Journal archives for November 2018

November 13, 2018

Ken Flanagan- Member profile

If you watch any movie made in the 1950’s about air force pilots, you will inevitably hear the line, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. There are no old, bold pilots”. While this sounds like a bit of lazy screen writing, it does accurately reflect what the world was like in the early days of some risky activities such as flying, and diving. It would be hard for those starting either activity today to envision a world without clear sets of rules, certifications, policies, procedures, protocols, logs, manuals and computers covering almost every possible underwater/airborne situation. Years ago, this was the reality of all divers who learned their skills prior to certification programs. Compared to many of us old-timers, today’s newly-minted sport divers are extremely well educated in the science, physiology and physics of the sport/profession. That said, today’s divers may not realise how all that knowledge was gained to fill those manuals and computers. The information was developed by the less educated, but more experienced divers who came before them. In those early days we learned by trial and error and, and if we survived the errors, we shared our experiences with others through oral advice which at the time, we called “true stories”.
Talking with Flanagan, is a reminder of those earlier days. He generously is willing to share his experiences in the early days of the profession. While project participants may know Ken as he occupies place #8 on the project leader board with 1,388 observations. That’s an impressive total and is even more impressive when you learn that he came very late to the practice of capturing underwater images, not starting until he’d retired from a career as a professional commercial diver.
Ken now lives near a place called Green Point, in Brighton, Vic. He recalls years ago, on one nice summer day, he grabbed an old mask and fins and had a look around his local underwater area. He was amazed at what he found, so many fish, eagle rays, stingarees and of course his beloved seahorses which captivated him almost instantly. The next step was to buy a little digital camera and to start taking a couple of photos. Soon after sharing his images, he was a little surprised to discover that people said they liked the photos, but fortunately for us and the project, he reports that he became a bit obsessed with this new hobby and would go everyday weather permitted and he ended up with thousands of photos. Apart from putting them in Australasian Fishes & iSeahorse, he has done a couple of books that he gives away to local schools, councils and to interested people so other people who can’t get in water can seem how wonderful his former workplace is.
Ken grew up in Sydney where he first learned to dive as a 20 year old. At the time he was in the Police Force where he heard the Diving Unit paid more money so one morning he found himself at the Water Police Facility at Dawes Point. Ken said what followed was the most miserable 8 weeks of his life. He was issued and old jumper and jeans, told that would be their diving attire for the 8 weeks. In the beginning his class was taken on a run to Pyrmont then told to jump in the harbour and swim back to Dawes Point, with fins. This would be the start to everyday. Ken confessed, at that time he was a shocking swimmer, but with fins he was OK. Shortly afterwards they were issued a facemask, with the twist that the glass was replaced by plywood. The explanation was that most of the diving would be in terrible visibility so we might as well get used to it. They were instructed in the use of a set of twin 40 Siebe Gorman tanks & Mistral demand valve (you know, the old twin hoses). His first encounter with marine life was getting zapped by an electric ray (obviously he never saw it), in Balmoral baths which was where first dives took place. The instructors knew you’d get zapped, but wanted to see what students would do and used the experience to cull anyone the instructors thought weren’t up to it. The instructors were all ex-Navy divers, so the training was unconventional. Most days were spent at Dawes Point performing tasks, often using a hookah, which meant the instructors could sit up top & turn your air off for periods of time. Other options had them throw flares down near you, or to come down and rip your mask off & give you a few punches & kicks hoping you'd freak out & head for the surface, definite cull material.
Typical training included responding to the signals on the line attached to you (2 tugs go right, 3 tugs go left, etc.). Another job was cutting a piece off a section of railway line placed on the bottom with a hacksaw, the only problem was you got given one hacksaw blade & that was it. If you broke it you were out. They dove all over the harbour where depended on the instructors whim as where would be the most unpleasant. Ken once managed to run out of air on the bottom near Shark Island but made it to the surface. He thought this was going to be a course ender but no. You can imagine the course had a high failure rate and of Ken’s initial class of 20, only he and one other graduated as “certified” Police divers with a career in such exotic locations as the Bondi sewer outfall, Leyland motors effluent pond, the Gap, several flooded rivers all over N.S.W including the Mitchell River (the worst on Northern N.S.W.) and, of course, in the Harbour. By the way, he learned the extra money definitely wasn’t worth it!
Still associating money with diving, Ken worked on his days off with a local contractor, cleaning oil tanker hulls in Botany Bay, with a garden spade with a hole cut in the middle of the blade to reduce the drag. He did jobs in the Parramatta River, installed the first boat mooring pontoon at the Opera House and installed sea baths at Brighton-le-sands.
Finally he inquired about working on oil platforms and eventually took holidays from the Police and proceeded to show his talents on a drill ship in the Great Australian Bight. As typical in those days, they gave him a job even though he hadn’t done any of that type of diving before. Commercial diving training was strictly on the job, which was sometimes a bit traumatic but he got to meet a lot of very interesting people, ex-SAS after the Vietnam War, Yanks, and New Zealanders etc. No one had any documented qualifications but they managed to get by from learning off older more experienced blokes on the crew. A far cry from today. Ken worked in Western Australia, Singapore, India, Malaysia, Borneo, New Zealand on many & varied Platforms, drill ships, semi-subs., jack-ups & barges. He did all types of diving including deep mixed gas with his deepest dive to 603 ft. and air with a dive to 230ft. He reports he’s done some incredibly hairy dives and came back to Australia after years overseas getting a job with Esso Australia as their Co-ordinator of diving operations in Bass Strait. That’s where he stayed until retirement. Diving as a career and learning the ropes, the old fashion way. Perhaps more than a little bold.
Fortunately for Australasian fishes, Ken now spends his underwater time with a camera. His scuba and hookah now sit on the shelf, as he takes all his photos just breathe hold diving. He says, “If I never put on a set of tanks again I'll be happy.”
He is willing to give advice to project participants, however, he feels the best advice is to try to get to sites where you choose to take photos more than once. It helps to get to know the marine life there, and to spend time just “hanging out” to see what types of fish occupy the area and how they use the landscape. When Ken sees something he wants to photograph, he’ll just lay on the surface and watch his subject for a while. Once he works out where he thinks the fish will be for the best picture, he dives down a little away from it, grabs onto something to steady himself, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, waiting for a good shot. He feels the more times you can go back to a site you get to notice how territorial fish are, the more they get to know you and the easier the photo taking gets. In his experience eagle rays and stingarees are generally easier as they tend to be more inquisitive and relaxed than the fish. If you look at the breadth of Ken’s work, you will quickly discover his favourites though are seahorses. He finds great a joy to discover them during his diving. They are very photogenic and obliging. Like many projects participants he greatly enjoys putting up an observation and waiting for the interaction with the other citizen scientists like Sascha, Mark, Clinton & Henrick to name a few, waiting to see if they will either agree or not with his description of the observation. Like many of us he greatly values and looks forward to their comments.
Also, like many who are active in the project, Ken gets great deal of pleasure from doing this, taking photos and submitting them on Australasian Fishes & iSeahorse. It gives a type of feeling of reward that he didn’t get from all his previous years of diving. Like many of us, he feels like he’s contributing to something very worthwhile. I can only strongly echo his views.
His favourite camera is the Olympus TG-4 as it is easy to use, needs no housing (for his needs anyway). He feels they give a great quality picture and has a good size screen for composition. He is currently on hiatus from his project work but hopes to be back in the water soon. We look forward to his ongoing contributions.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member Harry Rosenthal.
Posted on November 13, 2018 02:59 by markmcg markmcg | 5 comments | Leave a comment