Leslie Leaney — one of the founders of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, a longtime member of its board of directors and now on its advisory board — has received the 2022 California Scuba Service Award.
Mr. Leaney, co-founder of the Historical Diving Society USA and founder of “The Journal of Diving History,” received the award at the annual Scuba Show in Long Beach on May 14. He was honored for “turning his passion for diving’s history into a way for thousands to understand and discover theirs.”
The California Scuba Service Award, considered one of the top career recognition awards for the diving industry, is presented annually by the awards committee of the Scuba Show, since 1989, to honor those who have had a profound influence on the California diving scene.
Over the years, Mr. Leaney has worked with SBMM colleagues Don Barthelmess, Bob Schwemmer, Ed Cassano, Bob Kirby, Lad Handelman, Ernie Brooks and Greg Gorga, SBMM executive director, and his ongoing career contributions are woven into the fabric of the museum.
“Leslie Leaney has devoted his life to spreading the word about the history of diving. Nobody I know of has done a better job honoring the people who pioneered diving and preserving their stories,” said Mr. Gorga.
Mr. Leaney began his diving career in 1969 around the island of Singapore. He progressed through the British Sub Aqua Club system and became a scuba instructor and diving officer, responsible for the training curriculum and training of dozens of instructors and more than 70 active recreational divers in just two-and-a-half years. He achieved a club safety record of zero incidents or accidents during his tenure.
Beginning in 1970, he led dozens of diving expeditions into the South China Sea islands and did some very early recording of the effect of the Crown of Thorns starfish on coral reefs in that area.
In 1971 and 1972, before the rise of international diving tourism, Mr. Leaney led expedition dive teams to the Perhentian Islands off the northeast Malay coast, the Indian Ocean, the Maldive Islands, Australia and New Zealand.
He also conducted a survey on behalf of the late King Hussein of Jordan on the feasibility of establishing a dive center in the Red Sea port of Aqaba, Jordan. Based on this survey, he authored one of the earliest articles on diving in the Red Sea, which was published in 1972. During the 1970s, he traveled extensively, working with divers and instructors in England, Malta, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
In 1980, Mr. Leaney relocated to Malibu, where he worked in the music industry and started to pursue his interest in diving history while compiling an extensive diving library and a collection of historical antique equipment. His archives currently provide reference research material for diving historians, and items from his collection are on display at various museums.
In 1992, this interest in history led Mr. Leaney to co-found the Historical Diving Society-USA, a nonprofit educational corporation, with Skip Dunham, the president of Kirby Morgan Diving Systems of Santa Barbara. The inaugural meeting at Santa Barbara City College’s Marine Diving Technology Department featured a mix of recreational, military and commercial divers, and the society continues to provide an educational forum for these separate, but connected, groups to learn about their joint history.
In 1993, Mr. Leaney founded “The Journal of Diving History,” a publication devoted to all aspects of diving history. As founding publisher and editor, he introduced various columns, including the “Women Pioneers in Diving” written by Bonnie Cardone, former Skin Diver Magazine editor
He also printed numerous historical articles translated from foreign languages, including Russian, French and German that had never before been published in America.
In 1997, Austrian diving pioneers, Professor Hans Hass, “the Pioneer of the Pioneers,” and his wife Lotte invited Mr. Leaney to be their partner, and he started reintroducing them to the international diving community. His first step was partnering with UCSB’s Ed Stetson and, in 1998, the pair orchestrated Hans and Lotte’s return to California for a film festival in their honor. A stellar cast including Ernie Brooks, Sylvia Earle, Howard and Michele Hall, Bev Morgan and others presented at the festival.
“It was the finest tribute occasion I have ever attended,” said Stan Waterman, five-time Emmy Award winning pioneer underwater filmmaker. The event was held at the Arlington Theatre and sold out, with attendees flying in from Europe and Asia.
In 2013, Mr. Stetson and Mr. Leaney produced “A Tribute to Ernie Brooks” at the Arlington, which was attended by scores of former Brooks students as well as numerous international attendees.
