John Black Oral History
This is the transcript of an interview conducted with John Black by Kate Fielding
About John Black
John Black is an abalone diver and licence holder. He began snorkel diving in Sydney around 1951, and was very successful in Australia’s early spearfishing competitions. In the late 50s and early 60s he harvested and sold fish, abalone and crayfish on a small scale amateur basis. John describes that it was the interest from a Chinese restaurateur in Sydney which prompted his and other people’s abalone diving. He moved to Mallacoota to fish for abalone professionally in 1967, and was involved in the establishment and ongoing development of the Mallacoota Abalone Co-op.
John has dived on various wrecks along the Gippsland coast including the Monumental City, Iron Prince, SS Riverina and the Schah. Particularly interesting is John’s descriptions of the changes in the marine life which indicate the presence of a wreck. In this interview he describes the steps he went through to locate the Schah – the 1837 wreck which John is credited with locating. He also describes some other maritime archaeological sites previously unknown to Heritage Victoria.
Reunion in Sydney
Yeah, well I’ve just come down from Sydney actually last weekend and we’d had a reunion with some of the other spear-fishermen and we were talking about when our clubs first were started in Sydney and I recalled to some of the boys that I was born in 1939, and I was still going to school when we first started diving and we worked it around it. It was around about 1951 or ’52 it was when we first put a, well again it was just after the war years and after the war there was such thing as frogmen came out which no one had ever heard of before, it was all hardhat diving and when these frogmen came out with flippers and masks and snorkels it seemed pretty intriguing.
Sans Souci Amateur Swimming Club
We had a swimming club at Sans Souci which was called the Sans Souci Amateur Swimming Club. We used to swim up and down, it was a pool with poles out the back and wire netting around it, and there used to be a lot of fish hanging around the wire netting so we started developing masks and laying on the water looking at these fish and that’s basically when I started around about 1951.
And you were doing it with a group of mates?
Sans Souci Dolphin Underwater Spear Fishing Club
Well it started there were two of us, there was myself and a friend of mine, his name was Brian Little, he was swimming around with me. And then we ventured one day, we made up these type of spear guns with spears on it, and we used to get the bus to Kogarah (?) Station and get the train out to Cronulla and go and jump off the rocks and it was amazing to get out into the ocean and see what a difference it was from Sans Souci baths to the ocean. We’d go on pretty regular trips and lo and behold one trip we struck another pair of guys that were in the same swimming club and they were doing the same thing. So we joined up as a foursome and that was the beginning of the Sans Souci Dolphin Underwater Spearfishing Club.
So we sat down and actually had our first official meeting with some delegates from St George spearfishing club, they were the main instigators of getting it organised with the government etcetera. Our first minutes of any meeting were I think about 1957 so prior to that we were still swimming around, flapping around in the water, but it was 1957 that we become an official, recognised, well-recognised club in Sydney.
Early wetsuit fashion
Fantastic. So it sounds like chasing fish was part of the interest, but also just checking out what was under the water?
Yeah, you’d have to say both, it was just amazing to be able to swim around and it was sort of, I suppose a bit of show-offs too, people would look at you in awe as you’d go down the rocks and jump in and swim out because the theory then was if you went anywhere in the water a shark was gunna eat you (chuckles) we’d be flapping around in the water and they wanted to call the police sometimes I think you know, they thought you were mad. This was of course before wetsuits etcetera and to try and keep the cold off we used to get old woollen jumpers and you’d put your legs down the arms and pull it up and then you’d put your head through the top end and pull it down and then you’d tie a great big knot in the middle and pair of old flippers and a mask and we used to look, oh, a pretty sight.
