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Pioneering diver, scuba instructor and businessman Ron Merker dies at 82

Ron Merker, a pioneering scuba and skin diver who co-owned a chain of diving stores and helped introduce thousands to the pastime in the waves off Corona del Mar, died recently at his Laguna Niguel home. He was 82.

Merker dove until Parkinson's disease forced him to hang up his fins 10 years ago, according to a news release from his family.

Scuba diving was a fledgling endeavor in the 1940s when friends from Santa Ana took Merker to Newport Beach and introduced him to skin diving.

Merker said that after being hospitalized with polio for months as a child, he had trouble with the coordination and balance needed in team sports, so he embraced diving as an athletic outlet that he could practice on his own.

He eventually took a job on the first charter boat to ferry divers to Catalina Island in the 1950s. With that experience, Merker began introducing Southern Californians to scuba.

From the early 1960s until 1996, Merker co-owned and managed Aquatic Center diving stores in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Santa Ana. The Newport Beach location is still open on West Coast Highway.

Merker spearheaded diving lessons before there was any formal template for scuba training, said his son, Lance.

At its peak, Merker oversaw six year-round instructors guiding beginners in pools around Newport, advancing to trips at Little Corona Beach and culminating with a final dive at Catalina.

With a crew cut, athletic build and strict teaching style, Merker came across like a Marine instructor, his son said.

"Although he was never a drill sergeant and he was the kindest, most gentle person, he had that kind of shtick," Lance Merker said. "You were a good diver when you finished his program."

Lance Merker learned to dive as a child and still spearfishes — another water activity in which his father's name is well-known.

For 20 years, Ron Merker held a world record for spearing a 57-pound bluefin tuna while free diving, in which divers hold their breath instead of relying on scuba gear.

"He was an inspiration, frankly, to a whole generation of free divers and spearfishermen," Lance Merker said.

Ron Merker is survived by his wife of 59 years, Carol Ann Merker; brother, Robert Merker; daughter, Michelle Merker; son, Lance Merker; and three grandchildren.

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