The ocean is a whole new world that people want to explore! It gets you out of having to deal with the day-to-day rigmarole and takes you somewhere that’s a bit special… and so it makes you feel special.

 

Early days – diving in Wyangala Dam and Idlers Bay (mid-1960s – mid-1970s)

I lived in Papua New Guinea as a kid, from about 7 years old, in the mid-1960s. We had lots of family picnics in the scenic PNG country-side and out to the many small offshore islands. My family owned a home-built 18-foot plywood boat with a 100HP outboard motor, and we used to water-ski out to these beautiful places; I never wasted a trip to anywhere in the boat without water-skiing out the back, and I skied kilometres.

One day, when I was maybe 9 or 10, some family friends took us out to Idlers Bay – a remote beach with a pristine fringing reef in clear water, just out from Port Moresby. We took the snorkelling gear and I tootled out into the bay by myself, to the edge of the reef. Well, no-one could get me back out of the water!

I had snorkelled before, in Wyangala Dam (NSW, Australia), as a younger child, and I was pretty blown out by what I saw in the sea – the reef, the fish, and lots of little critters – starfish, colourful urchins, Bêche-de-mer, anemones… things you don’t see in Wyangala Dam. After that I went snorkelling whenever I could.

In Sydney, when I was 5 or 6, I had seen a man and woman scuba diving. It was around 1963, so early days for recreational scuba. They had walked down the track to the beach we were on, and they walked past us looking very mysterious and glamorous in their wetsuits and cylinders, with fins in hand. It would’ve been pretty basic gear but it piqued my interest; going under water was an amazing thing for a kid – no-one really did it in those days! So it stuck in my mind – one of those images that little kids hold on to.

Back in PNG, dad bought a rusty old steel cylinder which we painted up, after knocking all the rust off it so it didn’t look like a bomb ready to explode – structurally, it was still OK – and a regulator and simple capillary depth gauge. Dad and I shared the diving gear and we took it in turns whenever we went out in our boat. On weekends my family went out to many of the local islands and reefs, often mooring the boat just off an island, having a picnic on the beach, and then dad and I taking turns to go for a dive. We learned our scuba diving skills from a book that my uncle sent up from Sydney.

Mostly we just poked around in the shallow reef, which was pretty spectacular stuff – massive schools of fish, and all the things you’d expect to see in a reef. One day I got brave and just kept going down, to 20m, and found it was quite different to the shallows – it was eerie and quiet.

Also in PNG, I spent a good deal of time tinkering around with mechanical things and small engines. Fixing stuff is in my blood; Dad always repaired everything for himself and serviced all of his and my uncles’ and aunts’ vehicles, and I helped him from a very young age. I had a lawn-mower repair business at 13 years old, and also restored (and rode) numerous motorbikes throughout my life.

A dive course (late-1970s)

When I came back to Australia, I was at high school in Canberra and didn’t do any more diving until after I finished high school. I had just left school, in the late-1970s, when I rode my motorbike to stay with friends in Mullumbimby (NSW Northern Rivers region). I was 19 years old and set on moving there – the beautiful people, places and lifestyle were a huge draw-card. I came back to Canberra for clothes etc. and was in Phillip shopping centre (Weston Creek, Canberra) getting something else when I saw the dive shop – Aqua Medium, which later became Aqua Action, owned by Frank Poole and Frank Lehman. I walked in out of curiosity, and came out having just signed up for a open water diving course!

The diving course was conducted in the Phillip outdoor pool and included two weekends at Depot Beach, on the NSW South Coast. Dive training came from the military for the most part in those days, and there was lots of training involved – the courses were tough, for example, we had to tread water with our hands up in the air for 3 mins.

Working as the assistant on the course was a young fellow doing his Dive Masters course – Andy Philips, who later (1980s) owned Aqua Action.

