"This older guy was talking to me on a park bench in Oahu," remembers John Wahlgren, 55, as he recounted the reasons for exploring much of the world as an underwater photographer.
The man was a multimillionaire, and this was his first time out of Philadelphia. "The guy said he was too busy making money," Wahlgren said. He said he was dying of a fatal lung disease.
Wahlgren, who was 33 at the time, said: "It really hit me because it made me remember my father was always telling me he was going to Alaska when he retired. He died when he was 62 and never made it."
Which is why Wahlgren decided he wanted to see the world and photograph its underwater creatures while he was able.
The only stops left are Antarctica, Africa and Australia.
To support his wanderlust, Wahlgren says he works seven days a week at his custom car painting shop in Orange, where he specializes in painting antique cars.
"I don't advertise my shop, but I get enough work from word of mouth," said the one-time car and boat racer who graduated from Cal State Long Beach with an engineering degree.
Before his college days, Wahlgren experienced his first taste of traveling while working the waters off South America on his father's commercial fishing boat.
"I remember sitting on the boat and looking at the snow on the mountains above Peru and wondering what was up there," said Wahlgren, who didn't start his underwater picture taking until he was 32 years old.
"I was always looking at National Geographic and travelogues on television and wishing I could take some pictures at the places they were showing," he said.
Over the years Wahlgren has won a number of awards, one from the Orange County Fair last summer.
Much of his travel is with a group of veterinarians who are underwater swimmers. The group calls itself "Society of Underwater Veterinarians."
"I'm the only one who's a photographer," said Wahlgren, who has photographed giant manta rays, great white sharks and a 40-foot-long whale shark, which tested his courage.
He called the meeting a sobering experience but warns people who listen to him that "the older I get the more I embellish it."
Wahlgren once thought of making a living with underwater photography but realized "it has a kind of limited market. Besides, the people who are in it pretty well dominate it."
Wahlgren considers his underwater photography a "kind of a hobby. I'd like to sell a little more than I have, but I just don't have the time."
But boats and the water are Wahlgren's true love. In earlier days he worked as a commercial diver.
"I thought that one day I would buy a sailboat and sail away," he said. "Maybe one of these days I will."