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A Photographer's Underwater Treasure Hunt

June 15, 2012, 10:17 PM by Brady Mallory

A Photographer's Underwater Treasure Hunt
OKOBOJI, IA -

Riding a jet ski across the lake is kid's stuff when compared to Lloyd Cunningham's hobby. He dives deep to find his playground.

"I just wanted to get in the water with a scuba tank and look around," Cunningham said while fiddling with his air tank, wet suit and goggles.

Cunningham has taken a look around the depths of West Okoboji Lake not once, not twice, not even three times.  In total, hw has 400 logged dives as far as nearly 70 feet below the surface.

"First of all, I don't have a boat.  Most people assume I do.  I don't," Cunningham said matter-of-factly.  "I navigate this lake with a compass.  So, now you have to know what compass setting you are going to depart from the shore so you can get to that site."

And he never returns to shore empty handed.  He has found objects one would expect to spot in a lake.  He has a huge collection of bottles and anchors and has found other things too big to fit in the palm of his hand.

"Every dive in West Lake Okoboji is a treasure hunt," Cunningham said.

He does not leave his "gold" totally behind. Before retirement, the former newspaper photographer spent his days snapping pictures of fires and car accidents and when he discovered an old sunken sailboat, he also found some new possibilities for his photography skills.

"I went back the next day with a camera.  I don't always carry a camera with me when I'm diving, but I went back the very next day and made as good of a photo as I could," Cunningham said. 

That photo led to other photos of fish, 100-year-old structures and something a long way from the road, a 1938 Ford ice truck that was resting below the surface for more than 50 years.  Cunningham will visit these places half way down the 138 foot deep lake multiple times for up to 3 years trying to capture the perfect photo.

"All of my photographs are taken with what we call available light.  There is no flash involved," Cunningham said.

But there is a lot of work involved.  The best light comes in the spring when the water is too cold to be considered optimum swimming weather. Ice is still thawing, the sand is still and everything is as clear as day. 

"I might lie on the bottom of the lake in a nesting area in the potholes where all the blue gills are for 70 minutes and never move waiting for the fish I've scared away to be comfortable with me and return to the nest.  So, I'm only a few inches away so I can make their photograph," Cunningham said.

The exploration does not end when he comes back to the surface.  Cunningham scours newspapers and microfilms, always researching so he can find out the history of what he spots in the water.  He even learned how the truck ended up in a lake.

"In January, I think it was in 1948 in ice harvesting season, on this particular day the ice chunk or the slab of ice the truck was on broke off the main chunk of ice and began to tip.  The truck slipped in the water into Smith's Bay," Cunningham said.

You can find other retirees spending their days on the lake in boats trying to catch fish or a moment's relaxation, but not Cunningham.  Even after so many photos and so many hours exploring a frosty lake, just give him a wetsuit, a camera and plenty of water, because he is thirsty for more.

"I hope everybody has the opportunity to take whatever it is they are passionate about and grow in an area that is exciting to them.  It's certainly a thrill for me," Cunningham said.

That is a treasure worth finding.

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