Deep down with a yellow-ribbon sweetlips

AND who, as Loyd Grossman might say, lives in a house like this? Judging by the air cylinders and flippers alongside the knick-knacks in the bathroom, it's a pair of committed divers.

AND who, as Loyd Grossman might say, lives in a house like this? Judging by the air cylinders and flippers alongside the knick-knacks in the bathroom, it's a pair of committed divers.

Which is what Rob Spray and partner Dawn Watson most certainly are. But there's more to it: they've combined a fascination with the deep with their enthusiasm for wildlife, sprinkled the resulting mix with the fairy-dust of modern technology, and have produced hundreds of stunning images of life beneath the waves.

Until just recently, those pictures have been enjoyed only by fellow divers, more or less. But thanks to a Suffolk neighbour, convinced they merited a wider airing, a goodly selection is on show to the general public at a Southwold gallery in an exhibition called Vivid Oceans.

The couple's zest for diving has taken them far and wide: to Egypt, Sardinia, the Mediterranean island of Gozo, Thailand, Malaysia, Canada and New Zealand, to mention but a few.


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The joy of watching animals and fish up close, in their natural habitat, is amazing, they say. And, luckily, there have been precious few scrapes: a few hairy moments, true, but nothing dreadful. Perhaps the most injurious incident was one that was actually not strictly diving-related: when Rob was struck on the head by a lunatic wielding a can of fruit at Tesco's in Phuket, Thailand . . .

Well, there was that time when, diving off Indonesia, they were caught by a sudden current that carried them 23m down just as they were about to surface. In the fog of their own bubbles, they couldn't tell which way was up. After what seemed an eternity, and once the current had subsided, the relieved faces of the Papuan boat crew told them it had been a lucky escape.

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And then there was Dawn's worst dive - off the coast of Norfolk. More of that later. Back to the fish.

Beneath the surface, most marine life will steer clear of human daytrippers. Divers - with lots of moving limbs and, clad in their rubber suits, smelling unusual - are clearly not potential prey; so, after a quick investigation, fish will move off.

There was that pike, though . . .

“The only fish that's ever truly unnerved us was a pike in a place called Stoney Cove in Leicestershire,” says Rob, 40. It's a flooded former quarry. “Normal little fish back off or swim away. You swim up to a pike and think 'What a beautiful, majestic fish. Fabulous-looking thing. So aggressive, so powerful . . . god, the thing's five or six feet long! The biggest pike you've ever seen!

“Absolutely enormous: barracuda-sized. But barracuda are lightweight; a pike's solid, and this was about six inches thick. You draw yourself in, fascinated, and this fish has absolutely no fear of you at all. It sees divers every day, and so it doesn't back off - and you think 'That thing has a mouth a foot long . . . Amazing fish . . . we've seen it . . . and now we back away!'

“Somebody some years later did get a picture of it - with a two-and-a-half foot pike in its mouth . . .”

So, how did their fascination with water, wildlife and below-the-waves wizardry begin?

Its roots lie in the late 1980s, when property prices were booming and offers on houses were being made at the first viewing. Dawn and Rob managed to buy their first home in Ipswich by the skin of their teeth. Both being keen on wildlife, one of their first acts was to buy a fishtank.

As Rob puts in, with some understatement, “we got quite into fish - perhaps to the point where we had 12 tanks around the house. We didn't need a humidifier, because the house was constantly running with water - just the evaporation off the tanks!”

After a while, though, they grew a bit disillusioned and appreciated more and more that a tank wasn't a fish's natural environment. Far better to go and watch them in situ.

It took a couple of years to get up the courage and go out to Greece for what Dawn calls “the world's most dangerous try-dive”. She means that procedures weren't exactly rigorous. Nevertheless, they had fun, came back enthused, and from early 1998 trained with a club based at BT in Martlesham Heath, near Ipswich, where Rob works. With lots of technically-minded folk involved with the club, rules and best practice were followed to the letter, and the training was safe and thorough.

By May they were ready for open water - a glamorous brick pit near Peterborough - although they had earlier been in Alton Water, the reservoir south of Ipswich, “and we saw a green shoe. And then, only weeks later, we saw another green shoe . . . from different matching pairs! When you're new to it, even a shoe can be an event,” laughs Rob.

Then came the quarry up at Lericester, full of perch, crayfish and that intimidating pike.

Their first sea dive was off the coast of north Norfolk, at Weybourne, where there's a little wreck. Rob later dived in

Northumberland with a man who turned out to be an experienced underwater photographer and a wreck expert. “It was fantastic; like getting a guided tour: a masterclass of wrecks and wildlife.”

At the end of that year they went to Egypt, and “did the Red Sea thing everyone does”. It's OK, but lacks a sense of mystery, as all the wildlife is simply there in front of you, virtually hitting you in the face. And so they went to different places, enjoyed different experiences, and met a variety of fellow divers.

And so to the images . . .

It's the digital format that has revolutionised underwater photography, says Rob. You don't have to wait weeks for your pictures to come back, only to find you've taken lots of duff shots; and you don't have to buy very expensive kit to get decent results.

After about 18 months of diving they went on a trip to Egypt and the results of their digital camera photography was brilliant, he says. They could go back to the hotel, plug in the equipment, and show 40 or 50 images. Fellow divers were amazed at the thought of seeing pictures of the dive they'd just had and being able to talk about the experience. They weren't used to such immediacy.

“Experienced divers who had been trying to take pictures with conventional cameras thought it was really unfair! Without the kind of feedback you get straight away with digital cameras, the poor people were getting back - much later - two or three pictures they could identify out of a reel of 30, and the rest were blurred, green, whatever; and there was nothing they could do.”

Soon, Rob and Dawn were putting up galleries on a club website following each diving trip, building up a large archive after six or seven years.

