Historical Diving Society Australia members keeping vintage technology alive in SA – ABC News

Share this post on:

The prospect of putting your life in the hands of diving equipment that was in circulation during World War II would fill most people with fear.

But historic diving enthusiasts Steve Simmons and Jeff Maynard have complete trust in their antique gear.

Contrary to what many may think by looking at these suits, these enthusiasts say they are not only just as safe and practical as their modern counterparts, they also allow divers to stay underwater for “a long time”.

“They are still used today. People look and say, ‘Oh, the old copper helmets. When did you stop using them?’,” Mr Maynard said.

“We didn’t, we still use them. 

“I was talking to a gentleman from China and they actually make them in China and use them still. He was telling me they sell thousands each year to the Chinese navy.”

Two hands hold a large silver and copper diving helmet with several glass windows.

Copper helmets have mostly fallen out of fashion for divers.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

Weighing 80 kilograms in total, Mr Simmons’ replica Desco Mark V United States Navy deep sea diving rig was handspun from copper and tin and consists of lead boots, a weight belt and a helmet that has been in continuous production since 1942.

An authentic, hand-driven Siebe Gorman Air Pump from 1946 that was still in its original working condition completed the suit.

“Every opportunity we get, we dive, which is not a lot, maybe two or three times a year, but you can’t wait to dive in it again,” Mr Simmons said.

“It’s an amazing experience.”

A portrait of a man sitting down in a white canvas suit with copper embellishments and lead boots holding a historic helmet.

Steve Simmons is dressed by tenders at Edithburgh Jetty in SA.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

While modern scuba equipment like oxygen tanks and neoprene wetsuits may have made the canvas suit, lead boots and metal helmet redundant in the eyes of the general public, the hobbyists keep the relics in use.

“It’s probably a dying art. If people like us don’t keep it alive then it would disappear,” Mr Simmonds said.

A common interest

Three decades ago, a group of enthusiasts established the Historical Diving Society Australia — Pacific (HDAP).

Close-up of two hands wearing black gloves holding a copper bucket with the word DESCO and a picture of a helmet.

Some equipment can still be purchased, while some divers restore vintage gear.(ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

Inaugural member Jeff Maynard said people continued to be drawn to the “eccentric” practice.

“People are generally attracted to a form of nostalgia, I suppose, for the same reason people collect old clocks or old mementos in all sorts of fields,” he said.

“There’s just that lovely sense of being somehow linked to the past, to know that you’re doing to the sort of thing that people did 150 years ago.”

Every June, HDAP members congregate in Portland, Victoria, for their annual historic diving course.

Between six and 12 people will complete the formal course, while up to 50 gather to share their knowledge, gear and passion for the hobby.

An underwater photo of two divers wearing weighted belts, helmets and canvas suits with oxygen bubbles drifting up.

Historical Diving Society members underwater in their restored diving gear.(Supplied: Lisa Delpeoples)

No easy task 

Two “tenders” are required to dress each diver in a dense canvas suit, lead lace-up boots, copper helmet, belts and harnesses.

Oxygen is pumped into the helmet via an air hose, which subsequently inflates the canvas suit and causes it to float in the sea.

To counteract this, divers are strapped with more than 80 kilograms of weights to allow them to explore the ocean floor.

Old black and white striped oxygen tanks stand next to a metal bucket painted with the letters DESCO.

Divers have an air hose connecting their helmets to oxygen tanks at the surface. (ABC North and West: Isabella Carbone)

Unlike scuba diving where one wears goggles and a regulator mouthpiece, the historical helmet has wires feeding oxygen and communication lines to the diver, meaning they can breathe and talk normally.

“It’s different and restrictive in some ways, but it’s a much freer, interesting experience than others,” Mr Simmons said.

“Totally different from scuba diving.”

One modern adaptation that came from the technological advancements of the 20th century was the communication cable.

The device allows divers to speak into a microphone in the helmet and communicate with their tenders on land.

Previously, divers had to rely on a system of communication via pulling on their oxygen cable.

A black and white drawing of a large octopus with cartoonish eyes fighting with a historical deep sea diver holding a knife.

A 19th century illustration of a deep sea diver.(Supplied: Jeff Maynard)

Stuck in the past?

Mr Maynard says despite the hobby’s name, the equipment is not necessarily relegated as a outdated piece of equipment.

“[Standard dress diving] is still practical today and there are many manufacturers around the world that are still making all the equipment,” he said.

“We call it historical diving because it looks like that, but it hasn’t really gone out of fashion in many ways.”

Posted , updated 

Share this post on: