John Black Oral History Part 2
The price of abalone
During those early days were you based at Mallacoota or were you camping out?.
No I come down to Mallacoota on my own. My wife came down, Eva, and we had a look at it. But there was - as I said is started probably in the early ‘60s and by the time ‘67 came around there was at one time I was told 100 divers working out of here. Now it was very similar to the old gold mining days. The price of abalone started to increase and more and more people wanted to get into it and I said like the old goldminers, if somebody said I found this new reef that’s very rich in abalone everybody would be bonko (?) and Mallacoota started to kick on pretty good. And divers from NSW and even down in Melbourne area – it was mainly NSW divers, there wasn’t a lot of Victorians. Victoria was a bit behind NSW in diving. I think the water was colder, NSW sort of got going before the Victorians. But anyway, there was some reports of some big catches coming out of here, like someone getting 1000 – those days probably 1000lb of meat weight. That’s a couple of ton a day of abalone and the shell and someone said ah that must be good, we’ll go up there. And there was one time they said there were nearly 100 divers operating out of here.
Fished out – depletion of abalone beds
It didn’t take long for the beds to get depleted fairly rapidly and a lot of them moved on. They said ‘we’ll go further a field, we’ll go down the coast a bit and maybe we’ll find a bit more’ and across to Tassie and the islands in Bass Strait and actually they left this place about when I got here in ’67. They said the place is just about stuffed, you know, it’s been fished out and it’ll never recover and we – again that’s when we started putting in these suggestions that we’ll only take big abalone, we’ll leave the small ones and it leads into the co-operative where we got a manager and said let’s get more money for less abalone so we said ‘what to youse want?’ And they wanted these white tiger coloured abalones that we targeted those abalones so we could only take – we took about half the weight in the catch but we got paid about the same money. So we able to let the bottom recover. It surprised us, it didn’t take long for us to see, hang on, there’s a little bit of recovery, you’d see the small ones grow up. We’ll leave them alone, leave ‘em alone, leave ‘em alone.
Maori divers - Ed Waroo, Ray Greer (Peanuts) and Tarby
Fantastic. I was looking at some stuff last night where we were staying had and a guy called Ed Waru.
Yes, Ed Waru.
His name came up as someone who did some early diving. Can you tell me a bit about him?
Yeah. Eddie was, he was an early diver. He came into town – I was notified that they was going to close licences down. I came in 1967. And – there was a few Maori divers they said when there was a bit of money in it - there was quite a few Maori divers come down into town. And Islanders, Fijians and – I’m trying to think where else they come from – anyway I’ll stick with it that it was Maoris.
Anyway there were quite a few Maoris and they tend to stick together too. If a couple of blokes come in and say “Oh, I’ll go and see me mate down there”. So it finished up we had tremendous bands down here – we had some Maori Hi-Fi’s used to be most of the time, you know, playing music and they still eat them in New Zealand. They call Paua over there – it’s a very dark meat but they’ve been eating it probably as long as the Chinamen have been eating it, I suppose. But they knew all about it but they didn’t bother cooking it too much, they’d eat it raw or just cook it in like a tripe.
But Eddie, one of the Maori boys was called Tarbrush, Tar Baby he was, he was a fairly short Maori so he got the name Tarby or Tar Boy on the road and Eddie Waru and a bloke by the name of Ray Greer which was called Peanuts, they were mates of his. But they were in Australia as butchers, they were working in the – a lot of Maoris were butchers. And his mate said ‘come down here, come down here’, so Peanuts and Eddie turned up and Tarby didn’t have a boat so the three of them got together and they bought a boat between them.
Division of labour - tossing a coin
Then they tossed a coin to see who was going – we used to have deck hand or sheller – they used to stand in the boat shelling the abs. Eddie got the job of shelling the abalone, Tarbrush – Tarby – was the diver and Peanuts. he was a butcher so he got a job around town and they’d rotate around.
And then Tarby had the licence and then he decided he’d enough and he left town and by this time licences were closed and probably, I don’t know, through a bit of sympathy I suppose, the co-operative and with our manager explained the whole situation to Fisheries and they issued a licence. It was going to either be Eddie Waroo or a bloke we called Peanuts, which was Ray Greer, and they tell the story now that they tossed the coin and Eddie lost so he had to become the diver so Eddie then become the abalone diver and Peanuts worked in the boat with him.
We sent off his measurements for a wetsuit but they sent it back and they said ‘we had to make a mistake here’, because he was about as round as he was tall. It was a hilarious thing. And they made these suits up and sent them up and he put them on and paraded like he was in heaven. And the neck would be starting on the top of his head and his head would be about three feet high. They just couldn’t quite work out the shape of this bloke. But he was priceless but he was alright. He got in the water and flapped around and he gradually become quite good at it. But unfortunately he died from the bends. He got up and got bent and we lost him. He certainly was a character. He played the guitar a lot, partied a lot and just a real personality type guy.
As I said we did a have a lot of Maoris and I would say – and I can’t recall any one of them that’s still alive today. They tend to die fairly young. Ray died, Ed died and Paul Marino and yeah, Matt the Modern Maori – we used to call him – there’s so many of them. Yeah, he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead. (??) They’d eat this poo-ah (?) and pork and get into pig’s head and a bag of potatoes. Yeah, they used to eat well. We had a lot of hangi’s. They were always happy and playing music. I just think in general it’s just their make-up that they died fairly young. No, Eddie was certainly a character. He was never a gun diver. He was probably not one of the early divers and probably the last one to get in and probably one of the first ones to die from it. But he did have a colourful bit in the middle, he was a great bloke. Yeah, a great bloke.
