Wednesday, August 25, 2010


From the start of our long diving relationship Kelly was the opposite to
me. A telephone technician in those days he is a genius with wires, nuts, levers,
gadgetry and explosives. Kelly built the first underwater camera housing I
ever saw. A big sphere with brass knobs on, it enclosed his father's precious
Leica. Kelly was sure it would be safe though. A piece of blotting paper
stretched between two springs would ensure this. Should a drop of water enter
the housing the paper would snap, causing a current which would ring an
electric bell mounted beside the camera. His father's camera never got wet
but Kelly grew tired of rushing to the surface when that bell rang. Wryly he
said one day: 'It's all wrong. No use putting in warning systems in case of
leaks. A housing should be designed to be one hundred percent watertight!'
And he made one. In those days of underwater photography Kelly used
to place all his accessories, light meter, view finder, flash batteries and
capacitators, close-up lenses -the lot went inside his clumsy, huge housing.
Later the amphibious Nikonos underwater camera arrived. Just a simple 35mm
camera, but watertight to I50 feet without any housing. Light, rugged and
a joy to handle. Kelly mounted a light meter on it. Then he found he needed
a special view finder to eliminate parallax errors; measuring rods for close-
up work followed, plus close-up lenses to clip in the front. Finally he had
to build a fifteen-pound electronic flash adjustably mounted on a nine-foot
pole. So there was his light, handy little camera fitted inside a cluster of gadgets
weighing nearly twenty pounds.
It was during one of our diving tank shows that I learnt that Kelly can keep
his head in an emergency.
Dennis Fowler, an Irish diver, stood at the ticket box at the front of the
marquee: 'Come on folks, step inside and see the skindivers underwater,' he
blared broguishly with the electric megaphone. But the public was too rapt
in a free movie being projected by the Traffic Department. Again he urged
them: 'See the divers defy gravity under ten tons of water.' This was better;
a score or so turned and stared at Kelly and me out in our dry suits, but no
one moved. Incensed, our barking diver-showman muttered: 'All right then
you bastards, just stand there and bloody-well stare.' But he still had his finger
on the megaphone button. This torrent of abuse hit the public like a bucket
of cold water, and quite a few automatically moved past a red-faced Kelly
into our tent.
Once we had acquired an audience Kelly strode smartly into the tent to
compere the show. A rope separated the audience from the ten tons of water.
Kelly vaulted this barrier like a ballet dancer, caught his foot on it and fell
flat on his face in the sawdust. The audience would have been hardened a
little by the language outside the tent but Kelly's flood of imprecations must
have been a little daunting. Gathering himself up with grace and aplomb Kelly cleared his throat. His beard matted with sawdust, apologetically he began
his spiel. The first diver appeared up the ladder and paused at the rim of the
huge floodlit cylinder of water.

Wade in peagreen drysuit on tank top.
'Good evening folks. Ah, the diver will now, ah descend.'
Our clumsy, great rubber-clad clot leapt from the ladder down into the diving
tank, hooking the floodlights in his apparatus. There followed sparks, an
explosion, hissing air and complete darkness. When Kelly succeeded in restoring
order and light to the tent and managed to send out a mollified audience at
the end, I knew my diving mate would rise to any emergency.
During his I959 expedition to the remote Hermit Island Group with Dennis
Fowler, Kelly had first tried his hand at filming with a I6 mm underwater
camera. He brought back a dynamic footage of giant manta rays, countless
sharks all mixed up with divers, multi-coloured fish, and corals. It had us
enthralled but commercially it was a flop. Kelly learnt the hard way that a
movie must have establishing shots, middle distance and close-up sequences;
that the narrative must be carried by the film itself, not by an explanatory
narrator. His manta-riding sequences needed to start with the divers donning
diving gear in the dugout canoe, then gliding down from the surface of the
lagoon. He had only the climactic scenes with no build up or linkage. But
it was a grand experience.
