A Diving Pioneer: Recollections & Training – We Compare with Today’s Training

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Above L–R: Bill Young, Ivor Howitt and Ted Eldred. Bill with a Siebe Gorman unit with a side-hung oxygen bottle; Ivor with a Siebe Gorman unit that could be the first brought to Australia; Ted with two unique oxygen scuba units.

Historical documents supplied by Ivor Howitt. Compiled by Dive New Zealand magazine.

Back in the 1940s, it was all about diving for adventure. The diving pathways these pioneers forged were driven by a combination of their passion for the sport and their desire to take on the many challenges that confronted them as they developed diving gear in the post-WWII years when resources were very limited. We are sure many of today’s advanced technical divers pushing the conventional limits of sport diving today will relate to this passion.

Ivor Howitt was one of these early pioneers who charted the way for what has now become a worldwide recreational sport. Ivor published his memories in 2007 – Fathomeering: An Amphibian’s Tale. He recently sent us news clippings from Aberdeen, Scotland dating back to 1948.

Ivor, now in retirement, with his 1953 housing for a 35mm Robot camera.

Ivor, now in retirement, with his 1953 housing for a 35mm Robot camera.

While reading some of Ivor’s papers, we thought that the extensive training that divers received in 1953 would be of interest to today’s divers. Especially when we reflect on the recent diving deaths in New Zealand (see page 50 A/M issue 153) and ponder the causes.

Ivor was inspired by reading whatever he could find on early underwater exploration. In 1948, Ivor, with six others, established the first sport dive club in the United Kingdom in Aberdeen, Scotland: The Amphibians. Divers at this time used whatever was available – a homemade copper helmet or a WWII gas respirator fitted with a hose connected to a hand-powered air pump on the surface. If they were lucky, they could reach a depth of around 30 feet (9.14m).

In 1949, Ivor obtained a Siebe Gorman compressed air breathing apparatus (CABA), which was a British version of the French Cousteau-Gagnan Aqua-Lung. Ivor mounted the 27ft3 cylinders, with reducing and demand valves and a pressure gauge on to a backpack frame. Corrugated air hoses connected to a simple mouthpiece. He used ex-Air Ministry (Royal Air Force) cylinders, after removing the anti-shrapnel wire binding to reveal any rusting.
He was prevented from getting the cylinders filled to a high pressure for civilian use while in the United Kingdom. He got around it by filling the cylinders with oxygen at a low pressure, which allowed him to dive less than 10 metres.

In 1950, Ivor followed his dream to explore warmer oceans and immigrated to Victoria, Australia. Ivor arrived in Australia with £60 and a great aqualung but no accessories! You gotta love his spirit!

It seems Ivor was the only person in Australia at that time who had an aqualung. He christened his Siebe Gorman unit diving in Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne.

Training Then and Now: Compared

In 1953, Ivor actually took a dive course. We were intrigued with the programme and what was actually taught back then. The course ran over 10 nights over five weeks a total of 25 hours minimum plus the examination. This was 2.5 hours practical and 2.5 hours theory examination. A medical was required before commencing the course. We also note that this certification was only valid for three years and a refresher was required to keep abreast of recent developments in diving physiology/decompression diving and the new equipment that was being put on the market.

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Left: An application form for Ivor’s first scuba course in 1953; Right: The programme for the course.

Today there is a lot of discussion about how students are being taught – what are they being taught? How competent are they at the completion of today’s Open Water scuba course?

Most of the big training organisations have broken down the traditional basic course to cover only the minimum so that students will then take another course, and then another course and so on. Let’s face it – an Open Water scuba course these days is VERY basic! Even the Advanced course is very basic compared with what Ivor had to complete to show he was proficient in the water. The course then was about getting the maximum enjoyment from your diving experience while fully understanding your equipment and your personal limitations!

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These days the number of divers who stop diving after they complete their Open Water course is massive – why?
A diver is not supposed to dive deeper than 18m on completing their Open Water course. How is this depth limit policed when divers go diving with their mates other than with an ‘official’ dive operator? But you can dive deeper if you put another dollar into another training course. Want to do a night dive? Just write out a cheque and you can!
I would suggest that Ivor’s first dive course taught him all the skills to do these types of dives … just one course!
Ivor and many of the early divers experienced the wonderful freedom of diving before commercialism and government regulations squeezed out any passion and dollars a person had to continue the sport (resulting in a massive drop in numbers of people continuing to dive).

It was that freedom and sense of adventure that helped develop a passion that still drives many of the older divers to continue participating in the sport today.

Thanks Ivor for your documents and images. It is always interesting to appreciate how a sport has evolved.

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