AFTER spending 35 years in local government, Malcolm Hey took early retirement and decided to concentrate on his hobby.

That hobby - underwater photography - has now become almost a full-time business and his expertise has just won him an accolade in the British Gas Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

There were more than 18,500 entries from more than 60 countries in the world's biggest wildlife photography competition and Mr Hey, 65, who lives at Asenby, near Thirsk, won the runner-up prize in the underwater world category.

"Bigeye jacks on the move" is a dramatic picture taken from the centre of a glittering shoal of the fish, which he found while diving in the Solomon Islands.

Another of his photographs, "Pygmy goby resting on star coral", taken in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, was highly commended in the same category.

The photographs will be exhibited at the Natural History Museum until May 5.

All this is from a man who spent most of his working life behind a desk. For many years, before local government re-organisation, he was a surveyor, housing manager and public health inspector for Wath District Council, near Ripon, one of the smallest district councils in the country.

He moved to Bedford, where he was director of housing and environmental health, but spent his last five years in housing by helping set up what was then a new idea, a housing association, where he became chief executive.

"I then decided to retire, come back home and make my recreation of the past 20 years my business," he said.

He is a British sub-aqua first class diver and a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and the hobby has turned into work as a photographer, writer and tour leader specialising in the underwater environment. He is also a member of Ripon Photographic Society.

An experienced world traveller, he has visited more than 35 countries and has dived extensively around the British coast, the Red Sea, South-East Asia, the Mediterranean Sea and the Caribbean.

He said: "I now spend about four months of the year on location, mostly in East Asia, and act as an escort on diving tours.

"People think that most of my time is taken up with travelling, but the real hard work starts when I get back home.

"Then I have to select, mount and catalogue all my photographs with captions in Latin, a time-consuming occupation".

Indonesia is his favourite diving area, but would he return in view of the terrorist outrage in Bali? "Oh yes, I won't stop travelling there. They are such wonderful, friendly people."

He has recently visited Antibes for a photographic festival, followed by a trip to Austria to pick up another award in a major competition.

Underwater photography is totally different from that on land. He explained: "On land you can use a camera with a telescopic lens and be positioned 100 yards away from your subject.

"Underwater you have to get within six inches of the subject you are taking.

"You also have to remember before diving to change your lens, take the lens cap off and make sure you have loaded film as you cannot of course open up the camera once you are underwater.

"The camera is placed in a special underwater casing which still allows you to operate the buttons.

"You also only have a limited time to find and photograph what you want - an hour and a half at the most."

He has photographed sharks, but not the Great White. "The sharks are not dangerous, they don't want to come near you.

"The most dangerous marine life I have encountered was only nine inches long - a trigger fish. They will attack if you get near their nest and can bite through your wet suit."

One of his most frightening dives was in the Philippines. "We were diving on a sloping reef and had gone down several metres when the current changed and became quite fierce.

"Currents are very unpredictable. The only thing you can do is pack up your camera and go along with the current until it lets you go. Surfacing alive is more important than taking another frame.

"On this occasion I was diving with a partner when the current changed and took us down at a fair rate of knots.

"You have no way of telling whether you are going up or down as bubbles from your mask continue to go upwards to the surface.

"I looked at my computer gauge which tells me the depth. I noticed six, nine, 12 and then 15 metres registering and I thought that this was the finish. There is little you can do, the currents are too strong.

"But then it let us go and we surfaced, very thankfully. You have to rely on equipment, it works much better than your mind in such circumstances."

Mr Hey has now set up his own web site and has joined world photography celebrities with a feature portfolio in the Photography Yearbook. Each volume features some 200 photographs and a select few photographers have been distinguished with a feature portfolio.

In its 57 years of publication, only two portfolios of underwater photography have been featured, one from a top American photographer and another from Greece.

The 2003 Yearbook, now on sale worldwide, features a portfolio of Mr Hey's underwater images alongside portfolios of other distinguished photographers.

Not bad for a child who was petrified of the water and was 23 when he overcame his fear and learned to swim.

You can visit his web site and learn more about his work at