Pioneers: Ivor Howitt- Memories of an Aberdeen Amphibian (pt2)

Pioneers: Ivor Howitt – Part 2

Australia 1950-1954

I arrived in Melbourne in December, and early in 1951 was able to christen my Siebe-Gorman unit in Port Philip Bay. As far as I can ascertain I was the only sport diver with an aqualung in Australia at that time, and probably in New Zealand as well. Edward du Cros, in his book Skindiving in Australia, mentions that the first aqualung to be used by civilians in New South Wales was probably a Cousteau-Gagnan unit brought from France by Emile Landau and lent to members of the Underwater Spear Fishermen’s Association of New South Wales in the summer of 1952-1953. I mention these details only to clarify the historical record as I understand it.

With others interested in diving, I helped form the Underwater Spear Fishermen’s Association of Victoria. For my first shallow dives in Australia I used oxygen as we had done in Scotland. When we progressed to deeper diving we decanted from 200 cubic feet air cylinders. We had no portable air compressors. We acted for the police in searching for and recovering the bodies of drowned persons, as in those days the police had no diving equipment. An unfortunate incident occurred during one search when I spotted the remains of a little girl drowned only two days before. I called out to what I thought were two detectives on their boat, ‘There’s not much left.’ I was later told that one of the men was the girl’s father, who was understandably upset by my blunt report. I can still see that tiny green swimming costume strung around the empty rib cage as I carried her to the surface.

Searches usually took place at dawn. A police car would pick us up in time to arrive at the accident site by first light. After the search, they would take us directly to our places of work. I also recall searching near sunset, feeling lonely and exposed, our thoughts turning to sharks gliding around in the gloom. I attended the case of a young boy drowned in the Yarra River, which is deep and muddy. Some idiot who knew nothing about diving told the boy’s father we could search at midnight if he would rig up a sealed beam headlight. With the boy’s father ready and waiting, we could hardly refuse.

Lindsay Gordon helped me on with my aqualung and immediately there was a loud bang as the pressure gauge pipe exploded. I quickly shut off the air, removed the gauge pipe, and the take-off was plugged with a lead disk. I felt my way to the bottom, five or six metres down. My worry was that I’d get snagged in submerged tree branches. I could see nothing in the silt, but for the father’s sake I stayed down to give the impression of a search.

For sport, we dived all around Port Philip Bay and much of the Victorian coastline, sometimes in quite remote locations. In 1952, Lindsay Gordon, Kevin Rowe and I holidayed in the Whitsunday Islands, between Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef. I had a home-made perspex underwater case for my Bell & Howell movie camera and a modified aluminium cooking pot for my Voigtlander still camera. This was our first introduction to diving, or rather snorkelling, in tropical seas. However, the really clear water was to be found on the outer Barrier Reef, and there we experienced for the first time the ultimate in diving conditions.

After the Whitsunday trip, Bill Young heard of our activities and joined our group. He was a young electrician who later explored for oil in New Guinea. He voyaged in a native canoe from Port Moresby to the Trobriand Islands, where among other things he assisted the local surgeon, then back to Moresby, taking five months to complete the round trip. Later still, Bill talked his way aboard the Australian Antarctic Division’s ship as an electrical mechanic, and wintered in Antarctica. He performed so well that he was made Expedition Leader for his next winter on the ice. He was the last Australian to be awarded the Imperial Polar Medal – a very high honour – and was also made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Not bad for a humble sparky!

With nothing but the tools in his home garage, Bill made a replica of my aqualung. Aqualungs were not yet on sale in Australia. We joined forces to design and build pressurised camera cases of chrome-plated brass. Pressurisation would expose leaks as air bubbles and thus safeguard our cameras, and the chrome plating would reflect the hot sun. These were used successfully on our Heron Island expedition in November 1953.

Meanwhile, early in 1953, Bill and I dived with Ted Eldred, who was developing a closed-circuit oxygen breathing unit on the same principle as those used by frogmen in wartime, but with the innovation of a pressure cut-out to prevent the diver exceeding the safe depth for oxygen. Ted later went on to design his Porpoise aqualung, which differed from the Cousteau-Gagnan unit in that he fitted the demand valve directly on to the mouthpiece, replacing the French-style corrugated tubes with a small bore medium pressure rubber pipe, which reduced the risk of getting snagged on obstructions. This system was rapidly adopted worldwide by other manufacturers.

With two others, Ted set up the first school of underwater sport diving in Australasia, and we took the opportunity to further familiarise ourselves with his experimental oxygen rebreathers and Porpoise aqualungs. Bill Young and I already had experience with the Siebe-Gorman side hung oxygen kit used for the course. Late in 1954, a family emergency required my presence back in Scotland, and my final dives were made the following year near Aberdeen with the Siebe-Gorman single cylinder Essjee kit. I had come full circle, and the diving scene had changed completely – it was all so easy now! When I returned to the Antipodes, it was to spend the rest of my life in New Zealand. Diving became a memory as family commitments absorbed all our energies … and finances! For those wishing to read more about pioneering work with breathing apparatus, I would recommend Deep Diving and Submarine Operations and Breathing In Irrespirable Atmospheres, both by Robert H. Davis.

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