Monday, August 23, 2010


In 1989 I put together an autobiography that relates the first fifty years of my diving life. I titled it Ocean Planet.  At first I wrote a section titled Back to the Womb in which I try to explain how my childhood passion for going under the sea arose. Could it have been an accidental near drowning in my first few months?  I trace my early diving days up to an epochal step in 1963 when I shifted north and began exploring my beloved Poor Knights Islands.  From then on the book draws on selections from all my ensuing books up until 1989 [as presented earlier in this blog] on treasure diving, marine invertebrates, reef fishes, exploring coral reefs and folkways in Melanesia and Polynesia and encounters with dolphins.
Back to the Womb
WHAT OBSESSED a fifteen-year-old to make him put an icecream can on
his head, drop twenty feet to the harbour floor and stagger over the mud
breathing air pumped down through a garden hose?  Perhaps it was Captain
Nemo, the Jules Verne hero, who induced me to build a diving helmet, but
a water fixation haunts my earliest memories.
Even as a four-year-old something about the intense sparkle of Lyttelton
Harbour fascinated me when the train slammed out of its long tunnel,
delivering me abruptly from a leafy Christchurch backyard to a world of
dancing light and heaving boats and water sucking up and down over the lead-
buttoned jetty steps.  I dangled over a black abyss to the deck of a launch
and then made a shuddering journey to the tranquility of Diamond Harbour,
Although neither my mother nor her mother ever swam a stroke in their
lives, my folks went to enormous efforts to make those excursions to the sea.
For them it was Mecca, and so for me the best parts of childhood involved
water.   Beach waves roaring between the piles of New Brighton pier where
I dreaded to slip between the sun-drenched planks into a sea of hissing snakes.
And then the ecstasy of floating suspended twelve feet above the golden sands
of Kaiteriteri Bay -my first dinghy ride over clear water.  I can flick back over
a kaleidoscope of bright moments when the sea held me entranced with another
of its magical properties.
But my mother believes it all goes back to the time she was dunking her
first born (February 1940) into the sea at New Brighton, believing salt water
was good for babies, when a sneak wave plucked the squirming bundle from
her hands.  She must have suffered an eternity of black despair before another
wave tossed the squawker back. But then, whatever induced my mother to
name her warchild Wade after that Norse giant who strode across fiords to
seize and devour young maidens?  Enough to give any lad a taste for the sea.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this accidental baptism, I didn't learn to
swim until my seventh year, when I put my head under to scrutinise a crab
more closely and began drifting down a tide channel towards Golden Bay.
 Having discovered how to float, swimming was not far away, but my first
recollection of actually swimming beyond my depth was the time a shunting
engine rattled along the sea wall in Nelson Harbour and I chose to join my
older friends out on the water rather than endure a shower of sparks and hot
From there on I recall a childhood of suburban pools-concrete cisterns
crammed with screaming kids, where I preferred to duck beneath and claw
my way over the silent pool floor until the wall loomed ahead and led to a
gasp of air.  For a twelve-year-old, diving for fluttering coins and submerged pool traverses were a constant challenge, shared with my closest school friends,Craig and Grant.  Then, at Christmas 1952, 1 managed to acquire a magic
portal: a German-made, circular diving mask; a cyclopean eye of rubber and
glass that transformed those eye-stinging aquatic blurs into sharp, magnified
images, the heightened reality of underwater vision that still intrigues me.  My
pool mates soon began extending breathhold capacity until, despite occasional
blackouts, we were achieving times in excess of four minutes and probably
suffered permanent brain damage.  Poor Roger actually got to five!
Although Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan had patented their aqualung
ten years earlier (1943) sport diving really began to catch on in the fifties,
all over the world. During that decade basic diving equipment was trickling
on to the market - a spin-off from wartime paraphernalia: gas masks, oxygen
tanks and frogman gear.  I have since met many early divers who followed
a path very similar to my own.
My first snorkel was quite a puzzle: the pingpong ball valve neatly closed
its skyward end whenever I dived but water persistently sluiced down my throat
in a choking torrent.  I put the fancy bit of plumbing aside for a time -until
I learnt from Keith Gordon (the equally obsessed boy who came to live next
door), that the mouthpiece goes right inside your mouth, not just against the
lips in a hopeful kiss.
Meanwhile I had constructed froghands and frogfeet from plywood and
canvas.  The handflips worked quite well but the feet were a great let-down:
after spending an age at the sea's brink securing them to my feet I stood up
and they split in half.
I had been diving for three summers when the decision came to build a
-diving helmet.  By then I had combed the high-school library for diving
literature: tales from Victor Hugo, pearl-diving sagas and yarns about Greek sponge divers, each one concentrating on the horrors of the deep in a style perfectly calculated to persuade any normal lad to take up mountaineering.
But I suspect it was a strange little book The Marvellous Kingdom about two French kids who built
their own diving helmet and were almost (or perhaps actually) drowned, that
convinced me I just had to try breathing underwater.