Fairly recently, one of their neighbours - the couple live between Saxmundham and Halesworth - took a look at the pictures and reckoned they ought to be shown. Even better, said discerning neighbour happened to be a member of the co-operative that runs CraftCo: the shop and gallery in Southwold High Street that sells handmade contemporary

crafts made mainly by East Anglians.

Some images were blown up to make sure they worked on a large scale (they did), and when the CraftCo committee gave the green light it was time for the photographers to go through literally thousands of images to choose the two-dozen or so for the exhibition.

Revisiting some of the older pictures was embarrassing, he admits. “Now I think 'I would delete that in the camera, underwater!' But they're all valuable.”

It's also been embarrassing having to think about pricing the selected photographs. Truth be told, the couple have always been a bit shy about their photography - not comfortable in the spotlight - although in those early days it was rewarding to see the reaction of other divers. “We liked to hide behind the fact it was a record of the event,” says Rob.

They became more comfortable with the notion as time went on, and are now happy to admit that, yes, “we are photographers and this is our collection”. The Southwold exhibition is proving a nice way of bringing their work to the attention of a wider audience.

“We certainly weren't photographers when we started this,” he says. They've recognised their emphasis has changed with experience: whereas their pictures used to be essentially a record of a dive, now the goal is photographs with character.

“Our methods are very different. Dawn is the better considered photographer: she'll wait for the picture to come to her, whereas I'll go 'Well, I'll take one before it happens; I'll take one during it happening; and I'll take one after it happens - and I'm sure there will be a good one in there somewhere!' I have been trying to curb myself. Dawn will wait for it to happen; and because of that will have some really nice pictures.”

They admit the hobby has turned into something of an obsession, and they do dive to take photographs, but it has grown from a gentle beginning, when taking pictures was simply about “a better way to share the experience”.

Rob, self-confessedly more nerdy, loves the gadgets. Dawn's not that bothered by it, but appreciates what it can achieve artistically. A microbiologist before a professional switch of emphasis, it's the close encounters with wildlife that do it for her.

Her partner, who's been with BT since leaving Stoke High School in Ipswich, has worked on some semi-related projects in the past. In the early- to mid-1990s he helped build the rugged on-board video systems for yachts in the Whitbread round-the-world race.

Later, with another ocean-racing event, the Global Challenge, BT designed gadgetry that included deck cameras, video capture and small edit suites. Today, Rob's working on BT Vision, the company's home digital TV service that basically comes down your phoneline - and in his spare time has been running a digital camera evening course at Framlingham, largely for beginners.

Little wonder he's like a six-year-old on Christmas Day. A box of photographic goodies arrived the previous day from Olympus (the camera people, not the mountain in Greece). The firm has offered the couple fairly open-ended support - gratis, and with precious few strings attached - after an impromptu chat at a diving show.

There's a lens that would cost about £1,500 - worth more on its own than the rest of their photographic equipment put together. It should provide some stunning views.

“We haven't yet got the housing for this, but it will make it the size of an elk's head! - enormous glass windows, big cases, flashes either side; and you can't dive with that lot until you've dived a lot.”

That said, top-range equipment doesn't guarantee wonderful results. The couple have met divers with more kit who don't manage to achieve very much in visual terms; others, with lower-spec gadgetry, produce work “an order above”.

Nor are glamorous locations the be-all and end-all. Some of Dawn and Rob's pictures come from “great adventures to far-flung exotic places”, but a very popular shot was taken in just three feet of water on an Egyptian beach. People were paddling and amazing fish came into the shallows, and it was simply a case of ducking down under the water and pressing the button.

The exhibition at CraftCo runs until May 17. Opening times: Monday-Saturday 10am- 5pm; closed Wednesday. Sunday 11am- 4pm.

Web links: www.1townhouses.co.uk and www.1townhouses.co.uk/pelagicpixels/gallery/index.htm

DAWN and Rob would probably have enjoyed their “most-dived year” in 2006, had his knee injury not scuppered their summer season. As it was, they still chalked up 120 dives.

Last year they also got more involved in marine conservation. Dawn has recently become the local co-ordinator for Seasearch, a national project for divers interested in what they see under water and who want to help protect the marine environment.

The main goal is to map the sea-bed around Britain: recording what lives where and establishing the sites that need protection.

Dawn, who hails from Aldeburgh, used to work as a biologist but now runs a cattery. She says her knowledge of animals helps with underwater photography “in terms of finding things and knowing what they're going to do. If Rob's chasing a fish, I can go and hide behind a rock and know which way it's going to turn . . . roughly!”

Her worst dive was the first they did in a “dry” suit, exploring a wreck off Sea Palling in Norfolk.

Dry-suit diving is akin to being sealed in a big bag, with a woolly duvet-like suit underneath. Divers inflate them with air and control their rate of ascent and descent.

The gameplan in such circumstances is to dive during the “slack” - the pause between the tide coming in and going out.

“It's like trying to walk against a storm, but the storm isn't wind - it isn't air - it's a wall of water,” explains Rob. “Once it's above a gentle shambling pace, you just can't fight it. It's all you can do just to hold on, because of the drag on your suit and kit.”

At Sea Palling they were dropped in, hoping the slack would arrive. But it didn't.

When it's “running”, the mushy-bottomed North Sea is like fog - puffing clouds of dust - and they never really saw more than two or three feet ahead of them.

The couple held on to the wreck for about 10 minutes, “as starfish flew past!” says Dawn. Her mask was often off her face, pulled by the sheer force of water. They struggled up again, feeling quite smug that they'd survived!

“It reminded us that this was what the training had all been about: it was all under control,” says Rob. “It hadn't taken us by surprise and we knew how to deal with it. We thought 'This is great. We've confronted a difficulty and got over it.'”

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