MEET THE STAFF

MARIANNE PREKER
Owner, PADI Master Instructor

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Hi! I’m Marianne. I am the one on the left in the above photo (the beluga on the right is a good friend). I am owner, CFO and CGC (chief garbage collector) for Underwater Safaris. I did my first dive in 1968. In 2001, I was inaugurated into the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame. Lots has happened in between.

I became a PADI instructor in 1986 and left my counseling career in 1987 to open Underwater Safaris. I never forget the exhilaration of my first breath underwater nor have I forgotten the fear of clearing my mask. Through the years, I have trained over a thousand divers.

I’ve been lucky to have logged over 3,000 dives in Caribbean and Pacific locations: Cozumel, Akumal, Bahamas, Cayman, Cuba, Bonaire, Turks and Caicos, South Africa, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Fiji, Galapagos, Australia, Belize, Roatan, Red Sea, Baja, Palau, Chuuk (Truk), Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica, Cocos and Sicorro Islands, Indonesia and Hawaii. I have 24 years experience in SCUBA instruction at the high school, college and adult education levels.

I am the co-founder and president of the Underwater Safaris Fund for Marine Awareness (USFMA), an Illinois 501(c)3 not for profit organization which raises $$ to support scuba and ocean related projects. Currently, USFMA supports the Underwater Safaris deaf diver program, programs for inner city teens, schools in Roatan and Papua New Guinea.

I divemastered for the Shedd Aquarium’s Research Vessel in the Bahamas for 9 years. I think the Shedd liked that I was a girl with a big insurance policy. It was great! I absorbed info on marine life from some of the smartest folks in the business.

Through the years, I have acted as scuba consultant for Encyclopedia Britannica, Hardy Boys Books, Field Museum of Natural History and Baltimore Aquarium. Shedd Aquarium hired me as a Marine Biology Instructor and Dive Safety Committee Adviser.

I am a Handicapped Scuba Association Instructor and a HSA Course Director. Our program for disabled divers received international acclaim. I am currently coordinating a Scuba program for the Wounded Warrior Project.

Sam Frank (Underwater Archeology Society of Chicago) and Underwater Safaris founded the Lake Michigan Shipwreck Buoy Program, organizing fund raising among Chicago area dive stores to purchase and install permanent buoys on many of the favorite wrecks.

Favorite part of my Job? I love talking to people about diving and dive travel. I feel lucky to earn my living doing what I love. I still enjoy teaching and selling gear. I have never forgotten what it’s like to take your first breath underwater. I haven’t forgotten the fear either.

Best Dives? (1) My friend Maryellen and I hanging out with the hammerheads in Galapagos; (2) My husband Saul, me and a disabled diver Sue Burka swwimming with dolphins in Cozumel (see the story in Chicken Soup for the Ocean Lover’s Soul); (3) Great White Shark diving in South Africa.

Gear? I love my Aqualung Zuma BCD and my Micron Regulator. I have a Cobra computer console and learned in Truk that a backup computer is a good idea. My backup? A Yellow Suunto D4. Check out my fins… the Twinjets… I have dove with just about every fin on the market. They were fine. Then I tried the Twinjets… whoa! I could paddle upstream in Cozumel’s currents for the first time.

Becoming a PADI Scuba Instructor has truly opened the world to me. I really have gone places, met people and done things that I never dreamed possible and look forward to talking to you about making your scuba dreams possible too.


JASON PREKER
Manager, PADI Master Scuba Diver

Hi, I’m Jason, the general manager of Underwater Safaris since 1987. This photo was taken driving Aqualung II, our 30’ Carver dive boat. When I was in high school, I worked in the scuba department at Morrie Mages Sports on Ontario and LasSalle. I was the only scuba diver in the department (I was 15). It was fun to be the authority on scuba diving for the largest sporting goods store in the world. When Underwater Safaris leased the space from Morrie Mages in 1987, I stayed on and managed that store unit I moved to Lincoln Avenue in 1991.