From the islands Kelly wrote to me: 'It was late in the afternoon, the ideal
time to find mantas. Every few seconds a yell would go up and we would
peer in the direction of the splash that had created the alarm. Generally it
would be just a fish, though a few were no doubt mantas. However, they
were always gone before we reached the spot.
'As our dugout rounded a point a stimultaneous yell went up from the four
of us. In front were dozens of fins breaking the surface in regular beats. It
could be nothing but the wingtips of a shoal of mantas. Suddenly we saw
the huge shapes passing under the canoe and we all hit the water at the same
time. The sight was unbelievable: twenty or thirty mantas doing acrobatics,
looping the loop, victory rolls, and peeling off in succession. From ten to
twenty feet across they flew through the water effortlessly. Awe-stricken we
did nothing but float there and gape. Then we all came to life at once. We
dived down amongst them, swimming right up to their gaping mouths, peering
inside and then dodging back at the last moment as they swished past. On
occasions like this, depth does not seem to matter and only now and then
do you come to the top for a breath. As I filmed I saw Dennis dive towards
one: it changed course and headed straight for him. Only when it was almost
touching him did it do a half roll and slide past him. As the big white belly
trailing remoras glided by he reached out and touched. The manta suddenly
accelerated with one mighty beat of its wings, then slowly swam back and
joined in with the rest of the shoal. Dennis swam up for air and came down
to grab another manta. This time he reached out and seized its tail. Giving
several beats of its wing it spurted ahead, trailing Dennis. Bursting for air
he soon had to release his grip and drop behind.'
On the same expedition Kelly wrote to me of his first attack of nitrogen
narcosis. (This was to be one of the problems on our future Elingamite dives.)
This diving hazard, aptly named by the French 'rapture of the deeps', is caused
by breathing compressed air at great depth.

Kelly was making his first 200-foot descent: 'Dennis and I swam on down.
At I30 feet we began to feel the effects of nitrogen narcosis, a slight fuzziness
in our heads as if we had had two or three drinks. At I80 feet we were feeling
quite light-headed. The bottom was covered with small worm holes, but
otherwise there was not much to see yet. It became hard to realise that we
were swimming down a steep slope. My brain kept telling me we were
swimming horizontally across a flat sea floor. Possibly my balance organisms
were being affected by the narcosis. It was only by a concentrated effort that
I forced myself to watch the hand of my depth gauge winding itself around.
'By now my tongue felt as if it was filling my whole mouth. Birds were
singing in my head. A vision of a grove of trees with a small creek running
through it kept drifting in front of my eyes. I knew I should be keeping a
lookout for the large sharks we had often seen swimming in these deep waters
but I could not be bothered to turn my head and look.
'The worms on the bottom almost invariably pulled themselves back into
their holes as we approached but occasionally one did not, and I found myself
trying to poke it back with my finger! Suddenly a wave of anxiety hit me and
I forced myself to look at my depth gauge. The luminous paint on the dial
was glowing like a neon sign with the needle swinging past the 200-foot mark.
I tapped Dennis on the shoulder-he jumped. I showed him the gauge and
gave the 'going up' signal. According to my watch we had been descending
for fifteen minutes. I fastened my eyes on a small bubble and followed it up.
'It was only when I had nearly finished decompressing at ten feet on the
anchor chain that the last of the narcosis left me.'
While Kelly was basking in the tropics, down in the chill Christchurch winter
we were establishing a diving magazine. The first issue appeared in June I959 as a newsletter of the Canterbury Underwater Club but by its fifth issue, when
I began editing and publishing it, Dive was a national magazine. I continued
to publish Dive for fifteen years until its seventy-ninth issue. Looking back
I can see the magazine served me as much as I succoured it. A communications
link between divers throughout New Zealand and in other countries meant
we were able to keep up with new trends in diving techniques, safety procedures
and equipment, to build up a picture of where the best diving locations were
and to meet those divers with the most local experience.
As you leaf through the pages of Dive until it became internationally known
as Dive South Pacific (Vol 5 No 5 March I966) and finally Marine Worlds
(I975), the history of undersea exploration gradually unfolds. By the time
I gave up publishing it, skindiving had completed its pioneering development.
