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Learn Scuba Chicago wants to make underwater exploration accessible to everyone

Into Lake Michigan . . . and beyond!

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Water covers about 71 percent of the earth's surface, leaving oceans, lakes, rivers, lagoons, and fjords ripe for exploration. Entire communities of aquatic creatures and a world of coral reefs, shipwrecks, and underwater caves lie below the tides we see on land, and some of these hidden gems are as close as the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Scuba diving offers a way for people to submerge themselves into these dazzling environments, but getting certified is not a cheap or easy process. Even the most basic scuba certifications can cost upward of $300; more advanced certifications are double that, not including equipment expenses. Plus, diving in a backyard or community pool gets boring, and taking trips to actually visit undersea animals and coral reefs can cost a pretty penny as well. This leaves many people out of scuba diving communities. The nonprofit organization Learn Scuba Chicago (LSC), located in Bucktown, is dedicated to making scuba training more accessible and building a welcoming community for a wide range of divers.

Avid scuba diver and instructor Bob Huff (known as Captain Bob) founded LSC in 2008 during one of his midlife crises. Huff had retired from practicing law around 2006 to pursue an environmental engineering degree at Northwestern University. Then the recession hit.

"I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with my life and had worked in the scuba industry back in my college and law school days, so I decided to go get my instructor license," Huff says.

Jobs didn't fall into place so easily, however, and after a couple of flops trying to work at other scuba shops, he finally said "screw this" and took matters into his own hands.

"I had a buddy who was pretty good with web design, and over the course of a drunken weekend we built the Learn Scuba Chicago website," Huff says.

An LSC diving trip to Haigh Quarry in Kankakee - RACHEL FERNANDEZ
  • Rachel Fernandez
  • An LSC diving trip to Haigh Quarry in Kankakee

The organization started very small, with Huff working out of his garage and buying gear off eBay to cater to about a dozen students every season. LSC's big boost came, Huff says, when he began promoting it via Groupon in 2011. He acquired upward of 200 students seemingly overnight.

As the operation grew, Huff opened the LSC shop. It officially became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in July 2014. Since then, LSC has had more than 20 staff members and volunteer instructors teaching hundreds of students ranging in ability and interest, from people who just want to try diving once to those who want to become instructors themselves.

To make the hobby more financially accessible, the organization has a Special Communities Board that grants scholarships covering anything from certification fees to gear and equipment. The category "Special Communities" is left intentionally broad to serve as many people as possible, but funds typically go to youth up to age 18, people with disabilities, active military members, and veterans.

Hallie Brewer is a military veteran who received an LSC scholarship along with her husband, Jed. Hallie found out about LSC's Military Program through an online search and applied for the organization's joint scholarship for veterans and family members.

"I love the idea of being able to connect with other veterans and have this shared activity," Hallie says. "It was one of those things that hit on all of the metrics that we were looking for, because you can go take scuba classes from anybody, but it's actually pretty amazing to find an organization whose mission is the dominant thing."

The Brewers' scholarship covered almost everything the two of them needed to get their 40-foot diving certifications in July 2017. They continued on to get their 60-foot certifications in summer 2018.

Students, instructors, and volunteers mingle during a post-dive barbecue. - RACHEL FERNANDEZ
  • Rachel Fernandez
  • Students, instructors, and volunteers mingle during a post-dive barbecue.

Along with providing scholarships and fostering a community of divers, LSC organizes domestic and international dive trips where participants join in conservation efforts. Jed believes that everyone in the world should learn how to scuba dive, because it's one thing to read about reefs and oceans being damaged by pollution, but another to see these environments in person.

"I think it's an extension of the idea that everybody does better when they get exposure to nature, and underwater nature is a big part of the natural world," he says.

The underwater world doesn't mess around. "They have a very simple structure down there," Huff says. "If you piss something off, it will probably eat you." Although facing the depths and unusual creatures may seem overwhelming, there's also something therapeutic, divers say, about relinquishing yourself to the water and the feeling of submerging yourself in a different substance and environment.

"It's kind of like entering an alien world," says Ryan Pace, who received his Open Water Certification through LSC this past June. "You dive, dive down to this place you can't naturally get to, kind of like going to the moon, but instead of the moon being completely desolate, you have this landscape with all these exotic creatures you'd [otherwise] never be able to interact with."   v

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