I was certified as a PADI Open Water Diver when I was 12. Since then, I have completed Advanced, Rescue and Master Scuba Diver with certifications in Deep, Night, Search and Recovery, Drift, Boat, Wreck, DPV, Photography, Videography and Underwater Naturalist. I have dove in great places like the Bahamas, Bonaire, Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, Little Cayman, Baja (Sea of Cortez), Florida Keys, Florida Springs and Cozumel. Locally I have dove in Lake Michigan, Pearl Lake, France Park (Logansport, Indiana) and Devil’s Lake (Baraboo).

My favorite dives:

  • Shark Diving at Stella Maris in the Bahamas: We were surrounded by gray reef sharks.
  • Baja (Sea of Cortez): While Checking out the baby sea lions at Las Animas, a huge male (bull) sea lion felt I got too close. I saw teeth (my eyes popped out) and I was back on the boat in 2.2 seconds.
  • My favorite local diving is in Lake Michigan harbors doing search and recovery for boaters who have lost phones or keys (you name it). I seem to have an uncanny knack for finding their “newly wet” possessions before they become artifacts.

I enjoy working with the customers at Underwater Safaris… outfitting them for great trips. I also get to order and check out all the new scuba equipment. I am certified as a technician for US Divers, Sherwood and Mares. I have extensive knowledge in scuba equipment from over 20 years in the industry.

Scuba is an equipment intensive sport. Favorite part of my job? Talking to divers about what they need to make their dive safe and exciting, finding the merchandise whether we carry it or not and then hearing about how great their dive was. If you need equipment we don’t have, I’ll find it and do my best to get it for you.


STACY PREKER
Sales, PADI Master Scuba Diver

As a member of the Preker family it was inevitable that I would gravitate towards Scuba. After years of hearing about the wonders of the undersea world I did my confined water training with Marianne Preker (yes, we're related) here at Underwater Safaris' pool. We then did a long weekend to the Florida Keys where I completed my Open Water Dives. I was hooked! One of my favorite dives was the Underwater Safaris Pumpkin Carving contest at Haigh Quarry which I highly recommend and I'm a regular on our annual Cozumel Memorial Trip. I hope you can come in and talk to me about diving.


JEAN CZAPKO
Sales, PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer

It started in 1991 with some friends asking me if I wanted to learn how to scuba dive. I had never thought about it before but I had the evenings available, so my journey began…

After picking out my mask, fins, boots and snorkel, I couldn’t wait to get home to clean my mask with toothpaste and start reading my book. Horrors!!! I have to take my mask off, put it back on and clear out the water — all while I’m underwater? No, I can’t! Only those with magic powers can do such a thing! I do not possess these powers! I can’t sleep worrying about this. What will I do? I know! I will simply tell my instructor I do not want to take off my mask underwater and he will understand. Problem solved. Relief! Right? Wrong! My instructor informed me I would have to do this, explained how to do it and then demonstrated how to do it. And I did it. The rest is history.

I've been teaching since 2000 and if I can do this, you can do this and I feel having these apprehensions while taking my class has made me a more empathetic instructor. I’ve been there. In addition to teaching at Underwater Safaris, I also work the sales floor and yes, I’m “That Jean” who sends out the emails to our customers, keeping everyone up to date on what’s going on with the Underwater Safaris, including classes, trips and equipment.

Since my vacations now always involve diving, I’ve been to quite a few different dive destinations including Cozumel, the Cayman Islands, Belize, Honduras, Bahamas, Bonaire, the Great Barrier Reef and more. I even did a dive off the coast of Tasmania! I can honestly say I don’t have a favorite dive destination, I have favorite dives in quite a few destinations including Lake Michigan and Haigh Quarry.

I use my trusty DUI TLS350 when diving locally and I'm more inclined to wear a 5mm wetsuit in warm water because yes, like most women I tend to get cold.

