Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Early Days Pt2: first U/W photos; first NZ Ice Dive

1958 was the year I began taking photos underwater. My first effort was
with my mother's box camera inside a beach-ball bladder glued to an old face
mask. I could immerse the camera without soaking it and I could manipulate
the controls with great difficulty but it never produced anything of value other
than induce great efforts to obtain one of the new Mako Shark amphibious
box cameras. A kindly American Deep Freeze airman offered to bring me
one back next time his Globemaster flew home.

And so the day came when I successfully exposed a roll of film underwater:
mid-June I958, and I took pictures of trout, water weed, willow branches
and our neighbour Allan Kircher looking over his own shoulder (double)
exposure) and his wife Theus from dead astern, and a self-portrait with camera
at arm's length. Next day the camera fell from its shelf on my bedroom wall.
Its repair was a chapter of heartbreak.

The following month we made the ice dive. My diving mates decided on
a major test of our new dry suits. For years we had yearned to dive in crystal
clear water. Overseas accounts of ice diving convinced us that beneath a frozen
take we would find perfect visibility. This would be the first such descent in
New Zealand. There had been a recent tragedy in the mountains when a party
of shooters had drowned while trying to recover game from a frozen lake.
The ice had given way and they could not escape.

The most accessible ice to Christchurch divers was Lake Ida, an alpine
skating resort. The authorities would never have allowed us to cut a hole in
their precious lake had it not been for the shooting tragedy. Soon it was all
arranged: we would give a public demonstration of how to get out of an ice
hole, the whole performance being documented by the National Film Unit.

27 July I958: 'Allan, Keith, Ken, Kelly, Stuart, Andre, Mike and myself,
took the bus to Lake Ida. A fine day with ice I6 inches thick. It took us an
hour to hack a six-foot by four-foot hole. Water temperature was 32 F at
the surface and 36 degrees F at the bottom. A crowd of 2000 people was kept back
from the hole by a rope fence. We would draw straws to decide who was to
enter first and give the demonstration. This would be quite a challenge as
none of us had ever rehearsed getting out of an ice hole.

'Just then a series of loud explosions like cannon fire suggested the ice was
cracking up. Suddenly we were alone in the middle of the lake. The spectators
hetterskeltered for the shore thinking a massive collapse was imminent.
Loudspeakers reassured them all was safe-the ice was just settling a little
under their weight. We drew straws. Mine was the shortest!

'Beneath my dry suit I wore two sets of antarctic underwear, a pair of
 trousers, three pairs of socks, three jerseys, a balaclava, two pairs of woollen
gloves and two pairs of rubber gloves sealed to my wrists with preserving jar
rings and rubber bands.

'The crowd was hushed as I slid in. Warm as toast -miraculous! I backed
up to the ice. I spread my arms wide over it and kicked vigorously. Presto,
I was ashore. I then rolled several times so as to spread my weight until I
reached 'safe' ice. The crowd breathed again.

'We then began diving with 'lungs in pairs; Kelly and Stuart first.  Each diver
was linked to an attendant by a bright red safety line -essential for relocating
the ice hole. We could never have escaped from such thick ice any other way.
'Having swum some distance beneath the frozen lake Stuart decided to
return. He felt for his safety line. Gone! In a moment of near panic he thought
his only hope was to swim as fast as possible to where the hole might be.
His air was rapidly running out. There was a chance he might run across the
exit if he covered enough ground. Suddenly he spotted his bright red safety
line lying on the bottom of the lake. The way back to the ice hole was in the
opposite direction.
'When my turn to 'lung dive came I tied a good knot in my safety line.
I took the Mako Shark camera down but it was utterly disappointing. Visibility
was only eight feet. And this so-called 'bottomless lake' was just fifteen feet
deep. I shot some pictures of the underside of the ice, the frozen bubbles and
the occasional pair of boots. Then I discovered a new way to ice skate. Some
distance from the hole you tug the safety line repeatedly: signal for your tender
to pull you in. Then, palms spread on the ice ceiling, arms braced, you slither
effortlessly to the exit.'

Our appetites were whetted. The next adventure was diving at night. Jim
White had constructed a massive diving light with a twelve-volt battery and
sealed beam lamp all supported by a flotation wing. The rest of us improvised
rubber torches. At our favourite testing site, a fresh-water spring called the
Waimakariri Groynes, a fleet of cars assembled one Sunday night in August.
A thin crust of ice skirted the water's edge but with our new rubber pelts nothing
could deter us.

Down we went and met up in a blaze of torches while Jim took our photos.
My logbook records: 'A fantastic, other-worldly sight. Colours seem more
vibrant than in daylight: turquoise water, golden shafts of light, emerald green
diving suits and silvery clouds of bubbles all with a jet black backdrop. The
trout froze in our torch beams, letting us touch them, mesmerised by the
radiance. Then in a flash they fled and mud smoked in our lights. Every hollow
and cleft held a trout; tiny delicate fingerlings and swarthy old men huddled
in thickets of pea-green weed or in caverns of fallen willow branches. For
two hours we swam around in the darkness.'