Now you keep saying “People who losing the toss have to dive”. (laughter)
Sounds like a pretty horrible thing. Tell me why you had to dive if you lost the toss?
Well, he wasn’t real keen to get in the water. Like both these blokes were butchers, you know, and there were certain types of people that enjoyed diving and we grew up with diving and from – I don’t know how old he would have been, he would have been in his late ‘20s I suppose, and he’d hardly ever been in the water and he was a fairly overweight sort of a guy and so was his mate. I keep saying Peanuts, well that was his nickname, Ray Greer – but he was pakeha – he was a white New Zealander – and Ed was the dark one and they were both about the same height and nearly the same shape and they had a pretty rough life as butchers, and they drank a lot of booze and everything else and he’d never, I don’t think ever, had his head in the water before.
When I say lost the toss, well they tossed the coin and heads you dive and tails you don’t and it come the wrong way they both looked at one another and he realized then – I’ve got to learn. And that’s why he was a bit petrified about it. He told me one story – he got the job shelling one day – and they were out anchored and the rope came up over the front of the boat, it was tied to a cleat down on the keel or somewhere, but the rope run across the little deck they put on the front of the boat and the boat was jumping up and down that much the rope - it was a old plywood boat and the rope started to cut through the front deck and he said he wasn’t even game enough to go to the front of the boat to get the anchor up so he pulled the diver up.
So he was a bit frightened about the water. And then all of a sudden he had to become a diver. That was incredible, they were really frightened, they would have turned as white as – I reckon he would have turned white himself. (laughter) He adapted to it.
It seems to be a pretty dangerous occupation for someone who hasn’t done it. It sounds like a pretty dangerous occupation?
Yeah. That probably related to Eddie. We grew up with it. As I said earlier, we first start to swim in little bays and then progress out into the ocean to dive on shipwrecks and to a lot of people it was just a good way of life. It was a great way of life and there was sort of never any real fear in it but I look back now – we had an Australian Spearfishing Championship at Kangaroo Island and we were swimming around there with a bag of fish tucked up under your belt. Now I look back at that now and think that wasn’t a real smart thing to do at the time. But at the time it didn’t matter much – it was just part of the course and away we went.
The perils of diving
I think the divers themselves are very individuals. I’m not a believer in this buddy diving bit – I think that’s totally wrong you seem to drown people two at a time instead of one at a time. I mean, if you’re gunna get in the water you’ve got to be very confident and you’ve got to be able to do it yourself and if you get into strife you’ve got to be able to get out of it yourself. And if you adopt that attitude when you get in, otherwise you’re thinking about what might go wrong all the time – you’re thinking about if something goes wrong how do I get out of this situation.
So, we would never work in deep water for any long period of time. If you had any brains you didn’t. You might spend - even though we bent the rules a lot we spent a fair bit of time in 60 feet, 70 feet of water and then you’d signal to your deckhand you were going to shift your boat in and he’d move the boat in while you swam along the bottom. I mean the rule book says you’re not allowed to do it but we done it and it was just trial and error. There wasn’t too many errors. And you’d be working around the seals and all those years – from 67, I gave it away in 97 – so I dived for 30 years – I seen just two white pointer sharks and I had probably a slight tough of bends on probably two occasions, that’s about all. Never any great dramas, none of the boys have.
We had 40 guys here working for 30 odd years and we had some bend cases, Eddie died from the bends but he was grossly overweight and there was a - there was a bit of trouble with his equipment. He was getting a local guy in town was servicing his gear because he didn’t know too much about it and we were using - the type of gear he had had a charcoal carbon filter on it to take any excess oil out and apparently the carbon had got wet and it somehow got into his line so he was complaining before he died that he was running – I used to play golf with him a lot – that he was running short of breath and they sent him off to the doctor and he said ‘you know you’re too fat, lose some weight, bla, bla, bla’ but I think the autopsy showed he had a little bit of foreign material in his lungs, a bit like that emphysema, a little bit of this stuff got down there and it was causing a flu, it was a bit like a viral pneumonia that he started to get in his lungs, and when he got the bends and we put him in the chamber and had to really pressurise him he couldn’t handle the pressure of the air going in so he was just – yeah. He got bent - he had medical problems that really made it almost impossible to save his life once he got the bends.
Oil rig work
Most of us were – Jeff McFarlane – he was on the oil rigs when they started it. That was the other side of the story. The rig divers wanted ab divers to go starting too and that took a lot – some of the pressure off some of the divers here in the early days. There were so many here but when the oil rigs started in Bass Strait they said they wanted divers and a few went down and give up ab-diving and went working on the rigs. That was just a side to it. But a few of the blokes went down there.
Health tests with Dr. Jeff McFarlane
When the rigs were going they had a doctor down there named Jeff McFarlane, who became a world authority on divers and medicals, and he come into town when we first got here and he addressed a meeting and said look I - its myself, it’s a bit like you today, its myself personally, but I’d like a couple of you to come and have a medical every year, maybe twice a year if you’d like to. He said I really want to plot your health through your career. I was one that stayed with Jeff right through.
