Ben Cropp – Interview continued from issue 96.

Ben Cropp

Interview continued from issue 96.

Diving the Cumberland

Ben Cropp

Dave Moran (DM): Can you explain the passion and competitiveness of those early days of spearfishing in the 60s and 70s when magazine covers proudly displayed dead fish and the triumphant spearfishmen?

Ben Cropp (BC): I had an immense passion for spearfishing. Every weekend I was out. Being such a new sport we were a bit of a novelty and the press loved us – holding up piles of fish! I still have the passion and enjoy spearing for the dinner table. In those days there were so many fish we didn’t have to venture far off shore. We only used surf-skis.

When I first entered competitions I was a little intimidated by some of the big tough competitors. Spearfishermen had a public image as being big macho tough guys and I wasn’t like that!

I soon learned that I could beat these guys through stamina and perseverance. I remember I could never beat Frank Kirkin who was the Australian champion. I finally beat him in a very simple way. We used surf skis with a potato sack tied to it. In a competition, we’d fill the sack and swim to shore to weigh the fish. The sack always looked impressive if it had a big hump indicating a heap of fish inside. I got myself a really big, oversized chaff bag. When I put in the usual amount of fish it only produced a little hump. I remember Frank coming up to me and commenting he was way ahead of me. His bag had a big hump and mine only a little one. He went ashore to weigh in his fish. I just kept on spearing. I won the comp! I remember his shock – he called it cheating because I’d used the big bag and he thought he’d had more fish than me. He never beat me again. It is so hard to topple the top guy but once you do, that’s it. I never thought of myself as champion material but I did have physical and mental stamina for not giving up. You win because of that killer instinct of pushing yourself as hard as you can. Even though you’re not the best spearo, you can win with that stamina. In 1964 I lost that killer instinct. I’d given up shark killing. I’d lost that killer instinct and I suddenly found myself in fourth place in the Australian titles. Ron Taylor won that year.

DM: What depths were you working in those days?

BC: We used to dive 60-70 feet (20m). We were fairly fit. I used to do a little hyperventilation but stopped that quickly when I saw the world champion, a French guy die. Wally Gibbins (see issue #s 88, 89 and 96) nearly drowned from shallow water black-out during the world champs in Tahiti in 1965 so divers were getting the message loud and clear! We stopped hyperventilation. I limited myself to three deep breaths before a dive.

DM: Have you ever blown an eardrum?

BC: Yes I have. It’s not a big deal. It repaired itself quickly. A doctor recently videoed my ears, what a mangled mess after 55 years of diving! They looked like a war zone! I can’t clear them as easily as in those early years, but at 70 years, I guess that can be expected after all that diving!

The good news is I don’t have bone necrosis – which some old divers have, especially if they were into commercial diving requiring long periods underwater with the corresponding decompression.

DM: How was your first dive on scuba?

BC: A guy loaned me an Australian Porpoise Scuba set. There were no training schools back then, all he told me was to make sure I didn’t hold my breath coming up. I went out to Cook Island off Tweed Heads to shoot some film. Interestingly it was legal in those days to spear on scuba but we never did. For us, using scuba was for shooting film, blowing up wrecks or searching for something at depth. At Cook Island I eventually worked myself down to 40ft (12m) where I noticed I was getting low on air. The cylinder had two valves: one to turn the air on and the other to turn your reserve on when low on air. I forgot which was which and I turned my air off instead of the reserve on! Suddenly I’m down there with absolutely no air so I race to the surface. Luckily for me I breathed out all the way up! An air embolism is the easiest accident you can have. I’ve seen people seriously ill or die from it. How we all survived those early days is amazing!

DM: What started you on the path of hunting for shipwrecks?

