November 1, 2017 Stephen Frink and captions by Tanya G. Burnett
Underwater photographers and dive operators live in symbiosis. We photographers couldn’t do our jobs without the boats and services of dive professionals, and we hope the articles we write and the photos we publish will inspire others to enjoy the locales the operators service. Despite this interdependence, however, it’s uncommon for an individual to have made an impact as both a dive professional and an underwater photographer. Such is the unlikely path forged by Tanya Burnett.
Burnett was born in Wisconsin, but soon afterward her father moved the family to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he managed a distribution center for Hobart, a provider of equipment and services to the food retail industry. This provided Burnett with an early childhood of playing in the crystalline waters of St. Thomas.
St. Thomas is where she first saw the world beneath the surface through a face mask, but she began diving and snorkeling in earnest when the family relocated to Miami, Fla. There she explored the waters of Biscayne Bay from her 13-foot Boston Whaler. A graduate of North Miami High, Burnett matriculated to Barry University in Miami Shores and entered its Sport Management–Diving Industry program, an innovative, accredited curriculum developed by dive industry icon Tom Ingram (now president and CEO of the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association [DEMA]). Only the third woman to graduate from this program, Burnett not only became a scuba instructor but also left school determined to seek a suitable business opportunity. With her education, a $100,000 loan from her dad and a U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license, the 21-year-old Burnett was on the hunt for the right dive business to acquire.
After exhausting the area’s supply of dark and dingy dive shops that might be for sale, in 1991 she created the shop of her dreams — bright, airy and primed for underwater adventure: H2O Scuba in North Miami. Located on the water and with an early technical-diving bias (hers was the first shop to pump what was then known as “voodoo gas” — nitrox), Burnett’s shop began working with Tom Mount and Bret Gilliam, respected pioneers in technical-diving education. That collaboration led to Burnett’s involvement in Technical Diving International (TDI) as a principal and a contributor to the texts for the Nitrox, Advanced Nitrox, and Trimix curricula.
The shop grew very quickly in the early 1990s, but Burnett was keenly aware that brick-and-mortar scuba shops were under competitive pressure from online vendors. In a prescient and fortuitous moment she found a buyer for her shop, paid back her dad and established a version 2.0 career as a sales representative for TDI instructional programs, UWATEC computers and Dräger semiclosed-circuit rebreathers. Her territory included South Florida and the Florida Keys, and her dive and photo opportunities continued to expand. Around this time she also began leading expeditions to places such as Cocos Island, which commonly involved such logistical undertakings as shepherding 30 rebreathers through customs and onto liveaboards.
Underwater cameras were an important part of her world then, useful for illustrating textbooks and as a creative outlet during her time in the water. But Burnett’s career as a photojournalist likely had its genesis in a 1995 assignment from Fred Garth of Scuba Times: traveling to Borneo and Sipadan with the Borneo tourism authority as the client — a very nice first gig. This led her down a path familiar to many underwater journalists: illustrating travel articles, writing for dive magazines and selling stock photos through the agencies of the day. By 2002 she was leading dive trips around the world and finding success in selling fine-art photography to collectors. In 2006 she married her underwater photo colleague, Kevin Palmer, and the couple founded Island Exposure Inc.
Despite Burnett’s professional success as both an artist and entrepreneur, she has dealt with her share of unpleasantness as a woman in a male-dominated industry. Photographer Allison Vitsky Sallmon once asked Burnett in an interview, “Has anyone ever said or done anything blatantly sexist or offensive to you as a diver?” Burnett replied:
Oh yes! When I owned and operated my dive store starting at the age of 22, most guys didn’t want to ask me anything about dive gear, diving or spear guns. They would all look at my partner and defer to him for everything. He would purposely defer back to me, and I would end up taking over the conversation and giving the guy the information he was looking for. Surprise! We always giggled about how a 22-year-old woman could possibly know so much about this “man’s world” of diving. I still occasionally get an amused look when I’m gearing up for a dive with my camera system in hand, followed by the words, “Boy, that camera is bigger than you are; can you handle it?”
Clearly she can handle the camera, as the images that follow so artfully attest.