There’s some old colour slides getting around. We’d all be lined up, there’d be five or six of us, and we’d all jump in the water and swim around with a speargun of some sort and get a couple of fish and then when we got out of the water they’d just shake their head in amazement, they’d reckon we were all dingbats fair dinkum. (general laughter)
No wonder they wanted to call the police – bad fashion! (laughter)
I wouldn’t call the five of us fashionable (Amid laughter) There wasn’t many girls (amongst the spearies?) in these days that’s one thing but I don’t suppose they could keep up with the fashion stakes, I dunno what the girls woulda wore. I suppose they tend you to keep you a little bit warm but when you wanna jump off the rocks you’d be standing waiting for a surge to come in and as it came up nice and high you’d jump on it and get washed out and that was pretty easy but when you were coming back it was a bit difficult, you’re down at water level and you’re looking at a couple of metre cliff face and you’d wait for the surge to lift you up and then you’d jump out and roll over it and get going before the next wave caught ya up the backside so it saved you getting a bit of skin knocked off you at times too, so it was a dual purpose thing, kept you warm and stopped you from getting scratched. So we were quite a pretty sight you know, a group of these blokes. And then there become competitions where you get two or three clubs all looking somewhat similar and again it did attract some attention I guess, apart from that it was alright.
And so there would be competitions for fishing?
Competition rules and regulations
Yeah they devised a system of each club, we’d have an inter-club competition once a month. The way it was run each individual diver was allowed to spear one fish of each species so you couldn’t go out there and be spearing a lot of fish. So you’d get in and swim around and see the various types of fish that were fairly prevalent around the shallowish waters, mainly Morwong and drummer (?) and that, and you’d spear them and these days we used to just have a sugar bag tucked up under your belt and if you got a fish you’d put him in the bag and pull him off the spear and go and get another one.
At the end of the day – you’d have about a four hour competition, you’d start from a designated area and you’d have to be back in that area within the four hours so you could actually walk along the coast a bit and jump in your favourite spot, spear your fish, come in, you’d queue up at the weighing area and you’d weigh your fish in and they had a system in these days of allocating points per pound so say a bream for instance would be 16 points a pound so if you got a 2 pound bream it was worth 32 points. Bigger fish like Jewfish (Mullaway) that can grow up to 50 pound you’d only get one point a pound so you’d get a fifty pound Mullaway and you’d get 50 points and you’d get a two pound bream and get 32, so it sorta balance it so you didn’t have to chase big fish, the skill was chasing different species of fish and it was knowing where to go and look for different types – you’d get your cave dwellers and you get pelagic fish that are out on the edge of reefs darting past pretty quick and you get the mid-water fish.
State championships and beyond
And when it started people would say ‘you’re lucky you got that one’ or ‘you’re lucky got this one’ but over a long period of time there was certain types or groups of divers who started to win consistently above all others, they must have had the knack of knowing where to go and what to get. Without boasting I sorta became one of these, I won the state championship a couple of times and won an Australian championship twice, and represented Australian in Cuba in the world championships in 1967. I went over with Ronny Taylor and Vic Ley. It was a great sport and we enjoyed it.
It was about 1960 when wetsuits come out as well things started to change a bit, there more and more people thought this isn’t so bad in the water after all. I think I had my first wetsuit in about 1960. It was in Tasmania and I won the Australian championship there and everybody frowned on me cause I could stay in the water a lot longer than them blokes, they were all freezing and I was alright and I thought wow, this is the great thing since sliced bread, these wetsuits are fantastic.
And on that same year my wife won the ladies spearfishing championship and I think we’re still the only two to win it on the same year. People read about Ben Cropp and Ron Taylor, they’re the guns. We grew up with these blokes, we spearfished with these blokes and they were always good company, good friends, and we still keep in touch with one another. From there I sorta evolved with that we just started spending more and more time in the water.
Going back to the early 50s owning a boat was impossible, so round about the 60s we started to build these timber ‘rowfloats’ as we called them, and that was we could actually row out to little off-shore reefs and swim around. And these rowfloats didn’t have outboard motors – they were another thing that was probably just being invented then, but they did invent this thing, it was actually an addition to a Victor lawnmower, you could actually take the lawnmower motor off and put a thing on the bottom and it’d putt you along the water so we had one of these and we thought we were Mickey Mouse, we didn’t have to row anymore.
From the old timber floats some of the blokes built wooden boats and Quicktrex started with the aluminium boats so we were able to have wetsuits, boats, outboard motors and the whole evolution of the diving changed, more and more people put into it. In diving we started to dive on the off-shore islands instead of just along the shoreline, finding new reefs and travelling to other states of Australia and diving other states, you know, every state of Australia I’ve dived in.
The Great Barrier Reef and underwater photography
Back in the 60s, I think it was probably the early 60s, they started having a convention on Herron Island and we went up there on one occasion and that was another eye opener to be able to get on the Barrier Reef on an island that far off shore and have a look at the fish was just mind boggling.
