|DO YOU REMEMBER THE FILMS AND DOCUMENTARIES OF THE 1960S, depicting adventurous aqualunged types walking out of the water onto perfect beaches? As a child, did you ever imagine that you were that diver and wish that your holidays would take you to the beaches where James Bond could emerge from the ocean or Cousteau's ship might sail by? |
Forty years on, we're used to flying around the world in less than a day to stay at purpose-built dive resorts and on liveaboards where all our diving needs are catered for.
Thousands of divers across the world have become accustomed to and indeed demand the structured and mechanistic approach to diving holidays.
It doesn't matter where you are, the way you are herded onto dive boats and taken on a tour-guided safari park experience is both standard and routine. But was it always like this?
To find out what came before, particularly in the 60s, I dug out old copies of Diver (originally called Triton) and talked to veteran divers Kendall McDonald and Reg Vallintine (who ran successful overseas diving schools in the 60s) to find out if the reality of this era differed from what appeared in print (surely not).
I was after the essence of 60s diving holidays. As Kendall says: These were rough and ready times!
Why was that far-off decade so rough and ready? In 1965 Triton published, for the first time, a guide to diving holidays where the different types were categorised depending on the divers needs. The first category may have said more about this era than it intended, as it described how this type of holiday was aimed at the diver with a family, whose wife may be a non-diver.
As I flicked through the rest of the magazines, it struck me how male-orientated the diving holiday industry seemed. Very little was written about women enjoying a diving holiday and the only pictures seemed to depict them as either water ski-ing or climbing, Ursula Andress-like, out of the water - in all cases, wearing a bikini that was as revealing as the 60s would allow.
But was this male-orientated diving holiday culture an accurate depiction? Reg described diving holidays as sometimes difficult for girls, although there were some characters who managed to run small diving resorts in Spain, among them Rowena Kerr, a favourite among many divers.
However, most diving instructors who ran the small resorts across the Mediterranean appeared to be men, often from the UK, their motivation for leaving the country to set up a school being girls and diving in paradise!
Getting out to the small diving operations in France, Italy and Spain seemed to present some familiar problems. The choice was between air and train, and although the flights didn't seem to run as regularly, the airlines still seemed keen to get diving business, with British European Airways (BAs predecessor) extolling the virtues of their flights for divers in its advertising.
However, getting your diving gear out to the resort seemed as problematic then as it is now, with the magazines commenting frequently about the inadequacy of the 20kg weight limit.
The rail option seemed to be the favourite with those who went on Club Mediterranée diving holidays. They were promised vacances incomparables. Kendall explained why these rail trips were so popular: They ran special trains from Paris, but these were real party trains, lots of drinking and the use of the guards van for dancing. Vacances incomparables indeed!
If party trains weren't to your liking and you still wanted to get all your gear out to the resort, you could do what a group of enterprising 60s BSAC divers did - they chartered three planes to carry their party and equipment for a diving holiday on the Isle of Man. Can you imagine any club doing that now
By all accounts, taking your own gear was a wise decision, as the dive centres would supply gear but only if you weren't too fussy, said Kendall. You often didn't know what you would find, a compressor held together with bits of string, demand valves where you had to roll over on your side to clear the water, and sometimes a trip to the local fire station to get an air-fill.
Not quite the standards we expect today but, as Reg put it, we didn't have all the regulations to suffer from then.
Much of the diving was shore-based. Reg described how one centre in Lanzarote ran all its dives from the shore and from the same spot. If you went one way you would hit a reef, if you went another, a drop-off. It was all so new that it kept most people amused for a week!
There was, however, a fringe benefit to what Kendall described as wading for hundreds of yards across waist-deep water to reach the dive site. It was all so new that within seconds you would have crowds around you admiring your heroism.
Perhaps by todays standards the holiday divers of the 60s were heroes, or perhaps they were just lucky. With the lack of regulated and structured training programmes, how deep you went often depended on whether your instructor thought you were up to it.
One early article about diving at Club Mediterranée describing how after a lecture on the use of the aqualung you would dive to 12m, followed by a deeper dive so that by the end of the week you were down to 35m.