No matter when I was coming back from Melbourne I’d go in and if the waiting room was full he’d walk out and give you a nod and you’d feel a bit guilty at times but he’d written it for himself, but he’d give you and ECG and you’d jump up and down and onto the spirometer, you know – the thing you’d blow into, and he’d see how your lungs were going and away you’d go. He plotted my health right through it with no adverse, except we used to call it Diver Dumb As (?) You’d come in from diving of a day and you’d scratch your head and think what am I gunna do an’ that. He said we used to call them hill-billies once, you’ll find you work on one thing all the time and it was a job where, if you concentrated on your job you’d find you’d start to worry about it so it was sort of a job where you’d be working away singing, humming a song or thinking about somewhere else.
Mental concentration of diving
Most jobs if you don’t concentrate you’d stuff up. This job you wouldn’t you’d take your mind off it because it was cold, you were underwater there were dangers all around so as you picked abalone you’d think of playing golf on the weekend or horse racing or something else and people’d be talking to you and say ‘you’re vague’ but I think because you spent so much time underwater you’d switch off and you wouldn’t listen to people. Then a couple of more guys come and said the same and Jeff found this out through – we thought it was lack of oxygen to the brain or something but he said no you just don’t do it. So when things came in like metric and even computers you’ve got to switch over and get on to this new way of life because you do tend to talk just fish, abalone, fish, abalone, fish. And the rest of the world can go by and you don’t know what’s going on, you’re not interested. So you’ve really got to tune yourself into these things. I’ve found that since I’ve given it away. I tend to get a bit – I don’t like small talk, I’m not interested, it doesn’t worry me too much.
So, medical side, yeah, there has been some funny stories but nobody’s ever really been bitten, chased or – we’ve lost a couple of boats up on the shoreline and the guys have walked home mainly because the anchor broke, we’ve had boats sink at sea. But diving itself, but no, most of the blokes have been very good at it.
Making money out of abalone
What about the change from having to set your drum up before you go out diving so that you’ve got a bath when you come home to the big bucks. I’ve heard the ‘ab lotto’ used down Portland way to describe the change from one minute you’re out camping on the beach and then there’s that change to big money.
It didn’t happen quickly. As I said, from about 1967 I could go down and show you some old dockets where we used to 25 cents a lb for the meat out of the shell itself and the big bucks didn’t start happening till I’d say the last 20 years – 15 years I’d say – 15 years it started to really, really, really kick on. I’m just trying to think of when we actually started the co-operative, now you’ve caught me there, I don’t know exactly when we built the factory, but we had the processors coming down from Eden. Old Owen Allen and Jack Lucas, they’d come down and buy the salted abs and then they’d just go straight to Sydney and they’d stick them in cans and then send them to Indonesia and some other country and get rid of them. And when we started, it’d probably be 1970, I’d say ‘75, ’76 I’d say, about that time, when we decided we had to do something with the industry, we had to - we were just taking them off the bottom, salting them down and sticking them in cans. And the bottom was getting pretty well flogged and we thought we had to do something, so we advertised, we got a manager, we got … (phone rings)
You were saying about the start of the co-operative.
It was a sort of a combination of - What we had was an association, so one of the divers would stay in of a day and if the weather was good the other boats would go, there was probably about 30. You’d never get everyone at work on one day – somebody would have the flu, or a sore foot or they were off to a funeral or wedding. So you’d probably get 20 to 25 boats go out, so we’d roster a day where you stayed in and you’d count the number of boats that went out. Have a bit of an idea of what the weather’s going to do – whether they’re going to put in a full day or a half day and you’d ring either Eden or someone who wanted to send a truck down to pick your product up and each particular day one of the divers was missing a day. So we thought why don’t we get somebody – we were starting to get a group of blokes together who were all thinking in the same lines, with conservation wise, lets get a manager. So we advertised and got a manager. Which was the best thing we ever done, and we couldn’t have got a better manager in the world.
His name was Harold Kingsley-Stanistreet. And Kingsley-Stanistreet’s got a pretty good reputation as a man in Melbourne he’d been in a few different areas and he knew the politicians by their first names and he was a tremendous manager. He wasn’t in favour of probably capitalism, he was more the other way. A bit concerned with making a lot of money at those times. Because - we were making a lot of money because we were catching a lot of product and then we said we’ve got to stop this – we’ve got to go the other way. We’ve got to catch less and get more for it and that was his first job. We wanted to get premium price for a premium product. As we’re doing it now we are sticking it in salt, it’s going up there and its going in cans, there’s got to be a better. Value added they call it now but it was a better way.
Abalone export to Japan
He went through Japan and they were amazed that we could get fresh abalone in Australia because they hadn’t seen much of it because most of it was going into cans going to the Asian countries. And he went over and we took some samples over of what we had and what we could get, and they put in some orders for some. But all’s we could do then, we were actually - I just jumped the gun a bit there. When we stopped selling to the processors in Eden, our first acquisition we bought, we bought an old army generator because we had to generate electricity in Mallacoota. There was town power but it was privately owned so we had to buy a big generator and we put a cool room in and we put our abalone in the cool room and we’d ring the processors and would come down and buy them.
