Part 1 – An introduction

A Snapshot of

New Zealand Diving History

To attempt to cover New Zealand’s diving history over four pages of this magazine is an impossibility. With the end of the century approaching it was felt that we should try, in some small way, to commemorate our historical diving past. My thanks to veteran diver and author Wade Doak for his support and suggestion of going through old NZ Dive magazines and ing items of interest. This proved an enormous task and I apologise if I have missed – which I am sure I have – some very important events in our history. A book needs to be written!

To Keith Gordon, my special thanks. Keith (a regular contributor to the magazine) comes from that hard core bunch of Canterbury divers who have contributed so much to our diving history since the early1950’s. Keith’s enthusiasm and support never waned. Thanks. Dave Moran, Editor

Please Note: Because of tight editorial space, all articles have been heavily cut.

Deep beginnings

by Keith Gordon

Sport diving gained popularity in New Zealand during the early 50’s. The arrival of basic diving equipment provided the means to see underwater and discover the fascinating marine life around our coasts. Initially there were few sets of scuba available and limited cylinder filling facilities. Diving books by Hans Hass and Jacques Cousteau inspired a large interest. Prior to this, skin-diving was conducted by individuals who had returned from overseas with basic equipment, or by a few inspired souls seeking adventure with home made equipment.

Little was known of diving physiology and the dangers of subjecting the human body to pressures of the depths. The sport developed in an isolated manner due to difficulties with communication, and travel restricted contact between diving groups. This was reflected by the equipment and techniques which were mainly developed to suit local conditions, the main emphasis in those days being spearfishing. In the north with clear open water, the favoured speargun was the French-style rubber arbalete, while in the limited visibility and kelp of the south divers preferred the short barrelled Italian spring gun.

With the inauguration of diving clubs around the country, Whangarei and Wellington 1951, Auckland 1952, Canterbury 1953, a national organisation, Underwater Research and Spearfishing Association, was established to which most clubs became affiliated. This organisation later became the NZUA (NZ Underwater Association) and with AGM’s held around the country, divers had the opportunity to communicate and exchange ideas on diving technology.

Initially diving knowledge was gained from books, or from a few individuals who had experience overseas. Clubs initiated their own training programmes, and in 1963 the NZUA published the ‘Instructors Guide and Training Breakdown’. A programme was instigated for testing club instructors with an NZUA instructors license issued to those who passed. National certification was later introduced by the NZUA and being equivalent to CMAS (the internationally recognised diving organisation based in France: Confederation Mondiale Des Activites Subaquatiques – World Underwater Federation) certification, provided divers with an internationally recognised qualification card.

Initially spearfishing using snorkel techniques was the main activity as the cost of breathing equipment was prohibitive, and the lack of filling facilities created difficulties. A number of divers experimented with making regulators to use with surplus aircraft or fire extinguisher cylinders. The more successful regulators were developed by Fred Lennard in Auckland, Joe Tomlin in Wellington and Jim White in Christchurch. Many a divers first experience of freedom in breathing underwater was with a locally developed ‘homemade’ breathing system. The first commercial units on the New Zealand market included Siebe Gorman Essgee Aqualung, Draeger and, from Australia, the Porpoise. Retailers did not offer training and the majority were ignorant on the use of this equipment or offered erroneous advice. Even Cressi oxygen rebreathers were sold across the counter, their use by some divers causing debate on the virtues and failings of either system. Pressure contents gauges were not yet developed and a technique for reserve was to use two cylinders coupled, breathing from one cylinder and decanting from the other as breathing became more difficult.

The design of early regulators resulted in harder breathing as air pressure dropped, signalling it was time to surface. As the diver ascended, breathing would become easier. In the mid 50’s the Atlas lung came on the market followed by the Heco lung, both manufactured in Auckland. Continuing regulator developments included, venturi action and balanced breathing enabling a diver to practically breathe a cylinder empty and the ‘J’ reserve valve was introduced to give some element of safety. Unfortunately, this valve could inadvertently be knocked onto reserve mode, causing some concern to a diver when attempting to switch to reserve. One manufacturer produced a sonic alert that would sound when air pressure dropped to a set point.

The arrival of pressure contents gauges in the late 60’s was a milestone enabling a diver to plan the dive with a safety factor. Early depth gauges were primitive in design and depth readings would often differ between gauges, sometimes by a considerable amount. For protection in our cold waters, early divers came up with a range of fashions to prolong their diving time. Layers of jerseys and long john underwear, sometimes impregnated with latex compound, did little to enhance the image of macho divers. An incredulous public would look on as these magnificent adventurers, festooned with weird protuberances and armed with primitive weapons, entered the sea to do battle with monsters from the deep. Later, more amazement as the intrepid diver emerged from the briny with a stringer of fish or a sugar sack of crayfish whereupon, shivering and near to hypothermia, he related his adventures to the admiring throng.

Homemade dry suits improved the battle against the cold, but the cut and curing of the raw rubber would often result in ones crutch hanging around ones knees, or a choking tight crutch would turn one blue even before entering the water. The first dry suits on the market were what we now term membrane suits, manufactured by Pirelli and Seibe Gorman and were worn over an assortment of woollen clothing. Used for spearfishing, these suits were prone to puncture by fish fins, crays or on rocks, and part of a divers kit often included a Cure-C-Cure kit, carried with matches, in a water proof container. Repairs were carried out off shore with the diver perched on a rock before continuing with the hunt.

For deeper dives suit squeeze presented some discomfort and a small cylinder of air was sometimes carried by divers inside their suit. A valve mechanism could be operated to relieve squeeze. The arrival of French foam neoprene suits in the late 50’s overcame these problems, and the wet suit dominated until the recent revival of new technology dry suits.

