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Rico Oldfield’s Journey: From Pond to the Depths of National Geographic

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Rico’s images are exquisitely detailed
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Photographs and images by Rico Oldfield

Q. As we normally do with these question-and-answer sessions, how did you first get started in diving?

From my first recollections, I was fascinated by what goes on underwater, even under the surface of a pond. The progression to exploring what goes on under the surface of the sea I see now as an inevitable step. Joining a scuba diving club as an adult was my final jump into the biggest pond on the planet.

A friend and I who met early on in my scuba club shared a common goal – to become more than amateur underwater explorers. Together we founded a professional diving team based now in Belize, and operating as Deeptrek Belize Ltd.

Now we have a long-standing international team, including American, Canadian, Australian and British divers. Together we’ve handled many more than our fair share of diving challenges, not just with shipwreck exploration, but with filming and research in various fields of marine science.

It wasn’t too long before some of our projects attracted the attention of documentary institutions like National Geographic.

Royal Oak oil painting
Royal Oak oil painting

Shipwreck discovery fuels the hunting spark in all divers. The opportunity to find and open hitherto lost time capsules is as possible today as in the first expeditions of legends like Jacques Cousteau.

One authority suggests that there are still over three million undiscovered shipwrecks lying under the world’s oceans. In a sheltered bay in Panama, a motherlode of such sunken history lies. Early sailing pioneers like Sir Francis Drake and Christopher Columbus sheltered their last fleets there.

We were lucky enough to be invited to Portobello Bay in Panama to help uncover some of those lost histories.

Rico is using digital techniques to create pictures of music icons such as Bob Marley
Rico is using digital techniques to create pictures of music icons such as Bob Marley

 For me as the cameraman, technical artist and documentary journalist of the team, I have an extra treasure to bring back from any underwater expedition.

The images and the stories that surface for the first time from any new discovery are all mine to bring back, polish up and present to the world. Most eyes and minds may have little chance to see for themselves what lies hidden under the seven tenths of the Earth’s surface that is the seas and oceans.

First-hand images and stories, though, are things that can be brought back, surfaced and shared. Even in the best underwater visibility, our eyes can only see a spectacle like a shipwreck parts at a time.

With accurate photography and side-scan images at his disposal, the artist can just remove the sea and reveal the shipwreck spectacle to its best glory. Computers now jump in to the artist’s paint box, but not only is computer art a medium in itself, it’s also part of a convenient hybrid between brush and stylus. Digital art, though, is now my favourite medium for most of my work.

Deeptrek diver Derek Corley on the Remains of Francis Drake wreck, Panama
Deeptrek diver Derek Corley on the Remains of Francis Drake wreck, Panama

Shipwrecks in most cases are coral- or algae-covered scrapyards of rusty rubble. Nevertheless, they are as important and valuable a heap of rubble as the ruins of Corinth. This makes illustrating such rubbish heaps a rare challenge for any illustrator.

I think I must have a beachcomber or scrapheap hunter gene, because the urge to grovel in and pictorialize sunken maritime rubble is compulsive in me.

Dramatic painting of the bombing attack on the Thistlegorm
Dramatic painting of the bombing attack on the Thistlegorm
Rico working with wild dolphins in the Bahamas
Rico working with wild dolphins in the Bahamas

Not only must I be afflicted with a scrapheap hunter gene, I also find myself cursed with finding amusement under every piece of rubbish I turn, especially under the rubbish stones of rock-pools!

Not only did I earn a large part of my living for most of my life from doing daft cartoon drawings for magazines like Penthouse and Playboy, but my longstanding strip cartoon Sea People was my most-satisfying cartoon gallery.

Finding ideas for a strip like Sea People was no chore for me. The creatures who lived in my rock pools and shipwrecks thrive and live in my head as well. I hereby confess to the readers of this magazine that I am afflicted with a benign schizophrenia.

The symptoms of my disorder are sea people in my head! Being possessed occasionally by crabs and sea-squirts and all their friends can be a welcome escape from puzzling over my own species.

Putting your head underwater for too much of your life I believe can result in this malady. This is why divers never suffer from insanity… they quite enjoy it!

My most-memorable dive experience was my first. Not only was everything underwater as good as I imagined, it was better. I’d snorkelled and spearfished before, so leaving the surface behind was no new sensation, but this time this snorkeller had a longer snorkel!

My worst diving experience was finding myself on one of my favourite dive sites swimming over a graveyard of discarded fish. Some trawler had dumped its catch. I’ll avoid delving into this practice, but dumping a catch I later found was not a rare thing.

The future for me is to continue chasing images. As well as art and diving, music has had a role in my life. I’ve played in bands in crowded bars, so images of great performers, especially stars like Bob Marley or Jimi Hendrix, who sadly left us while still in their prime, are poignant to me.

Using digital art, I’m building a portrait gallery in their honour. As well as shipwrecks and seascapes, I’m delighted to see my ‘fallen stars’ canvasses are proving popular. Lost music legends like this, just like lost shipwrecks, can brought to life again on an artist’s canvas. I love my job!

I know how damn lucky I have been to see the dream of being a for-real underwater explorer come true, but shipwrecks and sunken history aren’t the end of that story. I’ve found there’s more to learn from the sea than just mankind’s lost past.

We share our world with hidden aliens who, like us, have the largest brains on the planet and highly evolved intelligence. The whales and dolphins live in the sea that we just visit, and trying to visit also their vision of the world is a big challenge to me now.

Diving with wild dolphins inspired me to write a book comparing their perspective on the world around them with ours. I realised our notion of superiority is based largely on technological achievement. Our social evolvement, though, lags far behind the cetaceans.

Their communication skills far exceed ours and their senses gather more information than ours. To the best of our knowledge, Homo sapiens has been around for only a few hundreds of thousands of years, while dolphin ancestry has been measured as nine to 12 million years, and the whales as a group reach back 50 million years.

We are infants in their playground, and we have much to learn from the big boys. For me, at least, swimming with wild dolphins has given me a sobering measure I will continue to try my damndest to share.

Type VII U-Boat
Type VII U-Boat

This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #78

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