Freezing fresh abalone
Then the next acquisition we bought our own freezer truck, so we had the cool room, our own electricity and a freezer truck and we were taking them down to Safcol in Melbourne. And we found by not putting salt on them and delivering them fresh, like when you put salt on them, they take a lot of fluid would come out and you’d lose a lot of weight so we thought if we don’t put the salt on them we’re going to weigh more weight so still come out in a better proposition, so that was our gut. So we’d weigh them here and send them down to Safcol and they’d ring us back and say ‘you had a lot of weight loss’. Well they do, they bleed a lot fluid comes out, there’s no coagulant in their blood and the fluid comes out of them. That’s when our manager said, ‘what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to freeze them, you’ve got to freeze them with the juice in them’. So that way they’ll weigh actually heavier. The town at the time, we had no water in the town and no electricity in the town, so Stanistreet - it was right for the town as far as tourism went. We had to get water in the town and electricity before we could do anything with the co-operative. So he got on committees – he formed committees - to get water into town, because a lot of the septic tanks and the hotels and that were discharging and you know - and it was probably an ulterior motive, but if we got water into the town it was good for the town and it was a necessity for us to get going. Also on the electricity side they worked and they got electricity into the town. So once they had both the water and the electricity we thought we can put our own freezers in. And we applied for a site – I think it took us five years to get the site.
Chamber of Commerce
They formed a Chamber of Commerce in town because they were a bit concerned about the word co-operative working in a small country town. They could see a competition and they formed a Chamber of Commerce which was – I still smiled – a lot of people said ‘aw no’. I said ‘yes, yes, yes’. It was a Chamber of Commerce company limited. None of the divers could get on it but it was run by the business men of the town. So whenever we put an application in we’d get knocked back. It wasn’t until we got - Bill Borthwick was the minister at the time – he didn’t mind a bit of party and a time out and we wanted to show him what we were doing.
We said this is what we are doing and we did tell a bit of a white lie and we said we often fly products down to Melbourne and if you want to come up, come up. So we fly him up here and give him a darn good time – took him to Eden and showed him the co-operative and what they’re doing up there, what we wanted to do, and he got onto the local council down here, the Orbost Shire and said you’ve got to release some industrial land in town. Most properties were near the water, they released land as you come into town up there and one of the divers had a little stud farm there so said we’re going to release the land next door to Joe Ingram, thinking we’d say that’s too far out of town. So we said if that’s all we’re going to get, we’ll have it. So we went out there. So, I was the chairman of the board of directors at the time.
Borrowing from the Rural Development Bank
We had to borrow $250,000 from the Rural Development Bank. Well, everybody fainted! What’s going to happen if we don’t get the money back? Yeah, it was cross your toes and your fingers and say no, we think we’ll be right. It’s their got to worry about it not us, ‘cause their the ones that lost the money, but we borrowed $250,000 and we decided to put in our own freezer and then we could freeze the abalone in the shell, or as meat. And then again, refrigerated containers come in and you were able to product refrigerated, its just again, the way things changed, different markets opened up and we started selling direct to Japan, giving them exactly what they wanted either frozen on the shell. We tried it live but that’s a bit too hard, but frozen meat and all sorts. And consequently price doubled and tripled pretty quickly. It was probably 15 years ago that the prices started to go from two bob – 20 cents – to $2 and $3 and then went to $20. We were only saying – and they were starting to make really pretty good money out of it. Then again, no matter what you gross, the old rule of thumb, you keep a third, it costs you a third for your running expenses and a third for your taxation, but you’ll still make more in a day that you’d make in a week working anywhere else. Then it just crept up and up and up from there, which was great.
Product of Australia
And as our product got better, there was Calemex (?) was the best abalone in the world and we were running second to that, we had a very, very good product. There was a few problems with that too. We used to mark it, unbeknown to a lot of people, market ours as Mallacoota on our boxes, we very rarely put Australia on it because Australia had a lot of bad product going overseas and they’d see Australia and they didn’t like it. Even though we had Product of Australia in fine print, like ‘smoking is a health hazard’ it was in fine print down the bottom but it was a map of Victoria with Mallacoota with a big dot there and they’d buy Mallacoota product. We were second best in the world there for a while, which was a feather in our cap. It was a good product. That again, was when the big money started to come in.
And Tasmania had – they then went for transferability of licence which I opposed quite strongly in my earlier days in it. As I said at time we had 40 something divers here and a lot of them were pretty low key, like the publican had a licence and somebody else had a licence and we thought, oh, after what we done to get the beds back to somewhere reasonable and good that if licences were transferable the low effort divers would go out and be replaced with high effort divers and we would have had to put a quota on everybody to try and keep it as it is, so we wasn’t all that excited about getting transferability of licences. Even though in Tasmania at the time they were selling for about $100,000, like everyone said ‘you could get $100,000 for your licence’… like if you don’t put your bum in the water you don’t get a licence. We didn’t want to be run like a taxi business where somebody owned the licence and somebody was plopping around in the water. So we opposed it, and opposed it and opposed it and that eventually was resolved when they decided to go for a two for one transferability. That’s where they’ll let you transfer your licences – we’ll accept transfer of licences, but we’re going to put a yearly quota on the plates rather than just have open go. We were harvesting about 650 ton a year for many years and then we dropped it to about 450 ton, 2 for 1 licences dropped the number of licences down to 22 and every diver was on 20 ton a year so we were getting about 440 - 450 ton a year and the area could handle that just nicely and – so we did go for transferability and a yearly quota then instead of – we had a self-imposed fisherman’s daily quota to the extent that if the price started to get a bit soft overseas, and we’d seen it happen too many times where the processors would get together and say we’ll screw the price down. We were in a luxury there because we weren’t making money we’d just stop working. We’d say ‘aw well, we won’t go to work’.
