Scuba diving is a popular and fast-growing sport, with more than 900,000 people certified worldwide. Since the invention of modern diving equipment in 1943, millions have discovered the aquatic world beneath the waves. All it takes is a spirit of adventure and a love of the sea.
From snorkeling the reefs of Barbados to scuba diving in Yap in Micronesia, University photographer Duane Zehr has left Bradley’s campus in his rearview mirror for at least 250 dives in search of eye-opening views of another world — under the sea.
“Fish frustration” led Zehr to take snorkeling and his camera to a deeper level 15 years ago. Too often, he was viewing fish swimming away from him.
“It’s the closest you can get to visiting another planet without taking a trip to the moon,” says Zehr, and his compelling underwater photographs prove his point.
Despite the fact that his day job involves capturing two-legged creatures on and off campus, Zehr says it’s not just taking underwater photos that he finds so appealing. “Diving transports me to a whole different world — literally, a completely different environment that I’m not entirely at home in — that’s what makes underwater photography so enticing and challenging.”
Zehr says he and his wife Melinda are recreational divers who generally dive within the 30- to 70-foot range “where most of the reef life seems to live.” The couple’s dives average about 55-60 minutes.
Once Zehr took the plunge from snorkeling to scuba diving, he soon met the damselfish, a tiny creature that defends its territory rather vigorously. “Apparently, the damselfish doesn’t realize it’s only a few inches long. If I stay still long enough, it will actually swim right up to me and bounce off of me or the camera lens, trying to make me go away,” says Zehr.
A lesson learned from underwater photography that Zehr believes has made him a better university photographer involves his patience level. He tells a “fish tale” of three dives in two days at Gladden Spit off Belize. It wasn’t until the last five minutes on the final dive that a 30-foot whale shark appeared — well worth the wait for the veteran divers. “The rest of those three dives was spent looking at each other through the water — a definite example of patience,” says Zehr.
Ironically, the most fascinating dive the Zehrs have done to date wasn’t a dive at all. It involved snorkeling in Palau. Formally part of the ocean and now an inland lake, Jellyfish Lake is, of course, filled with jellyfish. “Over time, the jellyfish lost their natural predators,” adds Zehr. “As a result, they lost their ability to sting, so you can snorkel through millions upon millions of jellyfish just sliding alongside you, down your body, and through your hair. You definitely don’t have to go deep to take great photos.”
Slideshow of Duane Zehr’s diving photos
Though PAUL BREZINSKI ’74 and DON CHRISTIAN ’76 attended Bradley at the same time, the two wouldn’t meet until decades later — on a dive boat in the Caribbean Sea. Brezinski, a podiatrist by profession who lives with his wife Renata in Arlington Heights, has always had an appreciation for the natural world. He was a biology major at Bradley and picked up snorkeling in the early 1990s while on vacation. Scuba diving was a natural progression. “I started diving because I was fascinated by biology,” he said. “One day my wife and I said we should get certified, and then we started diving together.” Since earning his certification in 2000, Brezinski has logged about 350 dives. He also has developed an interest and a talent in underwater photography. “I like to document the beauties and curiosities we come across in our diving,” he said. “I know one day I won’t be able to dive, so the photos give me tangible memories.”
Christian, who is retired from running manufacturing plants, learned to dive, at least at first, for practical, rather than recreational, reasons. “I wanted to learn how to dive because I wanted to be able to see the bottom of my boat to do maintenance and repairs,” he said. “I have always snorkeled, but that’s what made me get diving certified.” Like Brezinski, he’s also been diving for nearly a decade, now more as a hobby rather than a necessity. “When I dove for the first time in the Bahamas, I fell in love with it instantly,” he said. Christian’s wife Patty is his diving partner, though he also is a scuba diving instructor. They split their time between Morristown, New Jersey, and Daytona Beach, Florida. Christian said diving is a great escape. “There are no cell phones. Nobody can talk to you. It’s just you and your bubbles.”
Both Brezinski and Christian share a love for diving and a love for the same diving hot spot — Curacao, the Caribbean island where the couples first met. “We met by chance at a resort, and now we have gone on four trips together,” Brezinski said. “It’s a nice friendship that has developed.” Christian explained that before diving with a group of people, it’s smart to learn who has much dive experience and who doesn’t, so he and his wife always introduce themselves to other divers on the boat. When the Brezinskis said they were from Illinois, the men quickly discovered they have the same alma mater. “We hit it off and hung out the entire trip,” Christian said. “It’s neat to find people from Bradley, and when you do, it’s an instant bond.”
Slideshow of Paul Brezinski’s diving photos
Students are donning air-filled cylinders, rubber masks, and neoprene wetsuits to explore the mysterious underwater world.
These students are members of the Bradley University Scuba Club, which made quite a splash at the Activities Fair last August. More than 100 students expressed an interest in learning how to scuba dive. George Brown, professor and theatre department chair, founded the Scuba Club in 2008 when the Markin Family Student Recreation Center opened. Seven students became certified over the last year, and the club currently has about 12 active members.
“I created the Scuba Club to bring people together and create opportunities to dive because diving is where the fun is,” said Brown, a certified scuba diving instructor with more than 30 years of experience.
Brown teaches the open-water class in which students practice 20 basic underwater skills, such as navigation, regulator recovery, ascending and descending safely, and how to clear a mask. An open-water certification allows divers to descend to a maximum of 60 feet in any body of water. Students in the open-water class complete e-Learning modules online sponsored by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI).
The first class of student divers was certified in October 2008 in Kankakee at Haigh Quarry, which boasts an archaeological site, a sunken rock crusher, a dump truck, and a boat. A trio of students demonstrated to Brown that they could perform integral skills in an underwater habitat, including buddy swimming, emergency-controlled ascent, equipment checks, switching between primary and secondary regulators, and feeling what it’s like to run out of air.
“I have always wanted to go to the ocean or reefs and dive in the crystal-clear water,” said DREW DRAGOO ’12.
Club leaders are trying to involve more students in scuba diving by making lessons and trips affordable. The Scuba Club has not yet been able to organize any out-of-state scuba diving trips, but participants have enjoyed several local dives.
Bradley students, faculty, and staff who own scuba gear and are PADI certified can take lessons with Brown at the Markin Center free of charge. However, new divers must pay for gear rental and PADI certification fees.
Brown’s passion for exploring great depths emerged as a child growing up in northern Georgia watching “Sea Hunt” with Lloyd Bridges. In high school, Brown spent his summers working to earn enough money to pay for diving lessons and equipment. He earned his certification at age 16. Since then, he has received numerous certifications, including deep, ice, and wreck diving.
“Scuba diving has given me a lifetime’s worth of enjoyment,” Brown said. “I want students to become excited about it.”