If you were exceptional, you would be expected to exceed 40m. Kendall agreed that this sort of extreme try-diving was fairly commonplace. It was quite horrifying, beginners on their second or third dives at 100ft, and this was at the more successful and professional diving schools.
One aspect of diving holidays that has pretty much disappeared is the sport of spearfishing. Back in the 60s this was one of the motivations for a diving holiday, as pushed in some of the ads.
Kendall told me how these were tricky times for this sport as the Spanish diving organisations brought in a ban on using a speargun with an aqualung, which caused quite a lot of rage among divers. Together with the articles containing accounts of how the divers brought up corals and shells to take home as souvenirs, this is a clear indication of how our values towards the environment while on holiday have changed.
Spearguns were not used only for sport, however. In one of the first BSAC expeditions to the Red Sea, they were also used to hunt food for the divers and bait for the shark cage! The speargun was also held in high esteem as a method of protection, although it seems that divers didnt really know from what they were protecting themselves.
In a 1964 Triton article on what was hailed as the latest idea originating in Jamaica - night-diving - the speargun was described as a means of reassurance. Against what was not made clear, but when one considers that up to that time diving in the dark in tropical waters had been considered, tantamount to suicide, its understandable that the addition of a speargun to your kit should be regarded as a wise precaution.
During the 60s many dive operations across the Mediterranean started to use boats to access fresh dive sites. Reg Vallintine described his first boat as an old ships lifeboat from a US Liberty ship. Others came from a hotch-potch of sources, including an old landing craft that was by all accounts the first Sharm dive boat, and small boats jury-rigged for two- or three-day bivouac expeditions.
Kendall recounted how fishing boats, hired for the period between the nights sardine-fishing and the skippers afternoon siesta, were also used. The skippers helped to find new diving locations: They knew a lot about where the deep water and drop-offs were.
He recalled how the local fishermen would get quite excited by the pottery and other artefacts brought up off the wrecks onto which the divers were dropped. This was an exciting period - we were diving on sites for the first time, and there was so much to discover.
This aspect of diving was born out by numerous articles describing how in the Mediterranean Greek and Carthaginian amphorae together with other artefacts were often discovered and brought to the surface. An article on diving in Sweden from a 1964 Triton described the elation felt by the writer at discovering a wreck and bringing up its 17th century cargo, pottery and fittings.
Underwater archaeologists of today may be horrified by the idea of such underwater vandalism but several of these pioneering holidaymakers went on to become the underwater historians and archaeologists of today.
During the 1960s an overseas diving trip to the Mediterranean was considered to be the height of adventure, but a trip to the Red Sea was viewed as true exploration. Kendall described how he had been asked by one of the early diving holiday pioneers if he wanted to see sharks in the Red Sea.
I didn't really but went anyway. It was astounding... for the first parties of British divers it really was something, a safari in Land Rovers and sleeping on beaches. However, the whole area around Eilat still bore the scars of war, and as you drove along the roads you would see soldiers looking for signs of enemy incursions. It was pioneering stuff.
The risks of diving in and around the Red Sea were born out by a 1965 Triton article describing a BSAC expedition to the Tiran Islands.
The group arrived a week late, found islands and reefs where the charts indicated there were none; dived sites never seen before and were thrown into jail in Hurghada by the authorities. But to the divers on these trips the risks were worth it - they werent just holiday-makers, they were explorers.
As I read and hear about the diving holidays of the 60s, there's a part of me that wishes I'd been born a couple of decades earlier.
Is the highly polished resort-diving that typifies diving across the world all that I can now expect Exploration has become the domain of the technical diver as the world's new and undiscovered dive sites become increasingly elusive.
A 1965 Triton carried an advert that struck me as summing this era up, with the diver in the picture looking like an extra from a film-set and the caption explaining how James Bond types dive to adventure with the Club Mediterranée. Is this what we dream of
If it is, then this was the 60s - the rough and ready times remaining a memory recorded in the pages of Triton and the early Diver.
|Diving could be difficult for girls but there was always a man to help out and a handy piece of underwater scenery to perch on |
|Reg Vallintine climbs aboard |
|Environmental awareness had some way to go. Divers who ventured further afield than the Med to admire the coral were also quite likely to use it as a handy stabilising device |