They’re better off out there getting bigger than us taking less for them. So we’d just knock off and they couldn’t believe it – ‘Oh, but you have to!’ No we’re all right. But we were even to the extent, if you were in financial difficulties, the divers, we can organize you some money to get you through. But we never had to. Everybody was quite happy with that and it wouldn’t take more than two week, three weeks, and bang they’d be putting in an order at our price. So it was a luxury we were able to have and it was able to control the market somewhat.
Tasmania was catching good fish and we were getting good fish in the central zone and everybody in Australia - in fact there is only just under 100 divers right throughout the state now. And that itself created problems then because as our incomes were going up, as the price of product was going up, probably through good management of the resource and good marketing, you know, the way we looked at the market, the way we read the market, our prices were going up but we started to make more money than the politicians. And they started to get a bit grumpy about this and – university educated politicians and these blokes up there are making two or three hundred thousand a year. What’s going on here! (laughter).
High court and licenses
To the event where Joan Kirner wanted to auction off some licences. She said we’ll make some money out of this lot. Licences then were probably worth $1,000,000, and she said if I want a couple or five or six million I’ll issue two licences in each zone. And they were going to put two here, two in the central, two around the west. We said after all the work we’ve done, you’re going to reap the harvest. And we threatened to take it to the High Court. And we had the money and that was the big thing that got the money. We went from here to a meeting in Melbourne. Stanistreet – I’ll always remember him for it, he said you’ll never go to a meeting in Melbourne with the arse out of your pants.
If you go to a meeting in Melbourne you’re going to wear a suit or sports pants and coat. I don’t want them looking at you as a dumb fisherman – you’re a business man, go as a business man. And we always approached it as that – we went to meetings, approached it as a business. We could sit down at a table, we could talk to them about it, knowing intimately what we started with, the resource, what’s on the bottom, what it could handle. I don’t care what academic they put up against us we could beat them on it because we knew what we were talking about and a lot of times they didn’t. And they’d look at the dollars and not the rest of it. And we’re able to look after it and it’s been a tremendous industry. I think they’re modelling a lot of other fisheries, like the crayfish industry, on it now. Then again, it’s a visual industry. Now you swim around with a mask and snorkel on and you’re leaving 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 and you’re taking one that’s a nice size, sort of thing.
You mentioned earlier about, earlier on there we were talking about there were 100 divers working here. What sort of effect did that have on the local community? What was the social life like?
Abalone frontier – the wild early days
As I said, I came here in ’67 and it was just before my time. As I said, I went to Cuba, but the stories you can hear about it, it was pretty, pretty wild. Like a wild-west gold mining town as far as what I can hear, there were all parties every second night. If somebody went out and found a new little bit of off-shore reef and made a great big load of abs they’d have free champagne sort of thing and a yahoo. They were – they were really rip-roaring frontier days, I would say. So much so, that Eva and I come down here, I was married and I wanted to rent a house, wouldn’t rent a house to an abalone diver, ‘ cause they used to knock it around a bit something shocking. Yeah, so much so there was a story, one time had a party at one of the houses down town here and of course the houses in the early days were just built on wooden stumps and a wooden floor and wooden frame, and one bloke got a bit happy and had a bit of an argument and he went and knocked of Rod Pheeney’s front end loader and got the corner of the bucket under the house and started shaking the house up and down till it fell of its stumps, so they didn’t really want to rent a house to abalone divers anymore. But they were pretty wild days I would imagine. As I said, a lot of Maoris, a lot of Islanders, yeah so music was always on and the food from the ocean was always available and they’d do …(?) or hangis and have feasts and parties.
Living by the weather
And we still do, we live by the weather. The weather map’d come good, the weather might come good Friday, so you’d work Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. You’d just keep working, or the other way around then a strong wind warning would come in Monday so you’d have Monday off and have a party Monday or Tuesday and people would say ‘you should have parties Friday, Saturday’, but you’d just live by the weather, when the weather was bad. When the weather went real bad we’d often to back to Sydney for a few days and ring in and see what the weather’s like and you’d come back. So you’d get out of town for two or three days, four days, five days, sometimes a week, then back into town. But you didn’t want to plan holidays, you wouldn’t book ahead in anything, because gee the weather might be good I might miss out. So you lived really by the weather which was pretty hard for the ladies, but we survived it.
Well, let’s stop that there. While we’ve got a moment. Diving tables – when did first you start using them. This is a Peter question so I don’t know.
Ah – we never really did start using tables. We, you know, knew once you were over 60 feet you got to start decompressing or recompression and we’d work a bit at 60 feet so it become in the end where you’d actually feel that you’d had enough in deep water and most divers would work to that limit. Like you’re sprinting or running or anything, you go so far then your body tells you you’ve had enough. I would say through all my experience in diving my body can tell me when I’ve had enough.
And the diving tables, I think the safety factor in that when they started with the pearl diving and even the navy divers and that, like the safety factor in that would only be 100 or 200 but I mean – we’d say cheat - we didn’t cheat on it – you would go over the tables.