Scuba diving was such a curiosity in the fifties that people would pay to
see us. After the war penniless British frogmen began exhibiting themselves
at fairs in transportable tanks of steel and perspex. This inspired divers of
the Canterbury Underwater Club to become showmen. We desperately needed
a high pressure compressor to fill our scuba tanks. Industrial sources of
compressed air were chary about our yellow steel tanks; in their code yellow
is deadly chlorine gas and they feared an accident. They wanted us to paint 
our tanks grey with black and white sectors on top. But such tanks have poor
visual properties especially in our gloomy waters. Besides, we wanted refills
in the weekends when facilities closed down.

And so, the era of diving tank shows began. Our first, in November I958,
earned 368 pounds in three days. My logbook: 'The programme opened with John
Morton standing on his head knitting. Two roisterous divers drop in and they
have a party underwater, drinking coke, inflating balloons, eating bananas
and playing cards. John cheats. A frogman fight ensues. John is tossed out
and the remaining two dance, swap mouthpieces and scuba gear and finish
by vacuum cleaning the tank and demonstrating with a large model how ships
are salvaged with compressed air. Our biggest problem is the effect of so much
coca cola when you are wearing a drysuit...'

In December I958 I set out on the first of many hundreds of diving
excursions with Kelly Tarlton. I think our diving relationship really started
on that trip to Kaikoura: 'On entering the water at Shark's Tooth, visibility
was superb and there were kahawai everywhere. I shot a large one and then
had fun watching group after group interspersed with barracouta eating sprats.
Cape pigeons zoomed through them -amazing to see a bird fly underwater.
After hours of observation, too excited about all the activity to shoot anything,
I followed a blue moki with no tail and saw a marblefish attacking another
moki. Returning to shore I speared a medium sized moki. As I was stringing
it to my waist a wall of barracouta surrounded me at funeral pace, their sharp-
toothed jaws slavering at the blood from the wounded fish, hundreds of glassy
eyes fixed on me. But they weren't game enough to attack.

'After a spell I returned with my Mako camera and was taking pictures of
an octopus when Kelly called me over. He had found gas bubbling from the
sea bed. I returned to the boat and donned an aqualung. While he took photos
I filled a bottle with gas gushing from between boulders and sand. Wrasses
kept eyeing me very curiously. Kelly and I have visions of becoming oil
millionaires. On shore we tested the gas with a match and it ignited. Later
that day Kelly made a measured free dive to forty-two feet.

'What with all the fish we speared, the crayfish we collected, photos and
methane gas, this was my best diving weekend ever.'

Later laboratory tests proved the gas was methane, with an interesting trace
of valuable helium gas.
Our enthusiasm for the blue frontier was surging ahead. We were eager
for new horizons, impelled I think by the mediocre conditions on our
Christchurch doorstep. The first long range expedition was to Stewart Island
in the far south. Christmas I958 saw five of us, including Keith my neighbour
and Kelly, on the wharf at Bluff itching to cross Foveaux Strait with a mountain
of diving gear and an armoury of spearguns including a weird prototype that
had a wicked explosive head.

'Visibility is excellent here- forty-five feet and there are plenty of fish
swimming in jungles of giant kelp. We took some big moki, blue cod and
the largest butterfish I've ever seen. You dive down and wend your way through
the long swaying stalks.

'Surfacing for a breath it is easier just to wriggle your snorkel through the
dense canopy of floating kelp fronds, take a gulp of air and descend into the 
jungle. Goggle-eyed leatherjackets follow us everywhere. I saw a penguin swim
by and Kelly speared a six-foot white shark.'

We had only been home one week before setting off for the opposite end
of the South Island. This was to be a major diving convention in the
Marlborough Sounds using Curious Cove holiday resort as base with a fleet
of launches on charter, and divers from all over New Zealand. The year I959
started with quite an explosion of underwater activity. The first event was
a spearfishing trophy for the largest fish of the day; first prize a fine speargun.

Down at Motuara Island our launch anchored in the midst of the most
exciting diving territory most of us had ever seen. It was eighty feet deep;
schools of kingfish, barracouta, huge eagle rays and clouds of reef fish. Eagerly
I swam ashore, clambered on to a rock and with a supreme effort tried to
compress the powerful spring of my home-made Cernia gun, so aptly
nicknamed the 'Hernia'. This involved placing the butt on a rock and stretching
on flipper tips to my utmost to seize the speartip, transfixed with a loading
pin. I then had to use every muscle in arm, leg, thigh and stomach to ram
the shaft down the barrel until it engaged the trigger mechanism. Inches from
success I lost my balance. Suddenly I was flying through the air, to land
ignominiously in a tangle of kelp. The gun had fired me like a huge pogo
stick. My biggest worry when I surfaced, was that anybody had seen my flight.
I think it is still a secret. Determined to load that weapon I made a fresh attempt
and tamed the monster. My logbook records the ensuing triumph:
'I swam out through the bull kelp and was surrounded by kingfish. I selected
a medium size target and fired my Cernia at its head. A mad struggle but
I had forty feet of spearline and it didn't tow me under. I dived and seized
the shaft on either side of its body so it couldn't unscrew the spear head, and
let it swim me towards the launch, kicking violently. I got tired and yelled
for a dinghy. Joe Tomlin rowed over and boated my catch. The fish weighed
in at thirty-seven pounds, taking the trophy. Soon after Jaan Voot came in
with a thirty-pounder and next day Kelly got one weighing forty-six. But my
worries are over-the prize was a proper speargun.'