I became very keen on the diving again and went on many trips to the coast with the diving club associated with the shop, and with friends. There were three other diving clubs in Canberra at the time – the Aquanauts, the Federal Scuba Group, which was very active, and the ANU Scuba Club.

ACT Scuba Diver Services and The Scuba Store (early 1980s)

About 1980, in my early 20s, I teamed up with Jimmy Weston, who wanted to start a dive shop. We travelled to Melbourne and contacted the dive suppliers, and came back with a ute-load full of goodies for the shop. We set up the shop – ACT Scuba Diver Services – in Fyshwick and I built all the shop fittings – display cabinets, shelving, dressing rooms, etc. I ran Jimmy’s shop while he worked in the Australian Public Service, and we busied ourselves there until the shop folded two or three years later – the early 1980s Canberra population was too low and Fyshwick was too remote to keep the dive shop business going.

Another dive shop – The Scuba Store – had just opened in the Churches Centre, Belconnen, where I ended up working for many years. This shop was owned by school teacher and diving instructor Paul Cozens, who lived in Tathra. He came up to Canberra weekly and I managed his store on and off as he came and went. Later, Paul’s kids were getting older so he moved to Canberra where they could go to school, and he ran the store full time himself.

A cylinder test station (mid-1980s)

I had spent years – at both shops – endlessly packing up diving cylinders and sending them to Ted Louis Hydrostatics in Sydney – the closest test station to us. I serviced the regulators myself, gradually acquiring skills by reading the workshop manuals and slowly picking regulators apart. Paul also imparted his many servicing and maintenance skills to me. I started thinking about setting up a test station myself, as I already had some of the necessary equipment – such as Standards publications from Standards Australia – for cylinder testing.

I went to work with Bill Hunt – a friend of Paul’s who ran a cylinder test station in Brisbane, for two weeks. Bill showed me the ropes for cylinder testing and servicing of regulators, sometimes showing me things from a slightly different angle to what I had been accustomed. The regulator-makers also ran servicing courses every couple of years and I earned my regulator servicing trade certificates from them (and still do, nowadays).

When Paul Cozens moved to Canberra, I built my cylinder test station at home and installed it at the shop in Belconnen, which had been split into retail and workshop areas. I ran the workshop as my business, separate from the shop, which Paul ran. Whenever Paul needed to be away, I would fill in for him at the shop.

I got my formal approval for a cylinder testing station in 1983.

Dive Master and diving instructor, and a dive-ski connection (mid- to late-1980s)

I worked as a Dive Master for Paul’s Belconnen shop for a while, and Paul was a senior instructor. Paul needed more instructors for the shop – the more instructors, the merrier – so I also trained towards being a dive instructor, which I became in 1986. Paul and I had to travel to Sydney for my instructors’ course and examination.

I taught scuba diving for about 10 years, as well as taking groups out as Dive Master. The store had a strong and active dive club called the Bell Divers.

Paul Cozens and I stayed in the Churches Centre for many years, and also incorporated a X-country ski centre one winter, with Robbie Kilpinen – “the flying Finn”. His X-country ski shop had previously been in Baileys Arcade, in the Canberra CBD. I had met Robbie while X-country ski touring and racing in my early 20s, in the late 1970s, when X-country skiing was very popular amongst Canberrans.

The Scuba Store was originally in the corner shop, on the bottom floor of the Churches Centre. The Canberra Permanent Building Society installed their ATM into one of the windows of the shop next door, which was otherwise unoccupied. We spoke to them about expanding into their shop, which we did by knocking a hole in the wall so we could connect the two shops; we sublet the space from the bank and I ran my cylinder testing and regulator maintenance business from in there. The dive shop also used it as a store for their hire gear.

Rents eventually went up, so we moved the dive business out of the corner shop and into the space behind the ATM – which remained there for a long time – and we blocked the hole in the wall back up again. I worked out the back of the dive shop.

Steve Harding, a keen diver with the ANU Scuba Club, bought The Scuba Store from Paul Cozens in 1985.