A lot of blokes would never get bent, you know. Carl Edmonds would come down sometimes from Sydney, he was a naval diver up there and try and lay the law down. But Freddy Ledwell was very thin, he’d spend 3 hours in 60 feet of water and it didn’t worry him you know, I don’t think he ever got bent. But again you’re supposed to get to the bottom and not come up – but we’d come up to the boat, put a bag in, go down, up to the boat, put a bag in, up to the boat and put a bag in, and then we’d say shit …(?) …(?) so we’d have a couple of hours at 40 feet, then go in to 30 feet and then take a day off. The main day we found any divers got a touch of the bends, myself included, was when it was quite a big swelly day and you’d go out and work some of the off-shore reefs but you couldn’t get right in close to decompress and so you’d tend to spend a fair bit of time in deep water with the surge going over you with the height of the waves, and you’d get that variation in pressure all the time and you could back it in, you’d say ‘we might get somebody, somebody gets bent here’. We did buy our own recompression chamber when they finished the oil rigs down here. We went down to Sale and from oceaneering we bought our own recompression chamber.
Start from the start and tell me about the first wreck you dived on around here.
The first wreck I dived on down here was very well known, it was the Monumental City up at Talburger(?) Island. It was fairly well known. It was a screw steamer according to all records. It was unfortunately lost at Gabo; I think it was 1853 I think it went down on the island. As I mentioned earlier there were some pretty good professional salvage divers working out of Sydney in the very early days and a few of them carried on till when I was down here in 1967.
Along the beach there is a wreck called the Riverina. It was a steel ship it was travelling from Tasmania to up Sydney. It went ashore in around about 1937 and the salvage workers come down and they stripped it down to the water line and unloaded all the old deck chairs and seats and everything on to the beach but the basic hull shape was still sitting on the bottom. It was cut off from the bow to the stern, the propeller’s still on it because it was too hard to get it sitting on sand it’s sitting parallel to the beach, but there used to be a big engine standing up on it and I went away, when the weather went bad we used to ago away for holidays and different things and there was some reason I went away but when I came back the engine was blown on its side, and the boys said there was a mob come down from Sydney and they loaded it up with explosives and they tried to tip the engine over to get the bearings because the bearings are made out of brass and white metal etc. which is non-ferrous.
They succeeded – they actually blew the motor and it fell on its side and the whole bottom end of it was exposed but the seas came up very rough so they went away and left it there. There was a diver at time called Garry Waterson, and Garry made the opportunity when the weather was calm he was in there knocking it all off. Garry had a blinder up there he was in there throwing this stuff on his ab boat, but they never come back, they never come back, they never complained, they never come back. They also told me at that time they went out to the Monumental City and they were trying to get scrap metal off the engine that was on the Monumental City and when I dived on it the engine had been either blown up or it had been probably scratched over by a few of the ab divers while they were picking abalone, and a bit like my early days of abalone diving, anything that was lying on the surface like a spoon or anything like that; but they do get a fair flogging with the big seas, so most of the stuff is either stuck in either a crevice or stuck in, as the metal breaks down it cements everything together so you’ve actually got to chip away with a little abalone tool or something to loosen something up.
Probably the exception to that is gold coins. For some reason or other a sovereign will now and then - its whether it’s the pressure of these old metals decaying, but nothing sticks to it and but there’s been times you’ve swum over it and you’ll see a gold coin shining on the bottom and it will just be pushed up and it will be laying there, and then it’ll get washed away with the surge and it’ll fall into a little crevice or a gutter and if you’ve very, very careful when you swim around peering down these tiny little crevices, only as wide as your finger, you might just happen to see the little knurled edge of a coin and with a pair of tweezers you might pick it up. I’ve got a couple of coins off it but that’s about all the divers would ever have got off it, but these professionals had got in there looking for mainly bulk scrap metal and blew the engine over. I think they were the guys responsible for it.
The colour of seaweed and abalone near wrecks
But most of the time it was left, the weed grew all over it, there were abalones near it, all around it, but again we found in our earlier days we were exporting to Japan, around that wreck and the one up on the Iron Prince reef that the actually meat in the abalone would change slight to a coffee-looking colour because the rust in the water and even the sea-weed changes to a rusty looking colour and the abalone were grazing on it and when we tried to process them, most abalone is quite white, these would come out quite brown. And we tracked it down to both these wreck sites, if you catch abalone around a wreck site the abalone meat changes slightly in colour. And through that too, you’ll learn for a steel wreck that you’ll actually see a slight colour in change of the sea weed. If you’ve got a keen eye you’ll pick it up. Even an anchor that’s buried, even an anchor that’s on a reef that’s underneath a big kelp bed, or sea weed bed, you can nearly pick up there’s a bit of metal there by the colour of the sea weed will change. It’s very subtle, it’s probably taken me years to pick it up, but I can - it’s not like divining water, but I can actually see that there’s something a bit different there because of the way the weeds grow.
How does it change?
It stays the same height as the other seaweed around it but most seaweeds tend to go to an orange to a yellowy to a very, very soft mud colour, but they actually it goes a very, very dark red, very, very dark brown like rust itself , almost a jarrah looking colour. It’ll grow into a patch of 8 or 9 feet round. All this one colour patch, you’ll pick it up and you’ll think there’s a bit of metal, a fairly big bit of metal in that area because the rust is actually coming off the article that’s decaying and somehow or other it affects the plants around it. A bit like superphosphate on the garden or other, it does tend to affect the colour.
