From murky lakes to clear oceans, UNO alumnus becomes underwater photographer

Photojournalist Tim Rock with his camera gear at Tumon Bay, Guam.

Charlotte Reilly

Tim Rock discovered his passion for underwater photography in 1958 when he was 6 years old, watching the TV show “Sea Hunt.”

Every week, he invited his next-door neighbor to watch the show with him. In between bowls of popcorn, the two boys dove off furniture, pretending to be frogmen (scuba divers).

“Rice Krispies had a promotion where frogmen came in every box,” Rock said. “I ate dozens of boxes of Rice Krispies that year just so I could get more frogmen.”

Each time he opened a new box, he took out the frogman and dipped its feet in baking soda. Then, he placed it an aquarium and watched it dart through the water. He pressed his palms against the glass and imagined he was the scuba diver. Over 50 years later, he is.

It was not easy for Rock to start scuba diving. He grew up landlocked in Omaha, Nebraska and only swam in lakes in pools.

“I always liked the water,” Rock said. “It’s probably the Aquarius in me.”

He studied journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) in the ‘70s and then worked at a local news station, WOWT. He did not know how to scuba dive or use underwater camera equipment.

The first time he went diving, he was serving in Vietnam. He was on a rest and relaxation (R&R) trip to Thailand. One of the veterans sitting next to him on the plane ride said he knew how to scuba dive and asked if Rock would like to join. When they landed, he rented equipment and showed Rock how to use it on the beach.

“We got out into the water, drifted down and came to a coral reef,” Rock said. “It was the most spectacular thing I had ever seen in my life. I was immediately hooked.”

He was surrounded by colorful, tropical fish. They were much different than the croppies and walleyes he grew up looking at. He did not want to come back up.

Seven years later, he started taking scuba diving lessons in Omaha. He was inspired after going snorkeling in Mexico with his girlfriend. He borrowed his brother’s underwater camera for the trip. When he got back, he showed the photos to his friend.

“My friend started talking about how he always loved looking at those types of pictures in National Geographic magazine,” Rock said. “He wanted to be an underwater photographer and scuba diver. So, I said ‘Why don’t we take lessons?’”

After work, Rock took lessons in a swimming pool at Westroads Mall, where there was a sports operation that specialized in scuba diving. It was certified by the National Association of Scuba Diving Schools (NASDS).

A few months later, Rock went scuba diving in the Bahamas and bought his first underwater camera. He dove with the stunt actor from the TV show “Sea Hunt,” which first instilled his love for diving. The stunt actor owned a dive shop in the Bahamas and took four people out each day.

“Listening to him talk about stories from the TV show cemented it,” Rock said. “I decided I wanted to get better at stills and taking underwater video. I wanted to make it a living.”

He found an ad in the back of a broadcasting magazine for a chief photographer in Guam. He applied, got the position and moved.

“I went to work, and then I dived,” Rock said. “I got better and better and learned about the ocean from the locals.”

He began writing stories about a local marine lab on the side, and they started to get picked up by diving and nature magazines. His name grew, and he was given the opportunity to take over a weekly magazine called The Islander. The magazine had a small budget, so Rock took most of the photos.

“It was a great learning opportunity for me,” Rock said. “One of the staff people went on to win a Pulitzer, so I was in pretty good company.”

Ten years later, he and his friend approached Continental Airlines with the idea to produce a monthly TV show about Micronesia.

“No one had ever done this before, so they said, ‘Okay, we will give you five spaces a month to any place we fly to around Micronesia,’” Rock said.

The TV show lasted five years and was an Association for Communication Excellence (ACE) award finalist. After it ended, Rock was contacted by Lonely Planet, a travel guide company, to take underwater videos and photos. He has been working there ever since.

The same principles apply to both underwater and above water photography, but underwater photography has added challenges.

“Underwater, you only have about an hour,” Rock said. “Your tank runs out of air. You have to know what you want to photograph, and because it’s nature, it doesn’t always work out.”

Underwater cameras also have to use flash photography more often in order to capture the diversity of color.

The colors still shock Rock after 30 years of diving. Suddenly, he is reminded he is no longer in a Nebraskan lake. He is a frogman.