(part one: the ‘use-ta’ early years and in the frame)
Dave Moran, Dive New Zealand – Dive Pacific magazines (DM): What made you decide to write a book?
Ben Cropp (BC): In recent times my friends have said I needed to record my experiences and adventures because I am getting on in years having reached 70, which I still find a little unbelievable! So when Kerry Packerâs publishing group approached me and suggested I do a biography/picture book I immediately said yes! I told them I would be happy for a ghost writer to put it together as I just didnât have the time to write it totally. I did do some writing regarding my wives and some other sections that I wished to put my personal touch.
DM: Your book starts off with your early days of spearfishing. Can we talk about when you started?
BC: Due to space constraints we just could not fit everything into the book about my early diving days. We had to skip 20 years of my life on the Gold Coast. Thereâs a few skeletons exposed but not all of them! The beginning was very simple. The family, my father Allan and mother Louise and six brothers and sisters lived at Lennox Head, a small village then, on the far north coast of New South Wales. In January 1950 when I was 14 and mad keen on fishing I saw some Torres Strait Islanders from a mission boat diving at the mouth of the Richmond River at Ballina. They were diving with primitive goggles and a hand spear and they pulled up a big flathead. I thought wow, Iâd love to get a flathead like that, what a great way to go fishing! I called into my mate, Barry Stewart and told him what I had seen. We quickly started to design our own simple gear. I made my mask out of a motorcycleâs inner tube. They fitted better than a car tube. We used a pane of glass cut round and a copper band to hold it in place. For the spear we went to the local blacksmith and he fashioned a spear about four and a half feet long. The motor bike tube was also used as the catapult. We had no books to go from, no shop to buy any diving gear so we made what we thought would work. The mask was so comfortable and good that when I went to Tweed Heads three years later and met up with the top divers there, some of whom became the first Australian champions, they had similar masks. When we competed in the Australian titles I remember the Sydney guys laughing at us – but we won.
At first I just chased the fish. I went down to the boat harbour at Lennox Head and literally chased fish. I didnât understand the techniques of spearing because there was no one to teach me. Then along came Bill Abbott, he was my history teacher. He wasnât a spearo but he said âBen get yourself a lead belt, go and sit on the bottom and wait for the fish to come to you, then bang them!â I did as he said and my whole world changed immediately. I went from a pretty crummy spearfisherman to a good one. I started to get heaps of fish, took them home, my family was happy. When the family moved to Tweed Heads I meet Frank Kirkhman, Ron Cox and John Reynolds who were the top divers in Queensland. They were good teachers. At the 1953 Australian titles, Ron Cox became the first Australian champion, Frank second, and I came sixth in the open competition. I was only a kid at the time, just 17. I won the junior title and we also won the teamâs event. It was a great boost to our confidence as we really did not know how good we were!
We were using handspears at the time. I soon started to design and make my own speargun which was far more effective. Divers soon started copying my design. A simple thing I invented was a single rubber. At the time all spearguns were two rubbers. They werenât that accurate because if one rubber was weaker, it would tend to push the spear to the left or right. Most spearguns you buy now have a single rubber. Then I designed a trigger mechanism because triggers were the real problem. My first trigger design had a simple lever action which was also copied by others. I did have a lot of input into early speargun design in Australia during the 1950 â 1953âs period. Later on I designed explosive heads for killing sharks.
DM: When did your interest change from spearing fish to filming fish?
BC: I still love spearfishing, my sons love it too. I went overseas to represent Australia at the spearing world titles, firstly in Malta in 1959 and after hanging out in such places as the Canary Islands for a year I competed in the 1960 titles in Sicily. On my return home I was convinced that I wanted to make a living out of diving. An American guy approached me to set up an abalone, business, I said no. I wasnât keen to work the rest of my life in southern cold waters. Many abalone divers are very wealthy guys now – good on them! I considered the best thing would be to get a camera and make films about the marine life on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).