The colour of coral in Cuba near wrecks
I found that even – I’m probably digressing a bit – but when I was in 1976 in Cuba and we fished the World Spear Fishing Championships and we were taken out to a couple of tiny little coral islands and we found more than one, about 3 or 4 wrecks on some of these islands, that were absolutely, never been touched, and you’d pick them up the same thing. You’d be swimming along a coral face and you’d see the rust stain or the colour of the coral would actually change when there has been a wreck and metal around the area. You’d be swimming along and there’d be whites and blues and then there’ll be this browny looking - even though there was probably not a lot of steel on those boats, probably brass and copper and that, but it does change the colour of the coral that’s close to these areas. It gives you a straight lead into anchors and that sort of stuff; so you’d get this red rust stain in the coral and sometimes the coral had grown over the boat that much that you’d really have to stop and look and then you could work out the shape of an old cannon that was totally covered in coral but the rust would give it away, the colour would give it away and you’d pick it up with the colour.
Monumental City – money is the main object
So back to the Monumental City; it was probably the first one, it was quite a protected area, and again, when we first came down here, like money was the main object and getting scrap metal, there was no outlet for it here so you went out on a good flat day and you were diving abalone and wrecks, you’d swim over one and not even bother fossicking around, actually you’d go away from it to get away from the rust colour that might affect the abalone. I wasn’t all that excited on actually going searching for wrecks here except the Monumental City which sank in 1853, and there were stories that some of the early divers picked up a few coins and I was probably guilty of that in the early days around the Dunbar. I knew were to go, how to go and how to look and I was able to find a couple of coins which I’ve had made into pendants for my wife and my children and it’s been fantastic. But nothing like boxes of them, if you got 2 or 3 you were doing alright, not pirates getting around with treasure chests. But again you’ve really you’ve got to have a good flat day and to seek these tiny little crevices and gutters out where these things would wash across.
Sinkers in the crevices
Actually around Sydney in the early diving days too, there was a couple of blokes that made money out of lead sinkers. You’d go to a popular fishing spot where people had been standing there for a hundred years, flinging out and they’d lose their hook and sinker on the rocks and they too would tumble across the bottom to a particular crevice or a gutter that might be a metre deep and two metres wide and basically, some of them would be half full of lead. Over the period of time these sinkers would have washed, fallen into this once crevice and they’d be hooking these sinkers out. And wrecks like that are the same.
The history of Monumental City
I’ve spent a fair bit of time now its been declared an historic site, etc., but when it was really flat, reading the history of it when they first went in, Charles Plumber I think was his name, he got a medal because he run a line ashore and they set up some sort of bosun’s chair type arrangement and they tried to get some of the people off the boat. And also, in those days a lot of the women used to carry the valuables because the men used to - it was ‘53, it was about the gold mining in California, etc. and a lot of these were gold miners and the women used to carry the money or any gold they had because the blokes were likely to get knocked on the head. And I’d imagine that, as a lot of the women died on the boat, that as they were getting off the boat they may have been carrying purses or bags or personal stuff. And I’ve often gone up there and tried to picture, if I went in there where would I put a line ashore and where would these people have been trying to get across to the island and their misfortune may be got drowned or dropped their bag in the water. So I think away from the wreck somewhere there could be some coins and stuff that would be, you know, great to find. So I tend to go up there at times and look at it and think – aw, you know if I was getting washed across here with a big southerly where would I finish up? And you swim along those areas searching down the little crevices, and I’ve found little copper nails and there’s bits of the wreck there but no luck with any gold coins yet.
Anyway I used to have a bit of a scratch around there but, yet again, I haven’t been up there for years now, but it was one of those things, it still always intrigues you, you always think – the old shipwrecks and where they went. Yeah, I spent a fair bit of time on the Monumental City and most of our work was south from there and as I said earlier I’d done a fair bit of research on the Schar which I was always a bit keen to find.
Can you just talk me through that again. Can you briefly run me through the whole logic that you used?
Mallacoota - The Schah
When I was leaving Sydney, one of the chaps what worked for us was a bit of an old boating person and I told him I was coming to Mallacoota and he reads books, and he said “I’ve got an old book at home that does mention Mallacoota in it”. I said I’d be interested to have a look at it especially as it’s on wrecks. It was one of Rhodes books and I was told it was printed in about 1937 and it did mention in the back two particular wrecks, one was called the Schah, which I was quite interested in. They said it was probably one of the oldest wrecks on the east Gippsland coast; it was an ex-slaver; it was captured over in Trabizon(?) and went to the - they had a court set up of various countries and they decided what they would do with the captain and the ship should they get caught, they were trying to cut slavery out in those days, and it was a slaver that found its way to Australia. And I was quite interested in it. And the book had a small article saying it was probably one of the oldest wrecks on the East Gippsland coast, that it was plying its trade from Tasmania to Sydney, that they got it caught in a strong southerly gale and it hit the mainland and the part that interested me said that some of the people or the crew got off and then they realized they weren’t on the mainland, they were on an island, and they re-boarded the ship which eventually broke free. It then dropped an anchor and they said it was quite calm where they were, but during the night the wind sprung up and they were eventually wrecked on the mainland, 2 miles to the north or north east of Ram Head. It also said they were up against a cliff face where they worked their way around to a small beach. I think there was 8 people lost their life on it.
Being a diver and first down here, I had it in the back of my mind “I’ll have a look for this one day”. As I learnt more about the area – Ram Head – is probably about 30km south of here. And I was choofing down in my abalone boat, once I got a boat big enough to get down that far, and all that was down there was beaches and I thought, well, like most people that get wrecked they don’t actually know where they are otherwise they wouldn’t have got wrecked. They all reckon they know exactly where they were but they shouldn’t have been there. They only island there was a place we call the Skerries which has got a very flat sloping bottom that comes in from the south side and I think any boat that had gone in there would have stayed in there. There was no chance it could have got dislodged, there was no chance people could have got off it.
