Way back in 1973, a young man called Richard Oldfield wrote to Triton magazine, as Diver used to be called, to chase work as a cartoonist.

At the time, he was working as a designer for a Liverpool advertising agency, and he had taken up diving with the BSAC's Liverpool Branch.

Oldfield's cartoon samples were impressive, and Triton commissioned occasional drawings to illustrate articles.

It was the magazines first connection with an artist of great originality and talent. The association has grown and flourished ever since.

Richard Oldfield, better known as Rico, has produced almost every type of illustration: the famous strip Sea People and other, one-off cartoons; watercolours for articles on marine life and wrecks; and illustrations for features of a more technical nature.

But this inveterate artist is also a vastly experienced diver, who has combined his working talents with a life-long love of the sea. Thus, behind the Sea People cartoons is a marine life expert, accomplished underwater photographer, and longstanding member of the Marine Conservation Society; and behind the wreck diving watercolours is a man who has participated as a wreck hunter and salvor at the highest level - both in British waters and abroad. Visiting Rico at his home in Formby, near Liverpool, I am shown into a small studio containing an artists drawing board and small settee. Pencils, pens, colour inks, papers, photographs and other paraphernalia are scattered about.

Diving prints, including a chummy shot of Rico with American wreck hunter Mel Fisher, decorate the walls. Two units of book shelves carry a near-library of marine life titles and a large backlog of National Geographics.

Rico, 50, cuts a youthfully slim figure, his striking white hair held back in a non-conformist pigtail. I have to say, I dont think I fit any of societys usual stereotypes.

His Scouse voice and dry humour betray that he was brought up not a million miles away. Mug of coffee in hand, he says: You know, I was a small lad, brought up tough in Liverpool. But I dont think that explains why I was completely grey by 25! I developed a good survival instinct early.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, though, Rico quickly realised that he was a bit of a deep thinker.

I remember quite clearly how, at a very young age, I was drawn to the mystery of the sea. Ive never been able to explain it - and the feeling has never worn off.

In the early 70s, Rico became hooked on diving very quickly once he had joined the BSAC. He explored under water at every opportunity - and it wasnt long before he wanted to bring art into the frame. So began the long relationship with Triton and Diver, which took off properly in 1975 when Rico established a regular slot with Sea People, seen these days on the Beachcombers Diary page.

Celebrating its 21st anniversary this year, Sea People seems as fresh now as it was at its inception.

In fact, says Rico, the strip has refined itself subtly with time. Speaking from both creative and technical points of view, it started out a bit tight and bitty. Over the years it has smoothed out; the simple is sometimes more difficult to achieve than the complicated.

If the Sea People characters - from intelligent crabs to laconic sharks - have never been short of good material to tax their on-page minds, it is, perhaps, because their creator has never stood still as a diver.

I have to say that, right from the word go, my diving was nearly always done with a purpose, says Rico. I was never really interested in an easy float-about on a Sunday afternoon. I wanted to be diving to learn, or to do my bit to help the underwater world.

It is not surprising that, by the late 70s, Rico had established relations with leading-edge individuals who were looking to diving not as an end in itself but as a means to reaching other holy grails.

He met dolphin expert Horace Dobbs, with whom he would later work on the Sunflower human and dolphin interaction programmes, and the childrens book Dilo and the Call of the Deep.

He also met Bob Earll, to help start the Norfed biological diving group. Earll went on, in 1979, to run the newly formed Marine Conservation Society.

Rico became one of the Societys first members and has worked on many a research project, such as Menai Straits surveys and research for Millport Research Station in Cumbria.

He has also worked at various times over the last 10 to 15 years on Lundy, Britains first statutory marine reserve run by the Nature Conservancy Council, latterly English Nature.

On the subject of marine conservation, Rico says: Frankly, our efforts at the moment are too disparate. The MCS has done great work in the past, but its not as powerful as it once was in twisting politicians arms on issues such as sewage outfalls and other dumping of waste.

We really need to get a lot more political if were going to get anywhere.

Wrecks, too, have intrigued Rico. He joined a team diving the SS Dakota off Anglesey in the mid-80s, from which 2000 celebrated pieces of pottery were raised.

In 1985 he dived on the Royal Charter, again off Anglesey, from which 19th century gold, weaponry and clothing were recovered. And, in 1986, he joined a team which raised silver coins from the remains of the royal yacht Mary, sunk off the Skerries in 1675.