Because I knew nothing about cameras I asked around who was the best underwater photographer. I was told, Ron Taylor. At that time Ron wasnât a professional but he was still the best. We teamed up and formed a business partnership and I literally said to him âLook Iâll be the diver and youâre the cameraman so letâs make films. You film me doing some action stuff.â
We started with sharks. Grey nurse sharks had a bad reputation as a man eater in those days â we believed it too. They were pretty easy targets around Sydney so we shot some film. Then we went shooting footage spearing whaler sharks on the GBR.
Then we started working on shark repellents/poisons with a Doctor Watson. He was weird. Once he was found running around a park naked and I had to vouch for him to get him out of jail because he was the doctor providing all the poisons. We went to the GBR and tested out the strychnine-nitrates on sharks. If a certain amount did not kill the shark we would just top up the syringe! We gave this method away â all a bit too dangerous!
We released the film, Shark Hunters in 1962. It had every bit of film we could find. It had terrible continuity! It went on Channel Nine and was a huge success. The television station received over a 100 telephone calls asking if it could be screened again. They replayed it a week later. Thatâs unheard of in television. Shark hunting was a big deal in those days. We sold the film all around the world – the NBC network grabbed it!
When Ron and I split up I was in a bad way. I thought Iâm a diver without a camera and I donât know how to use a camera. But being with Ron had taught me a lot.
My first camera and housing cost me about sixty pound. I had to go to the bank and borrow the money. You wound it up and you had 15 seconds then you had to rewind it. Off I went killing more sharks and made a film called Shark Safari. Took it to America and sold it to NBCâs network worldwide. It was a big kick-start. One advantage that Ron Taylor and I had was we were the first to produce this type of film. We had no peers to judge us. The ratings were very high. Another reason was that Hans Hass had already retired from underwater filming. Cousteau hadnât started his television series so it was wide open. We came in with no opposition.
DM: Did you realize that at the time?
BC: Yes. I knew that Hans had retired and Cousteau had done the Silent World and that was about it. There was nothing underwater on television. So being the first always helps. No matter how bad, thereâs no one to judge. It was the best because there was nothing like it on television so everyone bought it.
In 1964 I was awarded the American, Underwater Photographer of the Year Award. I was in good company. Cousteau and Hans Hass had won it in previous years.
When I first arrived in America trying to sell my films I was given the name of a producer in New York. I arrived in New York at 5 oâclock on a Friday afternoon. In the film business everyone goes home early for the weekend. I tried anyway and this guy answered the telephone and immediately said to come in. I showed him the two films and he said yes heâd buy them. I told him I also wanted to do a film on sea snakes. He said heâd buy that too. By Monday I had the contract in my hand and went back to Australia thinking it was pretty easy.
Back in Australia I was told, I was the first Australian to sell to the American network. I didnât know why because it was awfully easy.
Years later when it got harder and harder to sell over there I asked that producer why heâd snapped up the first three films and now heâs hard to convince to buy any more? He replied âWell Ben, we were having a meeting wondering where we were going to get three more films – then out of the blue, you phoned! It was my lucky day! Even if youâd had that luck and that big kick start, you still have to follow through and keep improving your standards. You canât just sit back and claim youâve made it because others soon catch on, such as American Al Giddings. I knew so little; I didnât even know what over-exposure and under-exposure was. People would ask me questions because Iâd won the big award in America but I really didnât know the answers. Iâd bought a couple of photography books so that I knew what I was talking about, but I never read them! I just learnt everything by doing it. I found that underwater filming was actually very easy and now itâs even easier. It seems like everyone is doing it now! …. Part two continues next issue.
Photos extracted from Ben Cropp: Blood in the Water. Copyright Ben Cropp 2006. RRP $39.95 PB. Available from all good bookstores and Dive New Zealand magazine (mail order shop at
). Published by Park Street Press. Distributed by Southern Publishers Group.
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