What you’re used to seeing around Sydney and the south coast where the water was cold to go up on the Great Barrier Reef way out to sea on this coral island and jump in and the water is warm and the fish were top to bottom and all sorts of colours, shapes, sizes, it was just amazing, it was something you couldn’t believe. And a lot of this time was before television I might add so you’d never seen anything like this anywhere until you’d actually jumped in the water and had a look at it. And Ronny Taylor then was starting to dabble into underwater photography and used to have little movie show, it was an exciting growing up time of diving, it was just fantastic.
And very interesting to go from as you say people going ‘if you go in the water you’ll get eaten by a shark’ to exploring these amazing place, it’s a really big jump. Why did you go in the water when you might get eaten by a shark – did you just believe that there weren’t any? (laughter)
I dunno! Even when we started at the back of Sans Souci Baths there was old wire netting went down and it was all spooky and green and grey and we were on the inside and I was a bit frightened to even stick my finger out the other side in case there was a shark out there but I think it was just, when we started we’d be swimming side by side up close to your mate, a 2 to 1 chance of getting eaten I suppose.
We started in a lot of little bay areas that you could actually look in and think, oh it doesn’t look too bad it’s probably only about two metres deep and we just sorta gradually got braver and braver I suppose. I don’t there was any just straight into the deep end, we just gradually got braver and braver and worked our way out into the deeper water and we come home again and thought well this isn’t too bad after all, we’ve made it you know, this is another day, it didn’t sorta worry us that much.
Oh there were some people you know that used to swim in the swimming club and no amount of money would make them come and do what we were doing. They wouldn’t say we were fearless but that just said ‘no I don’t want to put myself in that position, I don’t want to go diving, I hate it, I’m frightened of seaweed and I’m frightened of this.’ And it was a certain group that stuck with it, and it’s not a big group. I can travel anywhere around Australia now and go to most places and ask ‘is there a skin diving club’ and I would either know somebody there or they would know me. There a pretty unique group of people who stuck with it and enjoyed it.
Abalone diving – the early days
Now how did you make the jump from paddling around and then going out to these reefs, to ab diving?
As I said I was keen on diving always as a hobby, and in the, I suppose it would be the late 50s or early 60s we were getting pretty good and diving, we were up and down the coast – we even had a motor car then, I had an old 1926 Morris Cowley (?) of all things two wheel brakes on it. We used to make the trip down to Ulladulla which was – you’d want a long weekend, but now you do it in about three hours from Sydney.
But we’d go down to Ulladulla and swim around in close and there was quite a lot of crayfish in the shallow water and so we’d catch a few crays and boil them up and eat them and then we caught a few more and them we started to do a bit of illegal selling and you’d go back to Sydney and you’d sell a few crayfish.
Chinese restaurants and the abalone trade
And in one of the places we were in a Chinese restaurant one time and the bloke asked me about abalone and I said there are lots of them and I said I’d bring him in some. So myself and many other divers I suppose were the same. Everyone says I was the first to do it but I don’t think anybody was the first to do it I think it was just something that evolved again and we’d take abalone up to this Chinaman (sic) at the shop and he’d give us a free feed and we’d think well this is pretty good so we continued on that way.
Then he’d want some for his mate and then we were getting about 2 bob a pound for them and we thought this is pretty good. Its paying petrol money and I think abalone sort of started around then and maybe through these Chinamen(sic) they realised that Australia did have a fair abundance of abalone and one of the earlier ones was a Chinaman (sic) by the name of Cecil Chen and he advertised he wanted divers. He was prepared to supply boats, wetsuits, etc. at Eden and some divers came down to Eden and went out diving and Cecil started exporting abalone.
Then a couple of processors in Sydney where we used to take them in to would take them off you and they were actually canning them. And again this was in the late 50s, very early 60s and from Cecil Chen starting it, some of the mates in the spear fishing club that I were with around about ’63, ’64, ’65 decided to chuck their jobs in and become full time abalone divers.
The balance between work, diving and competitions
I was a carpenter by trade and I had a partner in Sydney and we were installing aluminium windows; that was my final own business that we started and we had about 19 guys working for us so I didn’t want to chuck it in and go diving so I sorted of organized the long weekends and I’d do diving long weekends and then work the rest of the week with my mates.