[picture from The Marvellous Kingdom]
To immerse a helmet-full of air demands a considerable amount of ballast
and the conventional 'hard hat' diver wears leaden chest and back plates.  But
such a rig is inherently dangerous: if the diver falls over he is held head down
on the seabed while his life-giving bubble of air races to the surface.  So I decided to make my helmet failsafe.  Rather than attach lead plates
directly to it I would use a ballast weight on a shot line, which I could release
in a moment and rise freely.
I bolted a perspex window to the wall of a steel can that my parents fondly
considered to be their coal scuttle (it had started in a shop refrigerator, full
of icecream).  In the high-school science workshop I had friends with metal-
working skills who were readily subverted.  To the helmet top, they brazed
the nozzle of my father's garden hose.  (Dad was never overly keen on gardening
but he did miss the coal scuttle.)  Air pumped down the hose to this fitting
could not return because a football valve blocked its way.  I had read with
horror of divers compressed 'holus bolus' into their helmets when the airhose
had been cut.  Not for me!
With friends Craig and Grant, bicycle, train and launch, the contraption
was smuggled over to Diamond Harbour without troubling our parents in
the least.  Two local girls manned the car pump as I walked down the jetty
steps like Ned Kelly, and the sea rose up the window.
The instant that helmet glopped down on the water I was in another world. 
From within my steel box I could peer out at the underside of the sea.  Air
wheezed and hissed above my scalp, reassuringly.  I clung to the sack of ballast
rock and shuffled deeper and deeper down the steps.  With each inhalation
the air rose from neck level until it just lapped at my lips.  Before my nostrils
were invaded I had received a comfortable lungfull and could respire.  Bubbles
gushed noisily from the flange of the can. I-AM-BREATHING-
UNDER-WATER.  That realisation was a white-hot thrill, a supreme,
moonwalking moment only equalled a few years later when I flew through
the sea with my first aqualung.
Now I decided to leave the bottom step of the jetty and descend to the
harbour floor.  I lifted my rock sack clear and lowered it into the void, running
the shot rope, marked in yards and feet, through my fingers.
Arm over arm I hauled on the rope, feet first dangling from the bell of
air, an operation so strenuous it threatened to stretch me in two.  Darker and
darker.  My ears clicked as the pressure increased.  A cloud of mud stirred up
by the ballast bag engulfed the helmet just as my toes touched the ooze.  High
pressure air pulsing into the steel hat sounded more resonant and urgent now.
I wanted to move clear of the mud cloud into unsullied water.  I pulled the
ballast up to my waist and staggered forward through the soup like a visitor
to another planet struggling into a dense breeze, almost weightless from reduced
gravity.  Shapes began to loom up: a jetty pile festooned with swaying sea
tulips; gleaming rocks around the harbour edge; curtains of bubble kelp and
dancing shafts of sunlight.
On a subsequent dive, after ten minutes I was about to surface with a splitting
headache when I spotted a strangely symmetrical kelp holdfast.  I seized it.
Metal.  Some old junk.  I indianropetricked up the shot line with the object
in one hand.  Some peculiar old vase: a filigree metal base linked to an outsized
goblet by a marble column.  The connecting bolt had corroded somewhat. I
left it there, rather drunken and wobbly on a rock at the bottom of the tide
while we packed our gear hastily for the launch ride home.
Next day in the Christchurch newspaper I was aghast to see a small front-page item: at Diamond Harbour a fishing line had fouled on a rare, historic
artefact.  Taken to the Canterbury Museum –a chalice for carrying up the aisle of a church, possibly
dropped by one of the settlers last century.
My first undersea treasure trove and I had abandoned it! But not the next time...


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