Moving to the CBD (1990s)

Steve Harding and I moved to the Canberra Central Business District in the mid-90s, at 7 Lonsdale Street, where we took over the premises of ProDive Canberra – another dive store that had existed there for a few years and wanted to close. We soon moved into bigger premises at the corner of the same building; this shop originally had Spokesman Cycles in it, then a wholesale flower shop set up in there but closed when the owner was murdered. We traded there for many years – Steve running The Scuba Store and dive courses while I did all the dive gear testing and maintenance through my test station.

In 1990, I added to my life-long mechanical skills by doing a 6m night-time course in workshop machining run by Canberra TAFE.

The dive-ski connection again – Straightline Ski and Scuba (2012)

There was a ski store at the other end of the building at #7and we thought they might like a summer business, so Steve spoke to the partners – Andy Nichols and his business partner James, who were both keen on the prospect of expanding their business. We moved everything into the ski shop and became one with Straightline Ski, which then became Straightline Ski and Scuba. The Lonsdale Street Roasters took over the lease of our old store at #7.

Steve kept running the diving courses for Straightline Ski and Scuba until the ski shop ran their own, Straightline did all the retailing, and I continued to service the dive gear. Steve retired around 2013 and went off to enjoy a life of diving and surfing.

Eventually, Straightline Ski and Scuba needed more store space for operations and better customer parking, so Andy found a bigger location in Fyshwick with the same landlord as we had in the CBD – and where my business operates from today.

Encounters with sea critters – the joy of diving

Scuba divers will tell you that one of the greatest joys of diving are the encounters with a myriad of sea critters.

One memorable occasion for me was when, after a dive off the NSW South Coast, I was standing in wetsuit and fins at the edge of a rock pool and felt something creeping up my wetsuited leg. I looked down to see the rather large eye of an octopus, one tentacle feeling up my leg to my knee. As soon as I looked down at it, it stopped and flinched slightly … but didn’t retract its tentacle. We eye-balled each other for a while – there was an obvious intelligence there! – then it continued to feel around my leg with its tentacle and then sat there for a time. Octopus always seem to be quite alert to what’s going on around them. Most time they stand their ground and curiously check things out when you come near them rather than darting off like many sea critters do.

Cuttlefish – they seem to delight in scaring the daylights out of you! Diving alone late one afternoon – so getting a bit darkish – I swam up to a narrow rock crevice in fairly rough, surgy conditions. Suddenly a cuttlefish launched itself out of a pocket in the rock – in seconds – straight at my face, with all its tentacles spread out.

Another monster chased me in Jervis Bay when I came over a rock shelf and stuck my head in the hole underneath; it was massive – I’ve never seen a cuttlefish as big; over 1m long and very fat! It came out of the hole and started darting at me, outspread tentacles first. I was finning backwards trying to fend it off with my snorkel – an old-fashioned one made of a hard tube, while my dive buddy was so terrified he swam to the top of the rock ledge and jumped right out of the water. After a while, the cuttlefish got tired of the game and swam off, but my mate said he was never going diving again without adequate protection – I don’t know what that entailed but maybe he intended taking a spear gun with him from then on. Cuttlefish are territorial and they get cranky if you disturb them.

Sharks mostly just swim past you. One bumped into me at night, straight into my face mask, so I bomped him with my torch and he swam off. He was just bumbling around in the dark, much like I was.

What I enjoy the most is drifting around with manta rays and dolphins, for example at Lady Musgrave Island. Whales are more plentiful nowadays – their numbers have slowly recovered from incredibly low levels after they were hunted almost to extinction, but in the early days they were very rare. Other species are now almost extinct because of fishing, for example Black Cod.

Narrated by John Wilson,
compiled by Costanza Maffi,
January 2017.
John Wilson in the Cyltest workshop.
John Wilson in the Cyltest workshop.