As in the history of aviation, eventually most of the first-footing exploits had
been accomplished and things settled down to a regular pattern-a pastime
involving thousands of people each year, with as many putting it aside after
a couple of years, having stepped straight into a sport with a fully integrated
range of gear, proper training programmes, organised diving trips,
sophisticated instrumentation, cameras -the lot.
But I am leaping ahead of myself. In I960 at the end of my first year of
Varsity Keith Gordon and I set out on a diving expedition to New Caledonia.
This was to be the first of a series of four annual trips to 'the island of light'.
Initially we were motivated by spearfishing. Photography was struggling with
the drive to catch bigger and bigger fish. On the first expedition I was lent
the Rolls Royce of underwater cameras, a large format Rolleiflex in a Rolleimarine housing,
but as soon as I ran out of film, out would come the gun. After one experience,
while diving with Keith Gordon I wrote home: 'We Kiwis departed for Dumbea
Passage with Gus and M. Bequer. It was a long trip to the barrier reef but
I was absorbed watching the morning light creep across the sea towards us,
while to the west Noumea still lay twinkling in the darkness. Over the sleeping
town hung clouds shot with the glow of the ever burning nickel furnaces which
keep it prosperous.
'When we arrived at the pass, the sun was well up (6.30 am) and already
intense. We piled into the gin clear water of the tide-race teeming with fish
as usual. I shot a fair-sized saumonee first. It was beneath a mushroom coral,
the underside packed with fish like sheep under a tree. Then I glimpsed a
twenty-pound loche (spotted groper) which I chased around until it headed
into a cave. At the entrance I met Keith. We shook fists at one another -
both hunting the same fish. I motioned him to have first shot. He dived, fired,
but the spear pulled out. I fired into the head. It held when I pulled on the
spearline but the fish must have dilated his big gillplates there in the gloom.
He would not budge. Keith meanwhile, having searched around the coral
clump, found another cave entrance, and seeing a large groper tail, fired a
shot up into the dark. Now both of us were independently diving, yanking
at our respective fish and exchanging a gurgled commentary each time we
surfaced for air.
'Gradually the murk cleared enough for me to see my fish -no twenty-
pounder. This was a whopper! We continued tugging and then something
dawned on us: we both had the same fish!
'Now the tussle began in earnest. As a team we ripped off huge chunks
of coral to get close and with a third gun, borrowed from Kelly, put a spear
into the eye. We had him properly now. Three guns bobbed on the surface
tethered to the vague shadowy mass below. However, we had reached a
stalemate -two guns were attached from one side of the cave and one from
the other. We decided to cut one loose and then we hauled together and
gradually extracted an 80-pounder loche from the cave into which we had
chased the 20-pounder. Whose was this one?'
But my spearfishing zeal was to cool on the I96I expedition to New
Caledonia.when Keith, Kelly Tarlton and myself, Terry and Big Mac attacked
an immense tropical groper. After two days of assault, riddled with steel shafts,
the magnificent creature probably died from blood loss or steel poisoning.
We hauled it from its cave lair back to Bourail village where it was slung from
a tree in the main street, photographed with its slayers and weighed: 320
pounds. We were feted in the local papers but the great fish was tossed into
the river -too coarse for cuisine. Such a fish would be well over a century
old and we had killed it for our own glory. Victory was a bit hollow.
Later on we were diving on a war wreck. Its bow, blown off by a mine,
lay upside down, forming a gaping steel tunnel. Fish always seethed inside
this huge shelter and were easy to shoot in silhouette. This day I swam down
eagerly to the lip of the cave at fifty feet and peered in, ready for a quick
shot. Within it was inky dark. Had the wreck caved in? Normally the other
end was plainly visible. My pupils dilated, picking up the faintest illumination.
Suddenly I became aware of an enormous hulk right beside me in the twilight.