And, again I was spear-fishing and they had the world championship every two years and I think it was about ’65, it was when quite a few of the boys started to come down to Eden, which is about an hours north of here, and they found out if they further come down the coast the water was better and the bottom actually changes. When you leave Gabo Island and travel south the bottom tends to flatten out a lot and the continental shelf’s a long way out, so your acreage down here is a lot better than Sydney where it’s just a narrow strip up there.
A few of them came down here and said ‘come on, you want to get down here its good’ and I said look I might score a trip to Tahiti, that’s where the World Championships were. I won the State Championships and I’ll keep building and I’ll do this trip to Tahiti. Anyway I missed out on that trip, they done a selection trial and I missed out on it.
Early underwater breathing apparatus
Business was going alright and the boys down here were going alright so we just kept up with what I was doing. I was working in the building game, doing a bit of diving, selling a few abs and selling a few crays. Still spear-fishing and puddling around on old shipwrecks. It’ll probably lead into that. Now we become mobile with boats and we never had hookah gear in those days but we devised this system of getting those big gas cylinders they used to use in hotels for C02 gas for the kegs and we had a bloke that’d fill them up with air for us. He was lucky he didn’t blow himself up! We used to pump them up fill of air, lay them on the floor of the boat and run a hose off them down to the bottom, so all of a sudden we had wetsuits, we had boats and we had underwater breathing apparatus that’d work pretty good in fairly shallow water.
Wrecks and scrap metal
So we were able to catch abalone with air and if we come across an old wreck – well, after the war your scrap metal was in great demand ‘coz most of the mines, the workforce had gone away as soldiers and Australia was in a bit dire strait with non-ferrous metals so there was quite a few scrap metal yards opened up to try and get people to cash in old radiators out of their cars, or anything copper or brass, so while we were diving for abalone in fairly shallow water we’d come across an old steam boat or something and there’d be a bit of brass port holes, or fittings or you know, sometimes a propeller if you were lucky but mainly they were only fairly small boats that used to ply the coast.
So we had this thing going where we’d get a few abs, maybe find an old wreck and get a bit of stuff off it and abalone at the same time so all in all in was going pretty good for us. We were nearly making more of a weekend than we were all week and in those days if you worked for yourself and made more than $100 a week you were doing pretty good. So we were going pretty good at that.
Tahiti and Cuba
Back to where I said I missed out going to Tahiti and then the next State Championship I won and they were selecting a team for Cuba, and that was 2 years later in 1967, and we had the Australian championships were up at Shoal Bay and myself and Vic Ley of all people, we tied in the Australian Championship which almost secured me a trip to Cuba, and then they had a selection trial which I went very well in. In that, there is a book written where Vic said that he won it and I reckon I won it. I still haven’t got the record for that but I’ll try and find out who top scored in that. Anyway they announced that myself and Ron Taylor and Vic Ley would be representing Australia in Cuba in 1967.
The Abalone Divers Association
So at the same time my mates had come down here, we all grew up in Sydney together and they were down at Mallacoota diving and I think it was probably a whole change in the fisheries itself because lot of these guys, as I said they were either in business in Sydney, they were either - we had solicitors and accountants, and they were all amateur divers who loved diving and then they could see they could make money out of abalone diving but they took this on full time and when they’d left Eden and a few of them established little houses and they were camped down here at Mallacoota and a group of them formed an association of abalone divers – The Abalone Divers Association.
Again probably through their spearfishing they’d seen the need to get into the government and get some control on these things rather than just be all willy-nilly. I think it was these original blokes that came here that organized the fishermen together, or the groups of fishermen together, in opposed to the lake fishermen – like the lake fishermen, their names are still around now – the Casements, and the Allens at all that – they just used to go out in the lake and that was it.
Licenses and restrictions
But ab-divers, they were educated people compared to those who had lived in the country all their life and they seen the need for this organization and so they then started to petition the government about putting in size limits, restricting the number of licences. Being a good friend of theirs they got on to me and they said, listen, we’re going to plug for these restriction licences and they said you’d better make your mind up instantly because we are going to have restricted licences and if you don’t get one you won’t get in.