Enough about me, though. I look forward to hearing from and about you and I really look forward to perhaps diving with you in the near future. Remember… If I can, you can.


ASHTON KINSEY
Sales, PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer

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E-mail: ashton@uwsafaris.com

I've been SCUBA certified since 2010. From the first day in the pool, I was hooked and couldn't get enough. By the end of the season I had completed my advanced, and while itching to dive, visited the Bonne Terre Mines in Missouri. In early 2013, I completed my instructor training along with several specialties: deep, dry suit, EFR (Emergency first response), Nitrox, Rescue, Search and Recovery, Underwater Navigator, and Wreck diver.Currently working to dive all seven continents before I turn 30. I'm always excited when the local dive season begins and have had a few of my top dives out on Lake Michigan and Haigh Quarry.


JULIE BURRUSS
PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer

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Growing up in Florida I was snorkeling with my dad by the age of four. I was so eager to go out to the reef that the fact that my cheap mask was full of water didn't slow me down. My dad quickly got me scuba quality gear that I loved and when we moved inland I also used them in lakes, rivers and of course our pool. Fast forward many years, I moved to Chicago and due to an upcoming vacation in Turks & Caicos I took the open water course at Underwater Safaris one very cold February weekend. I was hooked! Being able to breath underwater was fabulous, why hadn't I done this sooner?! Diving certainly changed my travel destination choices. In addition to Turks & Caicos I have dived Little Cayman, Cozumel, Kona, Zanzibar, Ginnie Springs, Lake Michigan, Raja Ampat and Truk Lagoon. I also have another trip to Zanzibar and new adventures in Antarctica (yep I think I am crazy too) and Galapagos on the calendar. There are so many places that I still need to dive! When traveling to dive wasn't an option, taking additional courses in order to hone my skills and learn new things quickly turned into a desire to become a dive professional. I really want people who have an interest in diving to enjoy it as much as I do, it was a motivating factor in my becoming an instructor.


MIKE SMYKOWSKI
PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer

Hi, I'm Mike Smykowski or SMY to my co-workers. My adventure began in 1992, while vacationing in Turks and Caicos. I decided to do a resort course (also known as a Try Scuba). Well I tried it and I really, really liked it. When I came back to the states I immediately signed up for a scuba class and then one month later I was back in Turks & Caicos doing my Open Water Dives! LOVED IT! I also loved the Caribbean so much that I ended up working at Club Med for two years. Upon returning again to the U.S. I hooked up with Underwater Safaris and completed my divemaster training. But the Caribbean was calling my name again. Marianne at Underwater Safaris hooked me up with a dive shop in Bonaire where I completed my instructor training and then taught for 6 months. Upon returning to the U.S. I moved to Michigan but was able to commute to Chicago and Underwater Safaris where I taught scuba on weekends. I finally decided to move full time to Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood where I can now indulge in my favorite pastimes, scuba and baseball (Go Sox!). Hope to see you diving.


DOUG BAILEY
PADI IDC Staff Instructor

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Growing up, I was the kid that tried to spend as much time on the bottom of the pool as possible. Splashing around on the surface never really appealed to me. I wanted to be underwater. I won't list off all of the contraptions that I used in attempts to increase the time underwater, but I survived them all. Luckily, once I grew up some, I was able to learn to scuba dive which finally let me stay underwater for decent amounts of time.

I earned my Open Water Diver certification from Underwater Safaris in 2002. Unfortunately, I didn't dive for the first year, but late in 2003, I went on my first scuba diving trip to the Bahamas. It has been non-stop from there. In 2004, I took more classes including Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, and Divemaster. I was doing local diving as much as I could that season. 2005 was the year of scuba diving trips for me including Bonaire, Cozumel, and the Galapagos Islands. I capped off 2005 by becoming an Assistant Instructor. Building upon that, I jumped right into the Instructor ranks in 2006. After working a few seasons as an Instructor, I decided in 2012 to move up higher in the instructor ranks. I am currently an IDC Staff Instructor and working on becoming a Master Instructor.