The spikes of a huge dorsal fin. Great gaping jaws chumbling a gun's length
away. Lungs heaving I streaked for air. Meanwhile Kelly took a flash photo
of it. Then it vanished into the recesses of the wreck. You could have driven
a car through the space it filled, so it must have gone 600 to 800 pounds.
Or more? From that time I felt spearfishing was for the pot. Food, yes, but
what sport to kill a creature so huge and ancient and inedible?
In retrospect the four student summers I spent in New Caledonia served
to make me feel as much at home on a coral reef as I did in temperate waters.
At first everything had seemed so hostile, ready to sting, bite or poison. True,
we did suffer quite severely from the tropical fish poisoning: ciguaterra, that
left me itching through lectures for many months; but soon our fears faded.
We came to know what not to touch, how to handle fish with dangerous spines
and what could be safely eaten. For the most part there was no more danger
in the tropics than at home. Cold water on the one hand, sharks on the other.
One day I had a valuable first lesson on sharks: they can sense fear vibrations
as if linked to you by marionette strings. I had just speared a fish when a
reef shark zoomed over my shoulder from behind. While not normally afraid
of them at this stage, I was caught unawares. Involuntarily I flinched. It veered
towards me. I recovered my wits and it calmed down. This lesson would prove
valuable in later years.
Our coral reef diving was almost entirely with snorkel. The local French
divers hardly ever used scuba and mistrusted themselves with it intensely since
some of their most expert divers had met with fatal accidents. 'We are too
crazy,' they explained with a gallic shrug. Their hunting zeal could not stop
them going deeper and deeper after a quarry. In later years I saw the same
problem claim several of my friends in New Zealand. Scuba and spearfishing
are dangerous partners.
Meanwhile we became skilled at breath-hold diving, especially after lessons
from Tahitians who showed us a totally new way to hunt. Tahitians don't
shoot fish, they kill them. Their spears are slender and fast with no barbs
and no line attached. They study fish anatomy and know just where to aim
for a kill shot with each species. They don't harpoon a fish and hold on until
it is subdued or escapes badly wounded. There is little wastage and they move
like ballet dancers with unbelievable endurance.
My first tropical scuba dive was almost my last. A Noumean friend went
to great pains to borrow a French Navy scuba rig for me. It was extremely
heavy and should only have been worn with some buoyancy device. I found
this out the hard way. My air was running low when I tried to ascend. No
way. I would kick frantically for the surface, breathing like fury only to fall
back on the sand at fifty feet. I did not dare abandon the borrowed scuba.
On the edge of vision I saw a pinnacle of coral and just above it, the hull
of a very large pleasure craft. Strategy: I would climb up the turret of coral
and make a dash for the boat. That ten-feet ascent was the hardest swim in
my life. I was clinging to the stern platform of a millionaire yacht, dizzy to
the verge of blackout. From overhead I heard the most cultivated of French ladies: 'Jeune homme, voulez-vous une tasse de the?' ('Young man, would
you like a cup of tea?')
My first successful scuba dive in the tropics was some years later, out from
Noumea in a network of coral caves, ravines and canyons discovered by Dr
Merlet, who lost his life there in a deep-diving accident. In his honour the
caves are named 'Les Grottes Merlet'.
Thirty feet below our boat an oval chimney opened in the coral reef, and
beckoned us within. We glided down a shaft of light past coral-encrusted walls
until they bulbed out into a huge ampitheatre at I30 feet. Around us like
radiating spokes of a space laboratory, corridors led off in several directions.
One huge vault looked out on to the sunlit coral slopes, its entrance arch a
fantastic silhouette framing the gaily-coloured fish bazaar outside. We explored
a whole system of caves: chimneys and rifts, corridors and chambers. Like
skylights, so many overhead entrances let in pencils of light, that it was seldom
gloomy. On a ledge in dim twilight I saw a pale tablet of marble resting on
the rock sill. The inscription told me it had been placed there in memory of
Dr Merlet, by his friends.
As we ascended I resolved that some day I would return to the tropics and
scuba dive this coraline architecture to my heart's content.



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