In the late 50’s, individuals returned following visits to nearby South Pacific Islands with tales of clear warm waters and an abundance of large fish. Peter Spurdle and Clive Reid reported on conditions in New Caledonia and Clive Mudgeway told of his experiences in Tahiti. A number of Canterbury divers, tired of restricted water conditions in the south, organised a series of expeditions to tropical waters. Although orientated towards spearfishing, underwater photography was also to be a major interest. Equipment was developed for these ventures and sponsorship provided by overseas manufacturers. The media followed expedition preparations with interest as the public was still under the impression that diving in tropical waters would result in being gobbled up by sharks.

Diving displays in a perspex fronted tank at public shows to raise funds, attracted large numbers of the public curious to see humans actually breathing underwater. Stunts such as drinking from a bottle or eating an apple while demonstrating weightlessness were all consumed with awe by a gullible public exposed to diver showmanship.

Prior to departure of the first expedition in 1959, the NZUA organised the first national divers convention in the Marlborough Sounds. This was attended by divers from many areas of the country and a number of life long friendships were made. Although the main emphasis was still spearfishing, scuba dives were on the programme resulting in dives to new depths. Kelly Tarlton, in preparation for his expedition to the Hermit Islands, established a national free diving record to 80ft. The expeditions in 1959 to the Hermits and New Caledonia resulted in films and magazine features with photos of the underwater wonders to be found in tropical waters. These were followed by increasing visits by New Zealand divers to tropical waters during the 60’s which steadily grew over the years resulting in the establishment of the many diving resorts we have today.

In 1957, the Auckland Underwater Club commenced publishing the magazine Underwater edited by David and Russell Lynch, supported by divers nationwide it became a national publication in 1958, but ceased publication soon after. The Canterbury Underwater Club followed with publication of Dive underwater magazine in 1959, later taken over by Wade Doak who continued publication for a number of years under the banner Dive South Pacific. This magazine provided a platform for ideas and developments for diving techniques. Articles on diving different venues around our coastline encouraged divers to travel the country seeking new adventures. A number of southern divers had settled in Northland joining an active diving fraternity in diving conditions considered to be the countries best.

Articles published in Dive on diving the Poor Knights Islands soon attracted divers from all over the country, resulting in the establishment of dive charter boats to cater for the increasing numbers of visiting divers. With the growth of the sport, dedicated dive shops were established. The first Sportways ‘Divers Den’, opened in 1963 and was owned by diver Clive Reid. It became a popular destination for divers visiting Auckland. As the number of dive shops increased, NZUA diver training and certification was taken over from clubs by the dive shops who had established training facilities and employed qualified instructors.

In 1978 NZUA signed a contract with PADI for their commercially orientated diver certification programme. In 1965, New Zealand’s first representative team competed in the World Spearfishing Championships held in Tahiti. The later 60’s and 70’s were years of growth. Developments in underwater photographic equipment, especially the arrival in 1963 of the Calypsophot, followed by the Nikonos, created a big interest in underwater photography. This resulted in divers spending more time studying marine life and capturing underwater scenes and images on film. The ‘Oceans’ conferences presented international guest speakers who related their adventures and created diver interest into new areas of exploration and underwater photography.

Diving accidents highlighted the need to understand the physiological factors of diving as divers pushed ever deeper. Years of spearfishing and snorkelling had given many divers an understanding of how to cope with the new environment. However little was understood on the dangers of diving into increasing pressures of depth. As divers started diving deeper the old saying of ‘you can’t get bent on a single 70 cu ft cylinder’ was found to be a fallacy. A diver seldom planned how deep or how long he was going to dive and it was not until after the dive when checking the US Navy tables, or the odd twinge developed in finger joints, was it realised how far the tables had been pushed. The use of pressure contents gauges improved the situation with planning for diving deep, and the arrival of SOS decompression meters in 1965 went a long way in preventing accidents. Later tests gave some misgivings on placing full confidence on the DCP for prevention of the bends.

In the early 70’s a spate of bends incidents, some fatal, was found in a number of cases to be caused by divers becoming complacent and ignoring the rules with diving deep to spear fish. At the 1971 Mayor Island Mini Convention there were three cases of the bends, one fatal, resulting in a lot of soul searching including Dive magazine featuring a forum series of articles highlighting DCI ( decompression illness) problems and their prevention.

In 1973 New Zealand’s first all scuba convention was held at the Poor Knights with 50 divers attending. It is notable that this convention completely banned spearfishing using scuba equipment and an emphasis was placed on enjoyment of the great range of marine life the Poor Knights offered. Another development of note was the buoyancy compensator, developed locally in 1964 from a Spanish idea featured in a diving magazine. The horse collar compensator, at first a home made accessory and then manufactured by Sportways, became a major piece of equipment which has developed into the sophisticated, expensive systems available today. During these formative years spearfishing was the catalyst that lured many divers beneath the waves. Myths and legends were dispelled as these divers came face to face with creatures of the deep.

Survival skills in a new environment were acquired with divers striving to reach greater depths in the quest of larger fish. It was a sport that appealed to the adventurous and attracted a colourful bunch of characters whose deeds and ventures, both below and above water, are still related today. The skills learned from their spearfishing days became a spring board for exploring the underwater world and many transformed interests from hunting fish to scientific or artistic pursuits. To relate a full history of these early diving years would require a book and is far beyond a magazine article of this type. Many of these stories have been related in early publications such as Underwater; Dive Underwater; Dive South Pacific; NZ Dive; NZ Underwater; Dive Log NZ and Dive New Zealand. Some are retold in this commemorative issue in remembrance of fifty years of diving history.

scroll to top