As his partnership with Hans and Lotte Hass progressed, Mr. Leaney established the Hans Hass Fifty Fathoms Award in 2003, sponsored by Blancpain Watches as part of their Ocean Commitment campaign. Recipients of the Fifty Fathoms Award have included Professor Weicheng Qui and the Chinese State Oceanographic Administration, Dr. Sylvia Earle, Ernie Brooks, James Cameron and other ocean notables.
In 2000, Mr. Leaney became a founding trustee of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and helped establish exhibits of equipment that support the town’s pioneering position as the international “Birthplace of Deep-Water Mixed Gas Diving.”
Working with his friend Mr. Stetson again, Mr. Leaney became the co-organizer of the annual HDS Great White Shark Fundraiser at Guadalupe Island, Mexico, in which HDS members get to dive with pioneer divers.
To ensure his diving research endures beyond his lifetime, Mr. Leaney co-founded the Leaney-Brooks Diving History Archives at UCSB with Mr. Brooks in 2018. Each year, UCSB receives donations of specific sections of Mr. Leaney’s expansive diving library, which is curated by his longtime friend and colleague, Nyle Monday.
In 2021, Mr. Leaney became the host and author of YouTube’s “Diving into the Past” series, which features specific diving helmets. Produced in Santa Maria by Kirby Morgan Diving Systems, the series highlights some of the rarer helmets from diving’s past.
The HDS-USA is now in its 30 year, during which time, Mr. Leaney has worn the hats of president and executive director. Under his guidance, the society grew from a few dozen to more than 2,700 members in 44 countries and is affiliated with similar organizations around the world.
To guide it in its early days, Mr. Leaney helped establish and develop an international advisory board of divers. Under his leadership, the HDS-USA advisory board has continued to grow in stature along with the society, and its members have included Dr. Sylvia Earle, James Cameron, Bev Morgan, Lad Handelman, Ernie Brooks, Jean-Michel Cousteau and many others.
Mr. Leaney has also played a vital role in many of the major developments in HDS-USA’s history, including negotiating strategic HDS affiliations with the Association of Diving Contractors International, Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, Professional Association of Diving Instructors, Divers Alert Network, Beneath the Sea nonprofit corporation and SBMM.
Through his research, Mr. Leaney has written numerous articles that have appeared in several international publications and is the historical columnist for PADI’s Undersea Journal. He has lectured on the subject of diving history at seminars in France, Canada, Mexico, England, Cayman Islands and America.
His research is referenced by numerous authors, and he has acted as a consultant for The History Channel, The BBC., Discovery Channel, the U.S. Navy and other organizations.
During his international travels, Mr. Leaney has assisted in strengthening the ties between divers in America and those in many other countries who wished to record their own nation’s diving history. His work with the Musée du Scaphandre in Espalion, France, and the World Festival of Underwater Images in Antibes, helped lay the foundation for the formation of HDS France.
He was also instrumental in forming societies in Russia, Asia, Germany, Canada, Mexico and Southeast Australia and the Pacific.
Mr. Leaney serves, or has served, on the boards of the Commercial Diving Hall of Fame, HDS-USA, SBMM, and other educational organizations. In 2003, he became a director of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame and introduced the ISDHF Pioneer Award category, developed, researched, acquired and curated the artifacts of the ISDHF Museum, and in 2015, became the organization’s first executive director, a position which he still holds today.
Among the awards recognizing Mr. Leaney’s contributions to the diving industry are the DEMA Reaching Out Award, Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences NOGI Award for Education, Beneath the Sea Diver of the Year Award, Wyland Foundation ICON Award and honorary lifetime memberships in the historical societies of Russia, Canada and South East Asia, Pacific.
Mr. Leaney is an inductee in the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, Commercial Diving Hall of Fame, California Wreck Divers Hall of Fame, a Fellow of the Explorers Club, and, by the personal nomination and sponsorship of Major Christian J. Lambertsen, recognized as the “Father of American Combat Diving,” a lifetime member of the U.D.T. Seal Association.