COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Never mind that the droplets on his beard froze almost instantly as his face popped through a rectangular opening in the ice at Circleville Twin Quarries.
Mark Thomas, an avid scuba diver, didn't seem to notice the ice chunks clinking against his oxygen tank — or the 30-degree temperature, for that matter.
He was too busy snapping photographs of the wintry scene around him and recalling a sight he had just witnessed underwater.
"When the sun came out — man, was it sweet," said Thomas, 54.
For more than three decades, the Hilliard resident has combined his passions of scuba diving and photography while exploring waters both far and near — including the half-dozen diving quarries in Ohio.
Only recently, though, has the dual hobby taken on a greater sense of purpose.
In the summer, when his photos became a topic of discussion among friends and divers on Facebook, Thomas was inspired to document what the quarries have to offer.
"Instead of coral, there might be a tree," he said. "Instead of a shark, it's bass. There still is color. It's just about taking time to look for it."
Thomas has dubbed the informal effort "Discover Ohio's Unseen World."
Through social media, he shares pictures and encourages other divers to discover and appreciate the call of the quarries.
"Everybody thinks you need to jaunt off to Indonesia, the Caribbean," said Andy Silverman, a diving instructor and the owner of Columbus Scuba. "But he brings out Ohio diving."
Silverman has several poster-sized prints of Thomas works hanging in his North Side business.
"There is so much in these bodies of water that people don't know about, and Mark puts it on paper."
Who knew, for example, that Gilboa Quarry in northwestern Ohio boasts rock walls that resemble a saltwater reef off the coast of Mexico?
Or that, in August, freshwater jellyfish swim in the 20-foot-deep Circleville quarry?
People who have seen photos shot by Thomas know.
To be sure, Thomas said, winter dives in Ohio don't always yield stellar photos, as clouds and snow darken the water, and hibernating fish are hidden. Yet it does promise an adventure.
"Water is clearer in the winter," he said. "You don't have the wind, rain stirring things up."
Plus, he noted, a dive 80 feet away from the lone hole in 2-inch-thick ice triggers a rush.
He traces his passion for diving to his childhood, when, at age 14, he took a scuba-certification course; two years later, he bought his first underwater camera.
He made his first ice dive at 18 and has logged more than 200 such dives since.
Thomas, who works as a criminal investigator for a bank, dives most every weekend — a schedule that his wife has grown to expect. (His son, 14-year-old Zach, is thinking about trying for diving certification this year.)
Besides quarries in Ohio, Thomas has looked at shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, gone cave-diving in northern Florida and marveled at the reefs off Mexico.
Perfecting his underwater photography, he said, required time.
"I can't tell you how many thousands and thousands of bad photographs I took before the magic started happening," he said. "There are no books on how to get these colors in these quarries. You have to think outside the box."
About seven years ago, he began constructing the photographic system he uses today: a Nikon camera, a custom-fitted "housing" to protect the camera, two strobe lights and a fisheye lens.
His equipment has evolved as he has practiced with it in his living room.
In the water, he said, he relies on patience: He might sit at the bottom of a quarry for 20 minutes waiting for a bluegill to become comfortable with him.
Rich Lauer — membership chairman of the Ohio Council of Skin and Scuba Divers, which oversees training standards and legislative matters for divers — attests to the challenge that such photos present.
"It's easy to shoot a picture of an octopus and get a good shot, but it's not as easy to shoot a freshwater clam and get an interesting shot," said Lauer, of Reynoldsburg. "Mark takes commonplace subjects and shows them in an uncommon way."
Thomas also has an eye for seeing what others miss and willingly shares what he knows, Lauer said.
In fact, his efforts recently inspired Steve Hecker of Whitehall to buy an underwater camera.
Hecker has started learning from Thomas.
Maybe more important, Thomas shares with novices his energy as well as passion for the art form.
"Forty years later, I'm still a big kid," he said. "I can't wait to get in the water."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com