An Interview with Ross McDonald

Ross McDonald (Nelson, New Zealand)

by Sue Farley

Ross McDonald

Ross McDonald

Ross McDonald

Ross McDonald

Ross McDonald

Ross McDonald

Ross McDonald

Ross McDonald

Ross McDonald

Ross McDonald

Ross is a dear old chap, forever smiling and full of stories. Heâ’s a big fellow tall, lean and remarkably fit for a man in his late 70s – and has been a guiding light in Nelson’s diving scene since it first began in the late 1950s. And even before that he was involved in the exciting early days of scuba and snorkelling in New Zealand.


Dive New Zealand (DNZ):

Ross, how did you first get started in the dive scene?


Ross McDonald (RMcD):

As a young fella I was in the Air Force. We did a lot of fitness stuff there and I also did some competitive swimming while in the Air Force as well. They had this thing called ‘˜The Plunge’, which was breath-hold swimming on the surface and you dived in and had to swim as far as you could on one breath. I was pretty good at that. (Big smile, eyes crinkling as he laughs) I did quite a bit of inter-services sport back then, and all this led to me getting pretty keen on snorkelling. We’d go all over New Zealand to do it. This was in the early 1950s.

About that time I met up with a few others (Wade Doak, Keith Gordon and Kelly Tarlton) and we got into lots of things together. In 1958 and ‘59 we did several trips to New Caledonia doing fish research for Canterbury University; Wade was a student there. And we were testing equipment like camera housings, these were the early production housings; and also spring-loaded spear guns. We stayed at Bourail (on the west coast north of Noumea) and spent three months in the water. I loved the clear warm sea and all the new fish. I shot my biggest fish while I was there too – a 320 lb (145 kg) groper. It was huge. (More big smiles.)

On one of those trips Keith Gordon shot a remarkable home movie on 8mm cinecamera film of the antics the guys got up to. There’s some very shaky underwater black and white footage and wonderful shots of life in 1950s New Caledonia, dubbed over with funky Paris jazz. It’s a great piece of early video.


DNZ:

So how did you progress on to scuba?


RMcD:

I guess it was about 1956 when we first got into using scuba gear. There wasn’t much around then and we used to sneak it into the country on the planes; a perk of working in the Air Force. My first gear was a 40 cubic foot steel tank, quite small compared to what’s used these days, and a Porpoise regulator. Although this was a single hose regulator the earlier ones were twin-hose ones. We made our own wetsuits from the waterproof sheeting you used to put on kiddies’ beds, it was a rubbery latex-backed cloth. These were actually more like drysuits but there was no way to get air into them so we were always diving with suits that squeezed us. Neoprene wasn’t available until the 1960s so wetsuits as such didn’t exist. We made fins by hinging bits of plywood on to sandshoes, and used weights off the oldstyle double-hung windows tied on to a belt to keep us down. There were no BCDs in those days either. Dive gear wasn’t commercially available in New Zealand until the early 1960s, and then it was usually sold through hardware stores. We used to buy our gear here in Nelson at the old Wilkins & Field store (later to become Mitre 10).

I did quite a bit of commercial diving in the early 60s, as the gear got better and was more readily available. We dived the whole of Tasman and Golden Bays doing grid dives, mile by mile, prospecting for the oil companies. That’s a lot of seafloor to cover and there’s nothing down there but sand. A lot of that diving was SSBA (surfaceassisted hose gear). We also worked in the Cobb Dam up behind Golden Bay quite a bit, and checked the hulls of all the ships being used by the oil companies.

And so to club diving, and instructing. Ross was one of the founding members of, firstly the Marlborough Underwater Club in 1957, and then Nelson Underwater Club (NUC) in 1958. He quickly trained to become an instructor for the Nelson club and only trained his last students in 2006. He has no idea how many students he has trained but a conservative estimate of 60 students a year for 47 years gives almost 3000 divers, most of them trained in Nelson and the upper South Island. Ross is still an active committee member of NUC and has been club patron for many years.


RMcD:

It was all BSAC diving in the early 60s, so that was the training we did. In 1964 New Zealand Underwater (NZU) changed to CMAS, a French-based system, which I taught right through till 1985. About the time the French came in and sunk the Rainbow Warrior, NZU changed to PADI, and it’s been that way ever since. In the early days dive training was much more rigorous than it is now. It took a lot longer to get your ticket in those days.

I’ve been involved with the Nelson Underwater Club ever since. We’ve worked hard as a club over the years. One of the highlights for me was opening our own clubrooms in 1985. And another was being named Nelson Sportsperson of the Year in 1998. (Another big smile as he pops in to the lounge to grab his trophy.)


DNZ:

And your most exciting times -“ what have they been?


RMcD:

One of the most exciting things I have done was when we started exploring the Riwaka Cave. As far as we know there was no one else cave diving in New Zealand back then [this was 1960-ish] and of course the gear wasn’t that useful for cave work.


DNZ:

I’ve been down in to the Riwaka cave myself and from the surface, before you go down, it looks like a big dark puddle full of rocks. How did you know what you would find in there, and if it was even worth trying?


RMcD:

We had no idea what was in there, but it was the easiest and most accessible of the resurgence caves in the area. Like you say, it is just a big dark puddle from the top. Four of us went in that first day – Eric King, Roger Cross, Peter Cullen and myself. We had torches wrapped in rubber casings with a hose clip on the end and we took candles in preserving jars with us to light once we got to somewhere dry. And we laid a line in as we went even though there was no cave diving protocol as such back then. That first day we got right through to the big chamber. It was very exciting.

In the last 40 years we’ve learned a lot about cave diving from that early stuff in Riwaka. A lot of local divers now get a chance to go in there and it’s been very handy. We learnt the importance of lots of backup and support people, taking plenty of torches, always using a line, and only taking in divers who are reasonably experienced. We’ve had a few people get in there and throw wobblies, and it’s not pretty. And it’s very stressful on them as well.


DNZ:

And all these different experiences led to you being involved with Search and Rescue?


RMcD:

Yes, well I was originally trained in search and rescue in the Air Force in the 50s and 60s. And we also had our own search and rescue team at the Nelson Underwater Club. Because back then there were no Police dive teams so when there was an accident they would call us in. There were lots of accidents up in the (Marlborough) Sounds and local problems with cars driving off bridges and people falling off wharves. It’s a bit different now with the police having their own teams.


DNZ:

And is there anything else to add?


RMcD:

Well, you know, there’s been so much other interesting work. I worked on Nauru in 1993, on the desalination plant there. In 1998 we went down to Stewart Island to help on the salvage of the Dong Won. We did another salvage at the Chathams shortly after and I spent a long time in Gisborne in 2002 helping refloat the Jodi F Millennium. There’s been so much of that kind of work. (He smiles again as he remembers it all.)

Ross is a very humble man and it’s not easy to get some of the stories out. But as one of the many, many people Ross has trained I am very pleased and proud to know him. Thankyou, Ross, for giving your time to talk, and for your devotion to diving in Nelson, and New Zealand, over the last 48 years.

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