Scuba diving has provided me some great travel opportunities. I have been lucky to dive in the following locations: Columbus Isle (Bahamas), Cay Lobos (Bahamas), Bonaire, Cozumel, Roatan, Belize, Saint Lucia, Galapagos Islands, Lake Michigan, Quarries/Lakes in Indiana and Illinois, and Hawaii.

While diving you get to see some amazing things, meet incredible people, and come away with fantastic stories. Ask me sometime about my turtle encounter on a night dive in Hawaii or the reaction to the dive site "The Banana" in Galapagos.


ADAM KUHN
PADI IDC Staff Instructor

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I like to think of myself as an evil genius (though I am neither evil nor any kind of genius). My original plan was to build a giant space laser with an army of trained astronaut monkeys. That went about as well as one would expect, so I moved on to an undersea base, or maybe a floating island (plans are still up in the air, waiting to hear back from Richard Branson). In the meantime, I decided to start work creating an elite undersea squad. Becoming a PADI instructor seemed the best way to accomplish this goal, so I got my certification about 5 years ago. In the process I have discovered that it’s actually a lot of fun working with divers (though disappointingly few are inclined towards evil). Nevertheless, by helping people new to the sport get started (open water divers), and experienced divers get additional training and specialties (like Advanced OW, navigation, and search and recovery) I hope to have a fine dive team assembled any day now. On the way, I have had a lot of fun with the great people I have met, and I’ve seen some amazing places I may not have gone to otherwise (above and below the surface).


DELPHINE PONTVIEUX
PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer

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When she was a kid growing up in France, Delphine discovered the joys of snorkeling and diving in the Channel as well as the Mediterranean, thanks to her father, who brought her along with him. Fast forward a few years, and she became officially certified as an open water diver in 1993, while living in Florida.

Scuba diving became her true passion after she moved to Chicago, of all places. Within a couple of years, she became a divemaster, then open water instructor, and Master Scuba Diver Trainer (PADI MSDT) in 2004. She’s been teaching scuba diving at Underwater Safaris ever since she became a PADI professional.

She is trained to teach specialties such as wreck, Nitrox, UW navigation and Search and recovery, to name a few. She has over 1,000 hours of diving experience, both in cold and warms waters (1,400+ dives total). She has also taken interest in technical and deep diving (IANTD technical diver and TDI normoxic trimix diver), as well as cave diving (IANTD cave diver) in the beautiful cave systems of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, and the blue holes of the Bahamas. She is told the future lies in rebreather diving… Time will tell whether it catches up with her!

Delphine has been a dive volunteer at the Shedd Aquarium since 2001: she is one of the lucky few who get to dive all year round in the oceanarium, alongside pacific white-sided dolphins, belugas whales, sea lions, otters and penguins! She also dives and feeds the tropical fish in the wild reef exhibit, and took part in two fish-collecting expeditions aboard the R/V Coral Reef in the Bahamas in 2005 and 2006 to stock Shedd’s Caribbean exhibit.


JOE COLLINS
PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer

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I used to be a land lubber who's only aquatic experiences were on the water's surface.  Then I read a true story about real underwater adventure, history, shipwrecks, and the thrill of exploration.  The story was enough to peak my interest and gave way to my first open water training dives.  I was hooked from then on and learned not only did I like to dive, but I liked to teach others as well.  My path to Instructor was set and I have been teaching ever since.  I am a PADI MSDT which basically means, I love to teach those new to scuba diving and people with particular scuba interests.  I have explored the waters of Hawaii, Mexico, The Florida coast and its Keys, USVI, a wealth of quarries, and the Great Lakes.  My true love is diving our local lakes and touring the wealth of shipwrecks within them, but I certainly won't shy away from warm, clear waters somewhere tropical either!  Stop by the shop to say hi as I'm always happy to talk scuba!


