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Preserving History: Leslie Leaney

Leaney displays some of his RIAA awards for domestic sales of 34 million albums.
 Text By Patricia Wuest | Imahes courtesy of Leslie Leaney

LESLIE LEANEY IS RENOWNED for his dive history research and preservation. He has done this work through organizations such as the Cayman Islands’ International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame (where he has been the executive director for nearly 20 years), the Commercial Diving Hall of Fame, the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, the Historical Diving Society USA, and other educational organizations. Acquiring a circa 1850 copper and brass dive helmet handmade by the legendary Augustus Siebe stoked his interest in dive history more than four decades ago. Siebe is considered the father of diving and created the equipment that launched the trade internationally.

“There are about six or seven of these known to exist in the world,” he noted. “Mine is the only one that’s in its original condition.”
In addition to collecting historic and antique dive gear, he began compiling an extensive dive library. In 1992 Leaney partnered with Skip Dunham to create the Historical Diving Society USA (HDS USA). In the three decades since its founding, the nonprofit HDS USA has grown from a few dozen members to roughly 3,000 worldwide. He also launched the Historical Diving Magazine, now known as The Journal of Diving History.

Leaney has received numerous awards, including DEMA’s Reaching Out Award (2016), the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences NOGI Award for Education (2003), Beneath the Sea Diver of the Year Award (2013), the Wyland Foundation ICON Award (2010), and most recently the 2022 California Scuba Service Award for “turning his passion for diving’s history into a way for thousands to understand and discover theirs.” In addition to the contributions he’s made to our knowledge of dive history, Leaney has also had a highly successful career in the music industry.

In many ways his achievements in both the scuba diving and music industries are directly tied to the challenges he faced as a young boy. Born in London in 1947, he struggled as a young teenager.

“I grew up in the East End of London,” he said. “I didn’t have a great education. I left school when I was 15 and worked three jobs — I worked days and nights because money was so scarce. I was out on the streets and in a motorcycle gang. The future didn’t look particularly bright.”
Leaney is surrounded by rare dive helmets ranging from circa 1850 to the 1970s, with his Augustus Siebe helmet in front.
The Unexpected Scuba Journey

To escape those circumstances, he joined the Royal Air Force in 1967, but it wasn’t military service that changed his life’s trajectory. It was scuba diving, which he tried at age 22 when he was posted to Singapore.

“In Singapore there were a lot of things to do that you wouldn’t normally get to do where I came from,” Leaney recalled. “The first thing I did was join a scuba club. As soon as I went underwater, it was a different world. It changed my life. Diving was a leveler. Underwater, I was the equal of anyone and better than most. I was really good at it.”

He always had a fascination for the creatures that lived underwater, which started with the ponds near his childhood home. “There was a forest where some of the German bombers would dump their bombs during World War II when they couldn’t find their targets,” Leaney said. “A lot of bomb holes turned into ponds. I was mesmerized by seeing things splash on the surface. You couldn’t see what they were, but they’d splash — newts, salamanders, frogs.
“I was fascinated by what was under the water. It really changed my life when I first started diving and saw marine life face-to-face.”

While in Singapore, he became a scuba instructor and dive officer through the British Sub-Aqua Club, the U.K.’s national governing body of recreational diving. He was responsible for the curriculum and training of dozens of instructors and recreational divers.

In the 1970s, long before dive tourism infrastructure became commonplace, Leaney led dozens of dive expeditions to the Perhentian Islands in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Maldives, and dived in Australia and New Zealand.

During these years, King Hussein of Jordan asked him to explore if a dive center could be established in the Red Sea port of Aqaba, Jordan. “That’s a bottle-of-wine story,” he said. He was transported aboard the king’s boat to explore the Red Sea every day. “It was a pristine location with pristine sites.”

Leaney has approached his life as one of daring adventures. “I took a lot of risks,” he said. “I believed I could. If you believe you can, you can because you’re already halfway there.”
Leaney looks on after introducing dive pioneers Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Hans Hass at the 1997 DEMA Show.
The Rock and Roll Dive Historian

In 1980 Leaney moved to California, where he began working in the music industry and scoured local bookstores to collect books on diving.

“My interest in music started when I was very young,” he said. “I was inoculated with a jukebox needle. I was around when the Beatles started. When I came to America, I wanted to get involved in it. I knew I didn’t have the talent to get into a band, but the drive to be associated with music was so special to me. I started supporting what I call the ‘baby band circuit.’ I liked the challenge. Could I get a band signed to a major label to which I had no connection? I went out seven nights a week with these bands, trying to bump them up to where a band like the Pretenders was. I was driven in both music and diving to succeed.”

Leaney is currently working on The Journal of Diving History’s 112th issue, which will go to subscribers in about 30 countries. “If you find something you like to do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I still live on the edge to some degree, but now I have safety nets, and DAN is a big one.” AD

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