BC: Initially I worked shipwrecks with Ron Cox and Frank Kirkham. We were blowing up little wrecks around Tweed Heads to get the copper and brass to sell off. That was how we treated shipwrecks. When I lived in Sydney in the early 1960s I started diving the old wrecks like the Dunbar but admittedly we were really plundering wrecks. I became far more fascinated in wrecks and started searching for undiscovered ones. Finding the Catherine Adamson in the Sydney Harbour and other shipwrecks up north were front page newspaper stories. I soon realized that shipwrecks were big news and seeing that I was in the business of making films and selling photos it made sense for me to search for shipwrecks. The most significant historical wreck that I found was the Pandora which was of huge archaeological significance. I found a heap of others: Matthew Flinder ships – he lost two ships. I guess I discovered around 100-150 shipwrecks. Initially I went there for the loot, the brass and the copper and any coins that may be on board the Dunbar. Eventually I couldn’t park my car in the garage because of all my loot. That’s when I decided I’d better do the right thing and display it in a museum. I finally found the ideal place, a crumbling shed on the wharf at Port Douglas in Northern Queensland! The shipwreck museum became my home for 20 years. It was a big success. I felt very good about it because taking relics off wrecks and hoarding them in your home is not good for history. Government regulations were brought in that virtually stopped you from recovering anything. For me it wasn’t too bad because I already had a museum full of relics!

The new regulations have taken the fun out of shipwrecks. I admit I’m a pirate, I’ve got an earring in my ear – on the heterosexual side I believe. I’m all for protecting important shipwrecks. I’m all for it because that’s our history. I’m not for protecting every ordinary shipwreck. You’ve got to have some fun. In Australia everything over 75 years is totally protected (New Zealand100 years). If you take anything it’s a crime. If you don’t report a shipwreck it’s a crime. You get slammed something like two years’ jail and $5,000 fine or whatever. I didn’t report lots of shipwrecks I found because I knew that once I’d reported them other people would pilfer them.

I’m sick of the bureaucracy in Australia. You can have a decent, honourable intent but you can still become a criminal by breaking some of their stupid little regulations. My interest in shipwrecks has never waned. It was my hobby, my work. I get huge satisfaction in finding them. My last film ‘Silent Warriors’ is about wartime wrecks. I also did ‘Search for the Mystery Bombers’ where I discovered World War II bombers that crashed into the ocean off Northern Australia. Everyone was killed so their whereabouts were unknown. These discovery films again made front page news. Whether it’s shipwrecks or war plane wrecks it’s still a big story because they’re telling an important part of our history. I’m now more interested in very old ships. I spend a lot of time up north looking for and finding 19th century (1800s-1850s) sailing ships. I’ve found 25 old shipwrecks on one trip. It’s getting harder and harder to find what’s left.

I’ve always dreamed of finding pre-history. I still believe that the Portuguese were the first to sail Australian shores. Maybe the Chinese, Egyptians, or Phoenicians, but definitely the Portuguese. I have nothing to really substantiate my dream of possibly finding a Portuguese wreck – a caravel would be amazing! I don’t believe the Spanish were here so no Spanish galleons.

DM: There have been rumours of a caravel in Victoria.

BC: I’m not sure about the mahogany ship. I think it will be a whaler or something like that. There is a canon that’s been found up north that has Santa Barbara 1596 on it. It was melted down. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find the wreck that it came from. My hope is to firmly ascertain by finding this shipwreck that the Portuguese were the first around Australia. Pre-history I love and I love the adrenaline of finding a shipwreck or a lost plane and being the first to dive it!

DM: Ben, with your love of shipwrecks you obviously met New Zealand’s shipwreck guru Kelly Tarlton and visited his shipwreck museum in the Bay of Islands. And I guess more recently Auckland’s leading tourist attraction Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World.

BC: We met before we both had our museums in the late 60s I think. It was after he found the Elingamite (January 1965) I remember he gave me some coins off it. In the 80s I went to New Zealand and stayed with him and Rosemary. He showed me his idea of the aquarium. At that stage I wasn’t too impressed with his idea of turning old sewerage storage tanks into a world class aquarium! But he did! We were equivalents. We were both mad keen on shipwrecks – we had a lot in common.

When the Australian television show ‘This is your life’ featured my life around 1980 they flew Kelly over as a guest. I was amazed and surprised to see him standing there! We talked about shipwrecks of course!

The presenter had a laugh at my expense by calling the show, This is your wives, because all three ex’s were sitting there hugging each other – all very pally – which they still are! So I must have done something right!

Part three next issue.

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