MATTHEW LIPINSKI
PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor

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I was reborn when I took my first breaths underwater. Like my original birth, my eyes opened wide as I began to explore the new world around me. SCUBA diving gave me a new perspective on many different aspects of life, both above and below the surface. There was no way this could only be something I did on the occasional vacation, so I took advantage of the big pond just East of us and immersed myself both figuratively and literally in diving. The pay off has been seeing wonders relatively few people will ever witness, sharing those experiences with some great people and a desire to explore and discover further, both in and out of the water. Diving may not be as transformative of an experience for everyone as it was with me, but as such a possibility exists, how could anyone not give it a try? Besides, I usually have the best stories about what was done over the weekend.


MARC MEREL
PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer

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I was originally certified in 1977 before alternate air sources and integrated weights. After a few years of local diving my wife and I settled down to have a family and SCUBA got pushed to the back of the closet. Many years later, my wife and I took a Caribbean cruise and ended up on the island of Cozumel. We went snorkeling in the beautiful blue waters and were quickly reminded that we should be under the waves, not floating above. Upon returning to Chicago, I came to Underwater Safaris and did a SCUBA review then signed up for Advanced, Rescue and Divemaster. After working 4 seasons as “THE” Divemaster at Underwater Safaris, I decided to take the plunge and become an instructor. Now when my wife and I take a cruise, we go diving instead of snorkeling.


MIKE MERMALL
PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer

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Growing up with both parents as certified divers, Mike Mermall got an early start in scuba diving and has now been a certified diver for over 35 years. His dive travels have taken him to the Bahamas, Belize, Bonaire, Cozumel, Curacao, the Florida Keys, Ginnie Springs and Homosassa Springs in Florida, the Cayman Islands, Hawaii, Holbox Island, Indonesia, Palau, Roatan, St. Croix, Yap (Micronesia), Yucatan Cenotes, and of course, Lake Michigan!  Mike is also an avid underwater photographer and is never seen underwater without his camera equipment - unless, of course, he's teaching!  While Mike loves recreational diving in his spare time, he's passionate about teaching and introducing people to the sport so that they can safely and comfortably enjoy the underwater world!


PATRICK HAMMER
PADI Course Director

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I started diving as a young boy in the south suburbs of Chicago. I would ride my bike to the local quarries. It was great a gas station in Lemont had a compressor and sold air. In High school I was a swimmer and we taught diving. That carried thru my time at Moraine Valley. By 1975 I became a PADI Course Director and today I am currently a PADI Platinum Course director, one of the only n the Midwest, and one of 55 in the world. I love teaching SCUBA and especially PADI Instructors. The best part of my job is conduction PADi specialties. I enjoy the dives and watching Instructors progress. Specialties are completed in a day or two so I can see ones advanced meant very quickly. I have the pleasure of teaching here in Illinois, Arizona, Michigan and the Caribbean.


JIMMY THE EEL
Eel, Ashton's Nemesis!

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I'm an active Zebra Moray Eel and I'm stunningly good-looking. Many of you have met me at Underwater Safaris however very few people know that I'm a rescue eel. Yup, my previous owners were apparently unaware that we young eels have a tendency to grow and I proceeded to outgrow my tank. My owners returned me to the pet shop where Marianne spotted me and it was love at first (near)sight. I was taken to Underwater Safaris and placed in their roomy 55 gallon tank where I was pampered and fed and admired for my natural good looks. Needless to say I thrived, perhaps a little too much. Home is now my new 120 gallon tank with a few new friends including (but not limited to) Lola the dwarf lionfish, Freddy the Foxnose rabbitfish, Pigpen the Tuxedo urchin and others. But of course, I'm the most important one here. My hobbies include sleeping, eating and knocking down the coral that Ashton has arranged so artfully. I hope you can come in to visit me. When I'm not knocking down coral I'm sleeping in a corner.