The Schah and Shipwreck Creek
So over a period of time, with my abalone diving it took preference because we were making money out of it, but wrecks were always in my mind. I tipped that maybe this little island was the place we call Little Ram Rock, so we’ve got Ram Head and Little Ram Head named because they do look very similar, only one is smaller than the other and this little rock’s probably 500m off the shoreline but it is quite deep water all the way around it. And I thought, well if they hit that they could get off and realize that they are on a rock and re-board the ship. The article said that the wind dropped, well, its quite a big peninsular that runs out, so I tipped then that the boat had actually drifted round into the lee side of the island, so its away from the strong southerly wind, and thinking the wind dropped, but through the night as they drifted out of that lee area that they got back into the area where the wind was quite strong, and I took a line from the rocks to where I think a drift would have went with a strong southerly, so much so that I even put a couple of tins in there one day, half full of water and watched them drift and tagged where I reckoned they went to and come to spot in Mallacoota that’s locally known as Shipwreck Creek. I don’t know where it got its name from, I’ve heard that many talks about it, but it did have a small beach and it did have a rather high cliff face.
Finding the anchor
And out off there on a particular reef there was a fairly substantial anchor that I located one time when I was diving. And the story also said it dropped an anchor and it lost its anchor. So I found an anchor but no boat around it, but again taking a line back to the shoreline, if it had any chain on it I probably would have been able to follow it - that usually points to where the wreck’s gone. But I thought no, this has got to be it, so being an ab diver and this was quite a protected area where not many divers worked - sorry I shouldn’t have said protected - it was area where there wasn’t very much weed on the bottom – and abalone grows on the weed, so I thought I’d wait until it’s a dead flat day and get in there, and Lo and Behold there was signs, as I said before, where most of the metals wash around and fall into crevices and there was 3 or 4 crevices that had this black carbony looking stuff that usually decayed steel or timber and there was a couple of utensils like a fork or something all jammed into this area.
The discovery of The Schah
So I tipped then that I reckoned I’d found it so I contacted Nick Clark. Only because he was more interested - there was nothing there that I to pick up and put in my pocket sort of thing and it was quite an historic sort of a find and it had taken quite a long time to find it so I wanted to share it with somebody. So I got onto Nick Clark and they came up and had a dive and found part of a rudder post but we haven’t really until today recovered much of it that would positively identify it as the Schah, but it certainly looks the area, everything falls into place with it. They did bury, I think, 7 or 8 bodies on the beach, but the history is written down on it, there’s no good me going back over it, but they actually walked to Eden, got to Sydney. They sent the Revenue Cutter back down and the bodies were so badly disfigured they buried them on the beach and they couldn’t salvage any thing off the boat and away they went.
Crew member Raine
One of the crew was Raine. They said Raine was an old business man in Sydney, a business man in Sydney - been there a long time. There was a very big company in Sydney called Raine and Horne, which are Real Estate Agents so I tried to contact them one time but I could only get as far as their secretary and I would often wonder whether that John Raine was anything to do with the Raine and Horne that are still around today. It may have been one of their great great grandparents that was on board the boat. So those two boats are the two interesting ones I’ve been on I would say.
You mentioned that wrecks were always in the back of your mind while you were ab diving. Why were they on your mind, why were you chasing them?
The intrigue of shipwrecks
Some people collect stamps I suppose, some collect old cars but I’ve been in the water so long, I grew up at Sans Souci and even when I was going to school I used to go out with a professional fisherman and I’ve always been a boat sort of a person, I always enjoyed boats I suppose, and I always used to read stories of the pirates and the shipwrecks and it always intrigued me. And having the opportunity - my sport became diving and I was always in the water and I had this idea that this was great, I was in the water and I might find myself a treasure chest of gold one day. I think when you’re young you think of those things, but as you get older, just the thought of the shipwrecks in general. How it must have been to get slammed up against the cliff face in the middle of the night – those things are always - to me – I think about them a fair bit – I dunno, I suppose its just part of you - I suppose that’s the adventure, its just the excitement of finding shipwrecks. I know quite well that here on the east coast we’re pretty limited, but my friends over on the west - you know, when the trading ships used to come around and bang into the other side of Australia – because they’d sail too fast. They’ve got the good ones, the old gilt dragons, the one’s that were carrying the gold doubloons and all that, but right down there at the bottom we had a lot of trading up and down the coast.
The Dunbar in Sydney was probably one that excited me most. When I was in Sydney I used to dive with a bloke by the name of John Gillies. He’d show me every now and then, in his secret little spot, a lot of the coinage and the stuff he’d had off it and the spoons and the bits and pieces. He spent a lot of time - I mentioned earlier, the way all the metal and that tends to stick together and form these black blocks that look like coal and anything metal that jams in them like a spoon or a knife or a fork or a coin or a ring or anything like that. John used to break these into big lumps and take them home and put them in an acid bath and he’d found diamond rings and I’m saying “Wow” how would you like to do that, but sort of got me a bit excited about them. The possibility of what you might find. But basically just the history of these people – as I said I’ve read that much about the Schah and you can put names to it now and you think, wow, that’s good history, that’s good stuff.