It was going to be at the end of 1967, it was when the licences were renewed every Christmas and they assisted me there in some way because I went to Cuba, and when I came back from Cuba I came straight down here and put an application in for a licence and I finished working in Sydney and my licence was granted so I became - I loved my spearfishing, I loved knocking around in Sydney, the way we used to do it but I made that decision. My wife came down here and she was sort of in two minds about it. There was no electricity of course, there was no power, there was no water and some of the boys were living in tents and there were a few little cottages for sale and for rent but it was pretty rough.
But I made the decision and basically that was what got me down here - two houses up now Mike Minihan, he used to live in the same street as me in Sydney and used to spear fish in the same club as me and we are still neighbours and yeah, I’ve still got a lot of contacts with some of the old mates in the earlier days.
Part of the licensing, when they got together, was not only the size limits and quotas, but they went for zoning to try and stop when the weather was good in a certain area everyone would tow their boats to a certain area and overfish it so they split the state up into three zones – the east, the central and the western zone. They give all the divers that were involved at the time that had been issued a licence. A lot of licences dropped out, because people said I don’t think it will last – you’ll never keep going I think, it’s just a flash in the pan. And a lot dropped out - fortunately because I don’t know how they’d have got rid of them otherwise.
And when the zoning come to split up, each diver had the opportunity for twelve months to travel anywhere he liked in the State and then when his licence was up for renewal he had to select that zone and if that hadn’t of worked I don’t know what would have happened, but it did. It was balanced out pretty well, the central zone, the east and west and it was probably again through spearfishing, through elder people talking to us to get yourself organized, don’t just be a clut running around, and I realized there was benefits through working with Government departments to get things done, I think otherwise spearfishing would have been banned in NSW and it was only through the diligence of these people that kept that going and I think abalone was the same and a lot of that transferred across to the abalone diving and its been a super successful industry right up till now.
Sydney restaurants and the abalone trade
Just a couple of questions on what you just said. The Chinese restaurant that you first took abalone to, where was that, was that up in Sydney?
Yeah, it was in Sydney, it was on the south side of Sydney at a place called Tom Ugly’s Bridge, you cross the bridge and there was a road called Port Hacking Road that went out towards Cronulla and the other road ran up towards Sutherland. It was quite a flash place out there. It was called Tom Ugly’s, the history of the place, it was out of Sydney, it was about 10 miles out of Sydney on the George’s River,
It become a - there was a place called Dora Skelsies Ace of Clubs and it was a night club and there wasn’t many night clubs around in those days, and I suppose, looking back I was only a young kid, I suppose it was a sleazy joint in particular because they opened up some of these real sleazy looking night clubs, you know, and when I went to Cuba I looked at some of these night clubs around Havana and I thought ‘that’s what they were trying to do out at Sutherland in my early days” so some of the entrepreneurs were out there and this Chinese restaurant, while in Sydney there was Dixon Street and little (?). This thing was huge, you know, and I thought this is a big Chinese restaurant. I think there was a little bit more going on that just the Chinese restaurant because he was so interested in – and he had outlets for any amount of ab you could get so I think this guy - he knew what was going on. It was a restaurant at the south side of Sydney.
Australian Fish Distributors
And was most of the abalone being sent overseas at that stage or just being bought through Australia?
No, I think he was just looking after his other shops or mates of his. There was a bit of canned abalone in some of the shops, but I think he was just basically off-loading to friends of his in other shops. Back when I said earlier I was in the building industry, we were working on a job, it was at Darling Point and we were putting aluminium windows in a building, and I used to travel from Sutherland, when we got married and we built a house in Sutherland, and we’d travel ‘round back over East Sydney around a bit and I travelled past this place and I said we were getting a bit of crayfish and abalone and we were selling it to a Chinese restaurant, there was a place out, the name was AFD, I think it was Australian Fish Distributors, I think I eventually found out, and they had a rather big warehouse and they had all these trucks with AFD written on the side, and I thought ‘I’ll write ‘em a letter’, so I wrote them a letter and said that we were diving and getting a bit of abalone and there seems to be a bit of a market, what’s the opportunities or what’s the chances? I wish I’d kept the letter, I had an old 36 Chev at the time, I probably left it in it. Their advice was at that time, the fish markets in Sydney their fish would just go in wooden boxes, just wooden boxes, fairly flat boxes, but wooden boxes.
