Tuesday, August 17, 2010

With Dr Walter Starck and Exploration in the Tropics:

 In 1972 I was well advanced as a researcher on marine invertebrates and reef fish
ecology when I was invited to join a National Geographic expedition to Lord Howe Island aboard undersea research vessel El Torito.  [See story in next blog].  For me its owner, Dr Walt Starck, was a parallel hero to Cousteau: a true underwater explorer with his own incredible array of research “toys” including a submarine and the first closed-circuit scuba, his own invention: the Electrolung.

We then went on to explore reefs and war wrecks in the Solomon Islands where we studied shark behaviour and met the diving people of Laulasi who, as Melanesians with a major Polynesian influence, worship their ancestors in the form of spirit sharks.  We filmed their customs above and below water.

Following this El Torito came to Tutukaka, N.Z. where we made a film about the Poor Knights Islands: Islands of Friendly Fishes.

Then El Torito set off again for the tropics, this time with the Doak family aboard.  After exploring in Vanuatu, Guadacanal, Simbo, Gizo, New Georgia, Pocklington Reef, [a young atoll], Florida Group and Malaita we went north to the remote atoll of Ontong Java and met the Polynesian people of Luaniua whose diverse fishing practices we filmed.

My family’s adventures with Walt led us to seeing how life on a coral reef works by day and by night and how humans can survive for centuries as part of a reef community.  I saw atoll dwelling man as a true marine mammal, a sand cay dwelling hairless ape.

Blurbs  from my book covers provide summaries:


To a world in which the pursuit of knowledge is often a staid and serious business, Dr. Walt Starck, American marine biologist, has brought a lively and questing spirit.  As Wade Doak discovered when he joined Walt's underwater research vessel, El Torito, in Sydney, Walt Starck had "a prankish, utterly irreverent sense of fun which he could switch on and off in a flash, turning from serious absorption in a problem to a madcap flight of fantasy."   The expedition was to prove a stimulating experience.  A major objective was to study the habits of sharks, in particular their seemingly unpredictable aggression.  Would the wearing of a zebra-striped wet suit, modelled on the seasnake, counter their attacks on divers ?   As El Torito moved northward, from Lord Howe Island to New Caledonia, the New Hebrides and the Solomons, Walt and his party tested this theory, learning at the same time much more about these "piranhas of the sea".   Their research took them eventually to Laulasi off the Malaita coast, where the shark is worshipped in the old way by a people who have rejected many aspects of Western culture.  Wade Doak gives a fascinating picture of this community. Finally El Torito visited New Zealand, anchoring near the Poor Knights Islands where Walt made the popular TV film Islands of Friendly Fishes.

Walt Starck's plans include the establishment of a permanent base on an island in the Solomons where he hopes to undertake further research with dolphins and make more films.   Wade Doak is already busy with another book on their adventures and discoveries.

Wade Doak lives with his wife Jan and their two children, Brady and Karla, at Matapouri Bay on a beautiful section of the New Zealand coast.   Fourteen miles away are the Poor Knights Islands where he has done much diving, observation of fishes and underwater photography over the last ten years.   He is the author of THE ELINGAMITE AND ITS TREASURE, BENEATH NEW ZEALAND SEAS and FISHES OF THE NEW ZEALAND REGION.   He has been on two major underwater and anthropological research expeditions with Walt Starck on the specially built ship El Torito in the South-west Pacific, during which a number of television films have been made for the world market.   Further expeditions and books are planned.

 “Diving that virgin atoll pass at Roncador with Jan was a highlight of our trip.  I felt a trance like state induced by the strangeness of the scenery, the masses of fish whirling around us and the eerie tranquility of it all.  It was like looking down the barrel of a huge gun, or watching a busy intersection that moment when all the traffic lights are red.  An hour after we left the water the tide started to flow again, all the water from the lagoon, an avalanche of water sluicing over the great curving valleys and ridges, the ship tossing on the tidal waves as she strained at anchor.  Below us the great gorgonian fans would be folding over and all the fishes sheltering in caves and beneath ledges ...”

 But there is much more than diving in Wade Doak's sequel to his highly successful Sharks and Other Ancestors.  This time, one of Wade's most cherished dreams comes true: his wife Jan, their children Brady (11) and Karla (9), are with him on the underwater research vessel El Torito, visiting tropic islands in the New Hebrides and the Solomons, living with the inhabitants of remote atolls in lonely seas.  The impressions that they gain on the expedition give a new dimension to Wade Doak's story.

The lively and inventive marine biologist Dr Walter Starck, owner-captain of El Torito, and his wife Janice are very much part of the "extended family"; as are the American student Cliff Enger and 17-year-old Rebbekah Lee, discovering a new world in an interlude from studies. They take part in a delightful island wedding,  ponder on the waste of wars old and new, find strange creatures deep in a limestone cave, trace rock carvings that could be thousands of years old.  A Hollywood actor, producer and film crew share their life for a while.  Wade talks to a medium and looks for ghosts on a haunted island. 

This is a story of communication - between the friendly and unconventional El Torito family and the islanders who are not so far from a stone age culture.  And through it runs the teasing question:  who are best fitted to survive in a world that seems intent on spending its resources with little thought for the present and future?

Still Image Bank: extensive transparencies on CD ROM.

The Unknown Polynesians,  1974: this film traces the El Torito expedition with the Doak family aboard, on voyages through New Caledonia, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, exploring reefs, shipwrecks and salt water peoples until we came to Ontong Java and the people of Luaniua village.

People of Paradise - Deep Blue series  1995
Twenty years later we were able to revisit Ontong Java atoll, showing the villagers of Luaniua our earlier film and further exploring the links between their sustainable lifestyle and the reef community of which they are part.
Books: Sharks and Other Ancestors  1975
               Islands of Survival  1976
              Deep Blue: a Pacific Odyssey,  1997; chapters nine and ten:       Jan and Wade  with son Brady revisit the Solomons and Luaniua on Ontong Java atoll while  involved in filming the Deep Blue tv series  for TVNZ. Natural History

No comments:

Post a Comment