Thursday, August 26, 2010


To the Poor Knights
IT WAS DURING my third year at Varsity that a friend told me of an
attractive blonde staff nurse called Jan Turpin who liked diving but needed
some lessons. As a consequence of that introduction, my third trip to New
Caledonia was with Jan. In I962 we returned, this time on a skindiving
The fateful day had arrived when I had to enter service as a school-teacher
to repay my bond. I knew that the best diving in New Zealand was around
the Poor Knights Islands, off the coast of Northland. Kelly Tarlton had already
shifted up to Whangarei close by and was sending glowing accounts of its
scenery and clear water. The nearest teaching job I could find was at Wellsford,
a rural town fifty miles south. I applied to teach English and French to farmers'
kids and shifted north to start a family in a bright new schoolhouse, and a
warm, friendly community.
From then on I had the best diving partner anybody could wish for. While
diving in the Te Arai surf (near Wellsford) eight months pregnant with our
son Brady, Jan saw her first kingfish, just a fleeting glimpse through the barrel
of a wave. Thinking it was a shark Jan nearly gave birth there and then. Not
surprisingly our son Brady showed an early interest in diving: he descended
with me at the age of eleven to explore a sunken plane, a hundred feet down -
but I'm leaping ahead.

The May I963 issue of Dive describes my very first dive at the Poor Knights
Islands - quite a momentous occasion for me. I am still in love with those
seascapes as I write this in I984, some thirty years and many scuba tanks later.
'At I20 feet, in search of something for the pot, Rob Davy and I settled
on a rock outcrop jutting from the base of a near vertical cliff face. [* This was 
before we developed our own buoyancy compensators. I made the change
from dry to wet suit in I96I. My first proper dry suit was totally worn out in two
 years of manic diving activity.]

Nearby was the entrance to Rikoriko, a huge cave into which game fishing 
launches often sweep, outriggers, masts and all.  An enormous cave, both above 
and below water. Heavy in our compressed wet suits* we teetered precariously on flipper tips.
All around us in a 100-foot sphere of vision, masses of fish interwove as we
peered through in search of kingfish.

'A twenty-pounder swept in and Rob transfixed it.  At this depth we could
not use our floats so Rob attached his quarry to a short line.  During his struggle
to subdue the fish and extricate it from the stumpy kelp plants, a five-foot
bronze whaler shark nosed into view.  Rob's first meeting with a shark.  We
exchanged 'OK' hand signals and waited to see what would develop.  While
Rob was poking the cheeky little fellow away from his catch with the gun barrel, 
he did not see its twelve-foot brother looming on his right side, where
I stood.  Then I realised: his glass-eye, of course.  How would my buddy react
when he realised there were two sharks interested in his catch?  Any panic could
lead to disaster.  With steely strength the huge beast glided in towards us,
accompanied by a cloud of sprats.  Rob saw this shark as it made its first pass.
I breathed with relief.  Rob took it calmly, just readying his knife to sever
his catch if things got nasty.  Now we settled down to brazen things out.  Backs
to the cliff we waved the two sharks off each time they veered too close.
Belligerent movements made them wary.  Fascinated by their grace and majesty
in this silent duel of nerves, we had almost exhausted our air supply before
they gave up and vanished beyond the blue curtain.  Had we made a wild panic
rush to the surface it might have been a different story.'

I recalled the case of Maurizio Sarra, an Italian diver who had just completed
a book, My Friend the Shark. Scuba diving on the coast between Rome and
Naples with three companions, Maurizio was at I00 feet when he speared a
groper. Cutting his line free he left the gun on the bottom and swam up with
his catch. Those in the boat advised him they had seen some sharks nearby.
'I'm just going down to get my gun. I'll watch out...' He dived. Scarcely a
minute later he burst to the surface which crimsoned rapidly around him.
Despite a degree of protection from his wet suit he was grievously mauled.
His left calf was ripped off, his right calf and thigh severely lacerated. Nobody
saw the shark, but Sarra, immediately taken to hospital, repeated in his
delirium: 'What an enormous beast ... what a monster!'

The attack took place at I0 am. By 11 Sarra had received 300 stitches and
a blood transfusion. He never lost consciousness, except during the operation.
He refused to answer questions put to him about the shark, saying 'we'll talk
about it later on'. By I0 pm Maurizio Sarra had died in the oxygen tent.
Coupled with his huge loss of blood he was affected by the sudden ascent
without decompression after a prolonged dive.

That episode at the Poor Knights, coupled with the Sarra story from a very
similar area, stood me in good stead. Thereafter I was ultra-cautious about
spearing fish when there were sharks around. Not surprisingly, during our
spearfishing days sharks were frequently seen at the Knights and on a few
occasions divers were so scared they rapidly scaled the steep cliffs. 

During the early sixties, our first few years at Wellsford, exploratory dives
at the Poor Knights were intensive. Winter and summer Kelly and a hard core
bunch of Whangarei Underwater Club members would rock and roll over
that twelve-mile stretch of sea from Tutukaka. In those days only one charter
skipper was happy about taking 'damned divers' aboard. Fred Cotterill of
Matira was a very special skipper and most of us from that era count him
as a strong influence on the development of safe, deep-diving techniques. Our
group had quite a major role in pioneering deep-water scuba diving. We
developed our own low-cost buoyancy compensators to give us neutral
buoyancy at depth and a fast ride to the surface in an emergency. In this respect
our compensators were in advance of such equipment in the United States.
When the decompression meter came on the market American Skindiver magazine 
was happy to publish my article on the Poor Knights deep-diving
techniques and several other technical pieces, all the result of experiences gained
by that band of fanatics centering around Kelly Tarlton, Fred Cotterill and
the Poor Knights.

In those days Kelly would question everything. He built a high-pressure
test chamber for evaluating decompression meters, depth gauges and other
equipment and we published the results of his tests in the magazine. With
every diving fatality we would make a special effort to learn all the
circumstances, as in an aircraft disaster, and publish them fully. This displeased
some of the advertisers in the magazine, who did not appreciate anything that
might discourage people from diving, but we managed to get by and felt that
for our own personal safety, as well as others, it was essential to learn whatever
lesson might be gained from every diving tragedy. Consequently, over the
years as deep-diving activity accelerated, the fatality rate diminished. These
days proper training is obligatory and instructors can draw on the many fatality
reports we published as object lessons in teaching safe diving patterns.

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