open Water to Master, and Discover Scuba programs.
“If anyone is going to be in the area for an extended amount of time and wants to do decent freshwater diving, I would turn their attention to Haigh Quarry,” Lohan explains. “It’s a well-known Midwestern dive destination owned by the same family for generations who are committed to scuba diving.”
Owned and managed by Tina Haigh, Haigh Quarry was made possible through her and her husband Jim’s hard work and dedication to turning the rough landscape and disused facility into a scuba diver’s paradise. Jim, who passed away in 2001, is honored every summer through a memorial dive and celebration of life alongside a scuba diving party.
Hyde Park – Silver Spray Wreck
Closer to Chicago proper, on the city’s south side, is the community of Hyde Park: one of the Windy City’s most recognized districts: home to the University of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry, and several monuments and properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Edging Lake Michigan, the community also offers nice views of the environment, with bird watching and jogging being popular pursuits at East Hyde Park.
According to Lohan, scuba divers venturing to Hyde Park will get the most out of the wreck of the Silver Spray: a former ferry, which rests in shallow waters near a limestone reef known as Morgan Shoal. A popular sight from shore, the Spray can easily be seen breaching the surface – though it’s condition is in less pristine condition than when it sank in July of 1914. Much of the vessel’s wooden hull had deteriorated, and shortly after (reportedly a few days) it collided with Morgan Shoal, was mostly salvaged by locals. Larger pieces of the vessel, such as a boiler, still remain, giving divers an opportunity to dive into a gone, but not forgotten era.
Evanston – George Morley Wreck
Another site slightly off the beaten path, which Lohan recommends, is the wreck of the George Morley. Scuba explorers can discover this mighty submerged vessel off Greenwood St. Beach in the city of Evanston, located about 15 miles north of Chicago’s core.
Compared to her fellow Illinoisan wrecks, the former freighter George Morley is lesser known, even though she is located just 150 yards offshore Evanston’s Greenwood Beach, and at depths at only 10 to 16 feet. These conditions are superb for divers in training, or those who want a quick wreck excursion: the site serving as a sampler of deeper wrecks to come. Although big chunks of the wooden ship have deteriorated over time, much of her is still intact below her gunwales; and at 117 feet in length, there’s plenty to see and enjoy.
While the George Morley has been a favorite dive locale for decades, times have changed, and accessing the vessel in 2018 may prove difficult. According to Lohan, meeting the mighty Morley can be challenging due to recent beach access restrictions. He recommends interested scuba explorers consult a local charter operator before planning a trip.
“It’s a wreck from the 21st century that’s been relatively untouched,” he explains. “It’s impressive to see, though [recent] beach restrictions in the area make it [more difficult] to see it. It’s a fun dive with plenty of light because of its depth.”
The George Morley’s remains are the result of a fire, which erupted while the ship sailed to Chicago in 1897. A local lifesaving brigade, the Northwestern Lifesaving Service, attempted to snuff out the flames, but to no avail – thankfully, they were able to save the ship’s crew of 11 before she burned to the water line, sank on the sandbar, and drifted out into Lake Michigan.
These are just three examples of fine diving locations near the Windy City, though going into Lake Michigan affords more opportunities for technical scuba divers and wreck explorers: thousands of shipwrecks await beneath the waters. But for divers in training and those who crave a more relaxed, recreational experience, Chicago has some choice sites for them to sink their teeth into; a diverse, unforgettable culture heightens the relaxed appeal. “My Kind of Town” is a fine addition to any diver’s logbook.