Their answer was that if I’d box them and send them to the Sydney markets I might get a penny a pound for them. I often say I wished I’d kept that letter, I don’t know where it finished up. They may have it on their records. But anyway, it’s certainly changed a lot from a penny a pound. It’s about $100.00 a kilo now, sort of thing. I always - anyway I often comment about that – gee I wish I’d kept that letter. Anyway they didn’t want them so the Chinese restaurant was our next best thing so that’s where it went from.
Wrecks and salvage divers
It sounds like a time of incredible abundance – gathering a bit of abalone, bit of crayfish, bit of scrap metal – it must have been that all of a sudden there was this new field of opportunity under the water.
It most certainly was, as I mentioned earlier - it was old jumpers on when we first started and people would look at you and wouldn’t go in the water. It was just an untouched resource. I call it a resource now but those times it was just something there for the taking and nobody else was going to get in there and do it.
Back on the side of the wreck department, we’d be working in very shallow water because abalone are weed grazers and they only live in the seaweed, they feed on the seaweed, so any type of wreckage we’d come across would be rather on the small side of a ship or a coastal steamer, but any of the larger ones, for instance down off Bass Point there was big liberty ship but salvage divers, if they were in deeper water they could go out with barges and would cut the metal away until they got down to the water line and pull engines, not engines, but anything. But anything any good they would actually salvage.
But anything we were finding were small coastal, old schooners or stuff that had been washed up into the rocks in very, very shallow water. Most of the timber had been washed away and you might find a porthole or a couple of bolts or bits and pieces. But they weren’t ships as ships, they were just bits of wreckage on the bottom. Yeah, you’re right, you’d be flapping along and they took a bit of finding too, the wrecks I should say, because the weed would grow right over them and everything would look just normal and you’d pick an abalone and you’d pick an abalone and then something would catch your eye that was just slightly different. There was a bit of a skill in even finding them because they were so well disguised with the seaweed and over the years and that, you could swim over it and quite easily miss it.
John, I was just going to ask, if when you were finding stuff, was it just opportunistic or did you actually have to go to do a bit of work to get it and lift it. Was it just – find it?
When we were diving for abalone was when we started to get wooden row floats and even surf skis, we’d use surf skis sometimes – and just anchor them and put a bag on the surf skis, put in abalone in and then paddle back. I you come across an old bit of wreckage or something you’d – what you could actually dive down and pick up and kick off the bottom and swim like blazes and then try and plonk it on your surf ski if you were in fairly shallow water. Again you could only do these of very calm days and you’d only abalone on calm days so you were in quite close and you were able to do this. And that’s all we’d do, but we must have just ticked it away in the back of our mind because when we evolved into aluminium boats, Quintrex were a very popular boat at the time, with an outboard motor on it with wetsuits and we changed into – originally we did snorkel diving of course, and then we went to this big bottle system and this was before anyone I could recall made up what we called a hookah unit with an engine and a compressor on it; even though I’d seen one made out of an old motor bike engine once. It had one cylinder taken out and the other one would pump air. This bloke invented this thing but nobody was brave enough to use it. But, it was probably till abalone started to really kick on that guys started to try and invent things to stay down and get them off the bottom.
Gelignite and detonators
So, it’s going back a bit, when we’d be abalone diving with a old surf ski and you’d find an old wreck you’d sort of remember it in the back of your mind. So when our equipment got better we go back there. There was a place in - it may seem crazy now - there was place in Miranda in Sydney, it was called Penprase Hardware. You could drive in the back of Pentroses – they had a hardware shop at the front, down the back they had bricks and mortar and cement and everything else. And you could go to the store there and you could actually buy a box of gelignite. Of course, Sutherland south of Sydney was still pretty bushy, and that, and people were buying to get rid of rocks and blow trees out and all sorts of stuff. You could basically go there and buy a box of gelignite. So we’d drive in and get a box of gelignite and a box of instantaneous detonators and away we’d go. So we’d put that in the boat, not the whole box, but you’d take a few handfuls with you and you’d get a good flat day and you’d say “We’ll go back down to that wreck there was a couple of bits we couldn’t get off”. We’d put about two or three sticks of gelignite together and we’d put an electric det in one end, we’d poke it in with a skewer and put the det and join the two wires up. I suppose we were smart enough – we used to wrap the wire around the explosives. Then we’d swim down – there’d be bubbles coming out of it and we’d be looking at it say – “Jeez, I hope this is alright!” You’d put it where you reckoned it would do the most, sorta be the most beneficial to you, then you’d undo the wire and bring it back to the boat and put it across the battery and then give the bottom of the boat a belt. Then you’d wait 20 minutes and the water cleared and then you’d go back down to see how successful you were. That way we got a few portholes and a bit heavier stuff and we still hadn’t worked out how to – even some of the earlier divers down here hadn’t worked out the system of using lifting air bags.