One little tip, throws in Rico. In my opinion, clear silicone on masks can reflect in the glass and reduces your ability to spot things on the bottom.

There was one day during the Dakota project when I went in with a dark mask, and saw the smallest fragments lying around on the bottom. Going in later with a clear-silicone one, I seemed to miss lots of them. Finally, I went down once more with the dark mask and, guess what, all those tiny things were laid out in front of me again.

An HSE Part IV-qualified diver, Rico has worked commercially on occasion, for instance inspecting a local reservoir and surveying marine life in Liverpools Albert Dock. We found lots of sea squirts and a type of peacock worm never recorded before.

Whatever his diving environment, Rico has often used an underwater camera, sometimes with distinction. He puts his successes down to inspired guesswork.

I dont go for all the new-fangled, trendy stuff, he explains. Ive got a wonderfully reliable Nikonos II, all manual, with which I use a separate light meter.

And for lighting Oh, a Dixons 5 flashgun in a homemade perspex housing. I link it to the camera with some telephone wire, which is as good for flash photography as it is for calling up auntie.

With his Heath Robinson gear, Rico has managed to win awards at events run by the British Society of Underwater Photographers, and several international underwater festivals.

Married young and divorced not a lot older, Rico now has two teenage daughters, upon whom he keeps a fatherly but not oppressive eye. It was, though, a parting of the ways with a later girlfriend that led him to make a leap across the pond in 1991.

Things got to a bit of a low ebb, he admits, so I decided to get the hell out to freshen up. He rekindled an association with a US-based wreck hunting friend, Briton Jay Usher, with whom hed worked on the Royal Charter - and ended up living out in Florida for a year.

Rico dived on the Amex 91 programme, a search for Spanish treasure wrecks headed by Mel Fisher, Dick McAllister and Usher. Results were inconclusive, but Rico stayed on with Jay Usher, President of the UK-registered Discovery International, to work as standby dive coordinator and project recorder for surveys of other parts of the Florida Keys.

This led him unexpectedly into a period of political campaigning in America.

The American government got wind of the fact that there could be valuable treasure wrecks in the area between the mainland and the Keys, says Rico, so they expanded their 3-mile territorial waters limit to a broader fishing waters limit.

This took in the potentially valuable wrecks area, which the government declared a marine sanctuary and cultural resource. Now you can only survey in the area by doing a deal with them.

Jays still fighting the issue but I finally came home.

He added, mischievously: Tell you what, though: if we ever get the chance to operate there again, we could be on for a very interesting salvage.

Back in Britain, Rico is now happily settled with a new girlfriend, Dawn. An eternal optimist, he has bought the steel shell of a river boat and plans to convert it into a home with studio. A mooring has been ear-marked on the Leeds-to-Liverpool canal.

Like the man says, he doesnt fit easily into conventional stereotypes. In fact, asked what he thinks the future holds, Ricos feet begin to leave the ground.

Well, he says, I feel I am a man with a mission.

What kind of mission He cannot explain exactly, but says: Nearly everything I do in life just seems to come back to the sea. I have this sense of being a man born to the ocean.

In common with many a creative spirit, Rico has that touch of ethereal philosophy within his soul. He remains, though, a man of real, not imagined, achievements.

Since returning from the States, he has worked solidly for Diver; completed the dolphin book project with Horace Dobbs; illustrated entirely the latest editions of the BSACs diving manuals; and illustrated Rob Palmers new book, Technical Diving.

He has also carried out research for Discovery International, a company which has been commissioned to search in the central Caribbean for Captain Henry Morgans flagship, HMS Oxford.

Last year, though, possibly the greatest move of Ricos career began to unfold.

From thousands of entries, he emerged as one of three national winners in the prestigious Great Cartoon Hunt, run by BBC Wildlife in a quest for up-and-coming natural history cartoonists.

The strip idea Rico submitted is similar to Sea People but features a broader range of scenarios, from the marine to, say, the Brazilian rainforests.

The world-renowned syndication agency King Features of New York, which handles such luminaries as Peanuts by Schulz, has taken a batch of 30 sample strips from Rico for evaluation.

Next year Ill be living on the houseboat, he muses, but maybe, in another year or two...

Perhaps he dreams of riches around the corner, although one suspects that the artist-philosopher in him would not worry too much if they did not materialise.

Undoubtedly, Ricos talents cut the mustard. And readers of Diver can look forward to continued offerings inspired by his personal experiences at the heart of British diving.

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