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It's a magical world for Hagerstown man

August 24, 2008|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

Multicolored fish dart around. Soft coral waves like wheat in the wind.

Scott Thomas of Hagerstown says it's difficult to even describe what the scene is like underwater.

"It's a whole different experience - unlike anything you'll ever see on land," he says.

For four years, hobbyist Thomas, 41, has been photographing what landlubbers will never see: the magic that happens below the ocean's surface.

As a film and video student at University of Maryland Baltimore County in the early 1990s, Thomas took his first diving class.

"I always wanted to scuba dive as long as I could remember," he says.

In 1993, only a year after that first class, he received his basic open water certification. But it was his introduction to David Stealey, owner of Blue Marble Divers in Hagerstown and an underwater photographer himself, that would begin Thomas's hobby.

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Stealey led diving trips, and, in 2001, Thomas signed up for one to the Grand Caymans. The resort they stayed at offered an underwater photography class. He used an underwater camera provided by the resort. "I really enjoyed it," he says.

Over the years, every time Thomas dives he is armed with his old digital Reefmaster camera in the hopes of capturing something he can share with friends. He often will showcase his work to coworkers at University of Maryland Hagerstown, where he is the information technology specialist.

Whereas land photographers have to contend with Mother Nature while shooting, Thomas says shooting underwater is a whole other experience.

"The most challenging part underwater is negotiating the current," he says. "The water itself is constantly moving and you move with the water."

Because of the movement, Thomas says it's often difficult to stabilize a picture, especially when trying to photograph sea life that doesn't stay still. "Everything's in motion," he says.

Another difficulty in shooting underwater, Thomas says, is lighting. The deeper into the ocean, the more colors are diffused by the water. For instance, he says, after so many feet below the surface everything turns shades of blue. Deeper than that, he says, everything becomes gray. Using a filter or flash can alleviate some of the issues.

Thomas says the deepest dive he's been on is 155 feet, but on average he dives between 50 and 60 feet for photography purposes.

During his underwater photography adventures, Thomas has seen a variety of sea creatures, many of which he can't even identify. He says he's been close to sharks and barracudas or "things that will hurt you if you tempt them." But since he's been diving, he's never had any close-call incidents.

His favorites to photograph, he says, are the smallest creatures. "They're difficult to photograph because they're so tiny and they move a lot," he says, " ... and they live in dark recesses in the coral reef."

Thomas has dived mostly in the Caribbean waters near Belize, Cozumel, Grand Turk and Dominica. In February, Thomas dove off the coast of Fiji in the Pacific Ocean. "It was (my) first time on the other side of the planet," he says.

He says he was exposed to even more types of sea life and was given the opportunity to swim with sharks. Although he has been on many underwater adventures there is one fish that has been elusive to his lens: the whale shark, which swims in tropical regions.

"It's a very large creature and very rare," he says.

Thomas says he noticed how differently the Fijian fish behaved from similar Caribbean fish. But as a diver, he was comfortable diving in Fiji.

"It's very similar to the Caribbean," he says. "It's very blue, clean and very warm."

He says there's no way to plan what you're going to find during a specific dive - especially sea animals, because they are constantly moving and migrating.

"It's part of the challenge and part of the reward," he says.

Underwater photography, Thomas says, is "like a treasure hunt when you're going down to photograph the underwater ecosystem."

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