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1981_Scuba Diving with Seal

In 1979, when I earned my PADI scuba diving license, the big deal was a buoyancy control device that could, with the touch of a button, inflate or deflate a bladder of air, seamlessly adjusting my position in the water. The wetsuits we needed to wear due to the cold currents circulating around the Santa Barbara Channel Islands were anything but svelte. With a quarter inch thick farmer-john and same thickness jacket, hood, gloves and booties, we resembled the seals we swam with more than human beings. Diving though forests of amber-green kelp past bright orange garibaldi fish, I feasted on the scenery while others looked for abalone. The introduction to the sport was precious and I dreamed of the day when I could dive in warm waters with manta rays and sharks.

sketching while scuba diving under water

It wouldn’t take more than a decade for me to get my wish. In Asia since 1984, I have had the opportunity to dive in Palau, Micronesia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and more recently, the Maldives. In these waters, where a wet suit can often be optional, I felt liberated and free diving with less rubber. These days, many folks dive with cameras. Instead, I bring an acrylic slate and a pencil. With these simple tools I can sit quietly on the seabed and draw the life that swims around me while listening to my bubbles. It’s a kind of meditation and I get to bring back glimpses of the compositions and creatures that will eventually make their way into my paintings.

DP030-Wall-13x10 in-Oil pastel paper-2003

Scuba diving is great and I get equal enjoyment free diving with a bit of lead to keep my buoyancy neutral. In these cases, with no equipment other than a pair of trunks and goggles, I can dive down to 20+ meters and just drift with the coral heads and hump head parrotfish. Holding my breath for extended periods and getting absorbed in the seascape, I occasionally forget that I am a mammal and need to breathe air. I follow a lone turtle that has a friendly batfish beside him. Then the batfish shuns her suitor and follows me as I surface for air. A black tip shark in the distance skirts into the blue-gray void. Blue-spotted rays hide in cracks while moray ells slither to safer holes. Schools of fish out on recess dart around me as I sink and rise with the current. The sea enveloping and embracing me as one of its own. Water is my anchor but when moving through it, I take flight.

MALDIVES_ONE & ONLY_Reethi RahDP003-Submerge-13x10 in-Oil pastel paper-2003

Text by Gregory Burns, Photographs by Angie Tan Burns, All Rights Reserved.
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