I remember the boys, when I first started ab-diving same thing, they had hookah gear, they could get to the bottom and they’d get half a bag of abalone and then they’d try to swim like blazes to get to the top and I think it was one of the guys said one day, he had a plastic bag, he’d got his sugar bag full of abalone and then he blew the plastic bag up with his demand valve and held onto the plastic bag with one hand and the other bag with the other and then they decided why don’t they put the two together and they made these lifting bags and parachutes, as we call them. There was a necessity and somebody thought about it.
Back to the wrecks
It was before we had lifting bags and then you’d sometimes you’d get your boat in right over the top of the wreck and you’d dive down and you’d tie a rope around it and you’d be trying to heave it off the bottom. We tipped one boat over and numerous times we had sort of funny accidents with half filling boats with waves coming in. And we couldn’t let go because we’d tied up this dirty big bit of brass on the bottom and the waves were coming and you’d try to get out of the way – and too late you were gone. (laughter)
We’d go and drop a bit of scrap metal off at the yard and we might get 50 bucks or something and you’re king of the kids for a while. And so yeah, we changed from – we had access to explosives and then moving on from that, I might be jumping the gun a bit but we were still diving for abalone and getting little bits and pieces. There was a few companies then starting to set up as fair dinkum wreck salvage divers in Sydney.
About when was that? What time?
Evolving technology and deep water salvaging
Oh, it would be – gee, I don’t know – be probably ’61 or ’62 – around about. Yeah – ’61 or ’62. I can’t recall exactly. We were still mucking around little time and these guys started to go in fairly big time. When I say big time, we had these rowfloats we used to make in the early days and there was a couple of vessels made – I think Wally Gibbons might have been in amongst it – he’s mentioned in a book, you could probably get a date from that and Barry May was another chap I knew quite well and a bloke by the name of Ron Harding – there’s a few Ron Hardings, but I think Ron - he had a Manly dive shop. Anyway they made a fairly big float up – like a big catamaran with outboard motors on it and they had a lifting section put through the middle of it with a winch so they could actually go over the top of the wrecks and lift stuff off the bottom. And they were using aqualungs. They were around - I should say that back when we diving for abalone the aqualungs were available, but we couldn’t afford them and then you had to go and get the bottles filled with air all the time so we just either snorkel dived or came up with the system with the big bottle. But they had aqualungs and they were – when I said going big-time - a lot of the ships were in deeper water that had boilers etc., condensers – they were looking for the condensers that made the steam and they’d actually blow the ends off these things and get the all the copper pipes out from the inside of the condensers and heavier items off the wrecks. And they become real professional at it and they found a lot of the good wrecks. When I say the good wrecks – they were out a little bit deeper than where we were. We were just in real shallow water and I think they done that for 8 or 9 years. They were just full time salvage divers.
Again, after the war non-ferrous metal was hard to get and people would look at them and say if you’re a salvage diver you’re a bit of a hero. Of course, now-a-days they’re vandals but it was at the time – it was something - Australia needed the metal I suppose and the guys needed the money and there was no restrictions on it and that’s what they done. But we just pottered around in the shallow water and got the little bits and pieces.
Had those guys been involved in spear-fishing at all?
