HAVE you ever bitterly regretted something you haven't done?
In my case, it was a failure at the last minute to include a story in a book about an incredible Hunter pioneer of the deep, the late George Davies, of New Lambton.
He was supposed to feature in my book, Past Port, involving tales of the Port Stephens area. Yet inexplicably, in the rush to publication, his contribution was somehow overlooked.
Today I hope to rectify that error. This then, is the story of the 'one that got away', where I'll briefly outline the life of a remarkable Hunter individual.
His story rivals the others in Past Port - now almost sold out - which proves history is stranger than fiction. That's saying something when you consider that other subjects include the almost forgotten shark hunters of Pindimar in the late 1920s, a WWII submarine buried under beach sand, the Baroness of Tanilba Bay and the extraordinary aviation saga behind the naming of Halifax Park at Little Beach, to name a few.
George Davies BEM, a champion spearfisherman and one of the pioneers of diving locally, has rightly been described the "father of spearfishing in Australia". His lifelong passion for the sport was awakened on reading an article in Popular Science magazine in 1939 about the Mediterranean. The story was headed "Human submarine shoots fish with arrows" and he was hooked.
George, or to give him his full name, Athol Bryan ('George') Davies, passed away in June 2019 aged 96. He left the sport an enviable legacy.
Along the way, despite having several brushes underwater with death, he became a conservationist. In particular, he turned his attention to protecting and preserving giant gropers, which he said had an undeserved reputation from misguided divers.
He also tried for about 30 years to save the much maligned, and now endangered, grey nurse. As he told me in 2013: "In the early days I was diving, in the 1940s and 1950s, these sharks because of their fearsome appearance, with all those needle teeth, got an undeserved, evil reputation with divers, in the press and on film as 'man eaters'.
"We didn't understand that not all sharks meant harm to us. By the 1960s I became angry these grey nurse sharks were being killed off. There was no thought of conservation at this time."
Mind you, he also had great respect for whaler sharks and great white pointers. One time in the depths of Bird Island, off the Central Coast, while he was free diving, a great white silently cruised up behind him just after he'd speared an 11-kilo fish. The shark zoomed in as George was retrieving his line. It opened its huge jaws above him to gulp down the fish whole.
He said other divers would voluntarily surrender their catches when in water notorious for prowling sharks to avoid confrontations. Sometimes, however, top divers who should have known better would stuff their fish catches into bags attached to their waists. On one occasion though, a horrified free diver saw a whaler shark glide by, devouring both fish and bag.
Another time, while spearfishing off Broughton Island, a fellow spearfisherman clambered aboard his rowboat with his speargun all mashed up. The diver told George that a whaler shark had attacked him without reason.
"When he tried to fend it off, the shark took his speargun in his mouth and shook the hell out of it," George said.
"Then curious me, silly George, got into the water for a quick look.
"As I did, this black mass suddenly came hurtling at me from below at 100 miles an hour. I pulled my speargun trigger at point-blank range and it shuddered.
"The spear passed directly through the shark's head between the eyes. Its jaws snapped shut, it rolled over and took off. That was one very crazy shark."
Speaking of spearguns, George and his younger brother, Trevor, worked long into many nights perfecting a rachet-loading pneumatic speargun, which they named the "Aquamatic". A compressed air gun was also made between 1947-49.
Knowing about Frenchman Jacques Cousteau's 1943 aqualung tank, the brothers set about designing their own self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (or scuba), one of the first made in Australia.
With material shortages after WWII, there was nothing available for underwater enthusiasts, so George and Trevor designed homemade equipment. They scrounged everywhere. They made face masks from pieces of oval glass and rubber mouthpieces from off-cuts from a car tyre factory.
"We moulded them in a hydraulic press made from the landing gear of a wartime Wirraway aircraft salvaged from an RAAF target range on the beach at Morna Point, in Port Stephens," George said.
"There might have been at least 10 discarded aircraft up there, maybe more. We were always a bit frightened. It was supposed to be a strafing area.
"We crammed as many of the aluminium propeller blades as we could into an old car and brought them back to Newcastle to melt down in a 44-gallon drum on a log fire in the backyard."
Unable to find any high-pressure air cylinders for scuba diving, they made one using simple steel tubing.
Soon after, they made improved air tanks (later banned) using wire-bound oxygen bottles from wartime bombers and army disposal stores.
George said they began testing their homemade units with other divers at Seal Rocks in 1949. Their weight belts were recycled army belts, which originally had lead bolted onto them.
"We built our (original eight prototype) aqualungs from various bits and pieces and I learned 60 years later at least one of them, saved in a museum, was still working," George said proudly.
So, that's the story. For the record, George Davies was a founding member of the Newcastle Neptunes Underwater Club, said to be the oldest and largest spearfishing club in Australia.
He also was the club's secretary/treasurer for 55 years and was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) in 1979 for his "exceptional contribution to the sport", including protecting the marine environment.
George also ran the Australian Pacific Coast Spearfishing Championship for 50 years which he said raised more than $105,000 for charities, including the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service.
He's still greatly missed.
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