My first dive. Or how I spent the next 39 years submerged

When I married in 1952, my first wife’s mother lived in an old weatherboard house right on the cliffs at South Coogee. The best part of visiting her being how easy it was to stroll along the cliff tops to Coogee Beach. If you were too lazy for that you could go down a short flight of steps beside the cliff to an extensive rock platform below. In this rock shelf was a beaut swimming hole, a natural fault in the sandstone which had been sealed at the seaward end. High tides refreshed the pool daily.

We used to take what kids we had then, down there for a splash. Entirely safe unless there was a big sea running. But when there WAS a big sea it actually lashed the side of Nana’s little house on the cliff top above. In fact on one super rough day it blew her living room window in! That episode was never to be repeated while I was there thank goodness..

One fine and wonderful day my sister-in-law Sylvia, came down for a dip and to try out her new purchases. A pair of blue flippers and a green facemask. Note; NO snorkel. Very simple items indeed to what Les Graham flogs nowadays at his dive shop in Terrigal. I was certainly not a very good swimmer, in fact I was a lousy swimmer. I didn’t like water over my face, up my nose and had very little co-ordination between my arms and my legs. Dog Paddle was my favourite stroke.

I thought I might ask Sylvia if I could try out her new toys too. These two articles appealed to me, a mask to keep the water out of my eyes and nose and “flippers” to give me some push. Down to the pool I went.

Eureka! I could swim and I could see. I couldn’t breathe as well, but that could come later. So after a few enquiries and with a couple of interested workmates, off we went to Mick Simmons for masks, flippers and snorkels please. We tried these out at Congwong Bay, La Perouse and were soon in raptures of seeing what was below us. And ALL those fish!

Back to Mick Simmons to look at spearguns. What! Too big and too expensive. They looked as if they had been made for Ben Cropp and Ron Taylor to spear large sharks. Shooting large sharks was all the GO back then. A little like the present, sharks were the terror of the seas. Except the sharks they were spearing were Grey Nurses, big yes, but those sharks were more interested in eating Yellow Tail Mackerel than surf board riders or late evening swimmers.

We four workmates, all from the CSR Engineering Drawing Office were skilled enough to manufacture spearguns to our own specifications. Jim the biggest of us made an equally big, long gun. I made a short one, somewhat resembling an AK 47. Off we went to Congwong Bay La Perouse again to fill our larders with succulent seafood.

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Spearing fish is not easy. It looked easy when we were snorkeling. The fish just hovered there looking at you. When you are in there with speargun in hand, you line up and pull the trigger, the fish shrugs slightly sideways and the spear hits nothing. We soon abandoned serious fish hunting and took more interest in the new undersea world around us, so teeming with a life that we didn’t understand.

Then we spotted an advert by the WEA for a series of lectures, plus a field day, entitled “Life on the Seashore”! To be given by Elizabeth Pope, a curator at The Australian Museum and part author, with William Dakin and Isobel Bennett of the renowned text book, AUSTRALIAN SEASHORES. Everything you wanted to know about life along our coast. Lectures were to be given at the WEA in Druitt Street, City and a Field Day at Fairlight. Just what we needed! We quickly signed up.

The night-time lectures really whetted our appetites, Miss Pope was so enthusiastic about the sea creatures. Little did I know that Elizabeth Pope would become my mentor and over the next ten years or so I would be often in her office wetting the floor with some specimen or other, and that later I would be made an Honorary Associate of the Museum. Then together with Walt Deas and Ben Cropp publish our own books of Australian undersea life. Two of them. “Beneath Australian Seas” in 1969 and a mainly photo-book “The Great Barrier Reef” a year later. For me, and for the other three would-be divers the day at Fairlight couldn’t come too soon.

And come it did. We spent a couple of hours rock-hopping and splashing around the Fairlight shoreline. We four were the only ones with face masks so we hopped into the deeper pools and dragged up things for Elizabeth to identify. We ended up with quite an oozy, smelly mess of marine creatures for Elizabeth to tell us about. She was having as much fun as we and I got the feeling that this was turning out to be, in her mind, one of her best expeditions. I am sure we went well overtime in our “Field Day”.

While we were messing about on the rocks we noticed a black clad head popping up out of the deeper water. It was a diver. The school finished, two of us walked around on to Fairlight Beach to see the diver emerging. He was wearing a black rubber “Dry Suit” and using a single 40 cu ft tank. Naturally we went over to talk to him and look at his gear.

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“Want to have a go?” he asked us. Well, did we ever “want-a-GO”. My friend Jim Hancox was quickest, hoping into tank straps and heading for the water. He emerged about five or six minutes later. All smiles

“Wow that was great!”, “Your turn Clarrie”. With no thoughts at all of any danger or mishap, I was off into and under the tiny surf. Heading straight out across the sand, the bubbling reg music to my ears. In no time I came to the end of the sand and a rocky drop off down to what was for me then, the dizzy depths of about 5 metres. Wow! This was SOMETHING! Fish swimming around me, not under me. Looking into dark crevices to see “things” looking out at me. I was at last truly in the underwater world. Weightless, just hanging there watching the new undersea world around me. The sound of the reg burbling away behind my head I thought “Ah gee I better head back”. Ascend from the “depths” and back across the sand and emerging all heavy again on the beach. My first dive! The rest is 39 years of my life.

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On proof reading all this reminiscence I realize it really needs a Postscript.

Back then in the late 50s ,early 60s there was no real certification needed that you could actually dive. Just take your tank to a filler, mostly just a backyard set-up, pay your 5 bob (50c) and get your fill. There were a few, very few, sports shops that had diving equipment and tank filling facilities. Some that did issued you a Certification Card but mainly because you were a regular customer.

Then real Dive Shops started up and began to run Diving Courses and issuing their own certification. The quality varied. Our URG set up an early diving school and issued certificates. Ours was tops, as you would know.

By the late 60s it became mandatory to have a real certificate issued by FAUI The Federation of Australian Underwater Instructors. I believe that in Europe ,the UK, France even Italy were much more regulated. You had to be trained and certified or NO GO.

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