first kingfish

In the Marlborough Sounds we dived our first shipwreck, an old collier,
the Kohi and I took pictures of Keith Gordon peering out through a porthole
with a tarakihi beside his mask. Then Keith, Allan Kircher and I made our
deepest scuba dive to date, dropping feet first down a shotline to eighty feet.
On the bottom the murk closed in. We could barely see each other as we tapped
our depth gauges in excitement. Kelly Tarlton outdid us. Down a measured
shotline he made a breath-hold dive to I04 feet, only thirty feet from the
existing world record. We teased him that it caused permanent brain damage.

My high school days were over - after five years of being caned for lateness
I was now faced with a momentous decision: how to finance a university
education as well as maintain an addiction to diving, I had no choice other
than to apply for a teaching bursary: for every year the State funded me I
would be bound to spend a year in high school teaching. But it meant plenty
of opportunity to dive in the long vacations and quite a handsome salary to
spend on gear. This seemed the best course I could adopt. But my high-school
reputation was pretty abominable and when I came before the selection panel
I felt my chances were very slim indeed. At each examination I had just scraped 
through on a pittance of swot. I recall studying Shakespeare on the banks
of the river Avon. I lay there on the grass in my dry suit reading Macbeth,
waiting for a crane to prepare the next section of steel sewer pipe ready for
me to dive down and bolt it on. Could the bard of Avon have ever forseen
such an event as he penned those immortal lines 'Is it a dragline which I see
before me...'

The selection panel asked what my sporting interests and hobbies were. 'This
is it,' I thought. 'I'm doomed.' I had evaded team sports like the plague because
they intruded on weekends. But the moment I mentioned skindiving the bored-
looking panelists brightened up and deluged me with questions. The transition
in their demeanour was unbelievable. The novelty of skindiving opened up
a path that was to provide me with a high degree of freedom for the next
four years-so long as I could pass the annual examination hurdle.

Not long after the sealing of my fate an opportunity arose to do commercial
diving. A construction company offered Allan Kircher and me a peculiar job
laying concrete underwater on the site of the new Canterbury University at
Ilam. For experimental work in physics several huge concrete tanks were being
built. Out there on the Canterbury plains the water table comes within a few
feet of the surface. The tanks needed water-tight bottoms. Our job was to
ensure the bottom edge was clear of shingle and to direct the flow of wet
concrete so there were no voids. My logbook records the fourth day of work,
our biggest day:

'Allan and I started work at 9 am. Water temperature was 48 degrees F. All day
the workmen were pouring concrete down the tremie pipes from a convoy
of premix trucks. Twenty feet down in total darkness we had to spread it out
and keep it level -a three-foot layer of concrete, thirty-six feet in diameter.
Without a lunch break we worked till 6.30 pm, taking off just one hour to
refill our air tanks.

'I had wanted to clear under the sump before the concrete began to flow
but the boss said: "She'll be right," so I left it. When they had poured
everywhere but around the sump, I was asked to check beneath it, ensuring
all was clear so the concrete could flow under and support it. Many tons in
weight, like a small barge, the sump was suspended from steel girders on heavy
cables. Around it all the soft cement and slurry had flowed to a depth of five
feet (fifteen feet down). As I tried to swim down through it I was squeezed
out - like diving into mercury. I had to wriggle and pull myself down a steel
column. The boss had said not to go under the sump on any account. If the
cables snapped I'd be trapped and the concrete would harden before anything
could be done. A horrible fate. But down there I found his warning quite
useless. I just had to go beneath that sump to clear out large boulders or the
whole job might be doomed. Utter blackness, dense porridge and a huge weight
above me.

'When I surfaced it was night fall. We were lit by car headlights. My lips
stung furiously, blistered by the cement. My ears and hair were thick with
it.' (I had to have a crew cut).

That concrete cured any notions I might have had of earning a living from
commercial diving. I realised that it was the life of the sea that attracted me,
not just being underwater-or cement. During my first year at Varsity our expedition 
fever continued to rise. Kelly was eager to head for the tropics. To raise funds for 
his four-man 'Coral Seas Expedition' to New Guinea, he decided to put on another 
diving show, this time at the Christchurch Industries Fair.

I would have to attend Varsity lectures while he went off to the Hermit
Islands for six months, but I was keen to assist him raising funds with our 
I0,000 gallon perspex-fronted diving tank.

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