Yes, yep, yeah. Everyone had been involved with spear-fishing. And they were probably slightly older than myself and in the ‘50s they probably started diving, or probably in the late ‘40s I’d say and to the ‘50s they’d started diving and they could see - we were mucking around with abalone and a handful of strap metal and they probably went more on the commercial side of it. So much so, Wally Gibbons in particular is pretty well known now. He went from there, they went over to the Solomons and they were salvaging lot of the scrap metal after the war years in the Solomon Islands. He just become a full time salvage diver and some of the other chaps that missed out on ab diving went over with him too and they become a full time salvage diver. Where there is like - down the east coast we haven’t got a lot of wrecks and once they’d travelled from say Sydney down to as far as here at Mallacoota and once they’d been o to a wreck and taken what they could get off it then it was just discarded and they’d try to find another one and move on.
Sydney and the Wollongong salvaging
Again, they were relatively shallow wrecks – the ones that had been wrecked on the coastline. The Sydney and Wollongong area, like Wollongong being a steel area there was quite a few coal carrying ships, I wouldn’t say so much produce, but iron ore and that type of stuff that got wrecked in the earlier days and they were giant ships – 150 feet long I suppose in those days, but that was enough for them to go and get a bit of money around the boiler area and around the engine-room area and get a bit of scrap off them.
So when you came down to Mallacoota, you said it was pretty rugged by the sound of it. People were camping – where were they camping while they were based down here?
When I’ve come into town – Mallacoota itself – you people are probably aware of the place – the abalone we were diving mainly from Mallacoota south down as far as Point Hicks – Cape Everard it was called then – Points Hicks, and there was actually people camped at Point Hicks. There was divers camped at Wingan Inlet which is down near the Skerries (?), we call them Skerries, and were some people were even camped here at Mallacoota down at Bastion Point, down on the headland there, there was a cleared area down there. That was cleared probably during the war years, they had a supply boat went out to Gabo, it was cleared down there.
So there was some guys camped down there and there was guys camped at Cape Conran down near Marlo, down in those areas. Anywhere where you could sort of get your boat in and you could get access to the ocean mainly either a the lee of a headland where a road went in, which Point Hicks was, Conran had the headlands down there so they were able to – and the river down there – but they used to camp at Conran and put their boats in off the beach there. And down at Wingan was similar – there was a little river run out there and they could to camp and put their boats in and go out and when they’d return in of an afternoon, in those days the abalone were actually salted, your markets was pretty limited and we got a few entrepreneurs, they’d become buyers, so you’d dive and you’d shell the abalone out into bins and mix salt in with them to more or less pickle them so they wouldn’t go off, but still some – straight away that night and - from Mallacoota, sometimes the buyers would come into Mallacoota but the smaller areas the divers would have to transport them out to either Cann River or Orbost or even right back up to Eden to sell their catch.
Funny item on that - I was just talking to one of the divers the other night, Gert Hupfaufs was his name, they camped at Conran. There was Gert Menke and Gert’s wife was there, and she was a hairdresser from King’s Cross so you can imagine a beautiful looking blonde headed hairdresser camped in a tent. I couldn’t, but anyway Zoni (?) put up with it I was told. I’ve always pictured – now of course, every time I’ve looked at hairdressers and beauty parlours, the ladies are always dressed up and Mickey Mouse and before they’d go out of a morning they’d had an old 44 gallon drum and they’d light a fire under and just keep it simmering all day and when they used to come in of an afternoon whoever who had to take the catch into town would be first to hop into the pot. So he’d hop in and have a wash and then the other couple of divers would take their turn after him. ‘Cause if you had the job of taking them in you had to get going with the catch. I laughed and smiled when he told me that story but that’s the sort of way they lived and they got away with it. And they were making money. But again things evolved from there.
The boats got better so instead of being down there camped with a little Quintrex boat and a tiny putt-putt outboard we started to make money out of it and they then ungraded to fibreglass boats and bigger outboards and so what the heck camping was run from Mallacoota. We could be down there in half an hour so it’s better off living here than living down there, so the tents gradually disappeared and the equipment got better and they become more mobile on the water and then we become a one spot here and that was here at Mallacoota.
Then the need then was again was back to what I said before, with organization. We were getting a fair amount of abalone coming into one port and consequently we had a couple of fairly big buyers then would come down and buy the lot at a set price. And then there’d become competition in the buyers – one would offer more than the other, then they got together and said ‘we’re killing one another here, lets screw them up and we’ll give them one price’. And that’s when we formed our own Co-operative and we kicked on from there.