Blessed with the pioneering spirit of a true adventurer, Bob Halstead’s many articles, books and underwater photographs have been instrumental in positioning Papua New Guinea as one of the world’s top diving destinations.
Raised and educated in England, he taught science and maths for two years before fleeing the English weather for a teaching job in the Bahamas where, in 1968, he learned to dive. Buying a small boat, he quickly became involved in scuba diving and taking underwater pictures.
A life-changing experience that ultimately led him to the other side of the world, he established Papua New Guinea’s first full-time dive school and dive tour business. Achieving international recognition for quality diving experiences, his purpose-built, ‘Telita’ – a vessel that, in 1992, was awarded the title of, “Best Live Aboard Dive Boat in The World” – became the benchmark standard by which other liveaboards have since been judged.
Selling the business in Papua New Guinea a few years ago in order to set up base in Cairns, (a move that allowed Bob an opportunity to concentrate on writing several books that had been nagging at him for some while), he put his unique knowledge of Papua New Guinea’s extraordinary dive sites and marine life to good effect by regularly leading special group tours to those exotic waters aboard the beautiful, ‘Golden Dawn’ and the original, ‘Telita’ – which has recently undergone an extensive refit to again make her one of the world’s best dive boats.
A person with wide-ranging abilities and interests, Bob Halstead is very much a ‘renaissance man’. An accomplished underwater photographer whose images have won many international awards, (including, ‘Australasian Underwater Photographer of the Year’) he combines the curiosity that is the defining quality of all exploration divers with the keen wit and good humour of a free-thinking satirist; qualities that regularly manifest themselves in his thought-provoking observations about every aspect of diving.
Q. What sparked your interest in diving?
When I first went to the Bahamas, a new friend showed me the basics of Scuba diving in a swimming pool. I am basically big and clumsy – but underwater I felt totally at ease and graceful. I took a NAUI course, and a couple of years later, in 1970 at Freeport, on Grand Bahama Island, became a NAUI Instructor. It remains my proudest qualification.
I remember that our team was among the first to use buoyancy vests, (remarkably similar to those that are used in aircraft.) and submersible pressure gauges. At that time I was shooting with a Nikonos 2 camera with a 28 mm lens and a now out-dated underwater bulb flash.
Together with a friend, David Andrews – another NAUI instructor – I dived the deep drop-offs near Nassau, where I saw my first hammerhead shark. It was then that I realised that I wanted to devote my life to diving.
Q. What took you to Papua New Guinea?
On completion of my three-year teaching contract in the Bahamas, I cast around for other jobs in the Caribbean that I could hopefully combine with diving. I went back to England thinking that I was to return to the Turks and Caicos Islands as fisheries officer, but when that job fell through I immediately began applying for teaching jobs in other parts of the world. By far the most exciting being the chance to become an Australian citizen and go to the – then -Territory of Papua and New Guinea as an Australian Education Officer.
I asked for a coastal posting and serendipity sent me to Alotau, in Milne Bay, a place that boasts some of the world’s best diving and that, in those days, was still largely unexplored. I soon bought a boat and spent all of my spare time diving before starting a full time diving school and dive tour business, based in Port Moresby, and running seasonal camp and dive tours to Milne Bay in our boat, ‘Solatai’.
The first of these trips was in 1979, and I soon realised that we needed a larger live aboard vessel. It was then that ‘Telita’ was built, a vessel that we’ve since cruised throughout all of PNG’s magnificent waters.
Q. Who were the people that most influenced your approach to diving?
I had seen the Television programs of the wonderful underwater adventures of Hans and Lotte Hass and they became my first inspiration. But I was stunned by the abilities of two great NAUI Instructors who taught at my Instructor course, Dave Woodward and Walt Hendricks senior. Both of these guys had such great technique and control in the water that I set out to emulate them.
Since then I have been fortunate enough to dive with most of the world’s great divers, but at the very top of that list would be Valerie Taylor and Dr. Eugenie Clark, both of whom have also become close friends – I love them dearly. They are both extraordinary and beautiful people, but are also so generous with their knowledge that I could never repay what I have learned from them.
Q. What were your first impressions of the diving in Papua New Guinea?
I knew very little about Papua New Guinea when I first arrived – other than that it was in the Tropical Pacific and that it sounded like Paradise. And it is.
Compared with the diving in the Bahamas the notable difference in PNG was that every dive attracted hordes of sharks. We quickly had to learn whether or not they posed a real menace, and if so, what would we do about it? For the most part, of course, the shark threat was non-existent.
Now we miss the sharks. They are not only more rare, but have become so used to divers that they do not always bother to check us out.
Q. What changes have you witnessed in liveaboard diving – both in PNG And elsewhere in the region?
When we built ‘Telita’, we virtually had PNG live-aboard diving to ourselves. Today there are at least ten resident live-aboard vessels operating in the country, together with several others that visit each year. Most have found their own particular niche and opened up new dive territories. What disappointed us, however, was that one operator chose to copy everything that we did and managed to compromise our dive sites.
Now it is pretty much a free for all, and although there are excellent mooring programs no single operator has the authority to act as a guardian to a reef and thus protect it. Our idea was not to prevent boats from going to a site, but rather to have one operator assume a guardianship role for particular dive sites, and that other boats could then work through. It could have happened – but now it’s probably too late.
But I do have to say that, in general, the reefs in PNG are still in excellent condition. Some are as good as they have ever been, and there are others that have still not yet seen a diver.
Reefs are dynamic, they’re not monuments. They change. But we do hope that the changes that are wrought to them are caused by nature and not by people – and certainly not by divers.
Q. Has recreational diving become too introspective and insular? i.e. Could it be doing more to align itself with the global tourism industry? And How?
Dive Adventure tourism will always be a special market, and Papua New Guinea is right at the very top of that market. If PNG ever becomes like Cairns, on the Great Barrier Reef – where the operators mainly cater to snorkelers and entry-level divers who have never seen a living coral reef – then it will be a sad day.
The Cairns operators have excellent boats and knowledge, but the reef is degraded in many places, and the imbecilic “safety” rules and regulations have pretty well ruined the adventure for experienced divers.
Q. At a personal level, what do you regard as being some of the better changes that have taken place in diving? And the worse?
Nitrox is wonderful. And today’s top live-aboards offer fabulous levels of comfort – no more camping for me.
On the down side, however, many people are afraid of that element of risk involved in real adventure diving and exploration. They just want to visit and see the famous and well-known dive sites. (They can do that without me. I have no intention of becoming a routine underwater tour guide.)
Q. What do you view as being the greatest hurdles faced by recreational diving?
I always thought that I was a recreational diver who made a living from it by teaching, publishing stories, selling photos, and leading dive tours. But the Workplace laws introduced by Queensland’s former Goss government, transformed me into a Commercial Diver and made it illegal for me to dive in Queensland for seven years. I am never going to forgive them for that. They wanted me to go and do a Commercial Diving training course. As far as I was concerned, they could go to hell – and some of them probably have.
We have finally seen some sense with the Queensland Government now obliging people to accept at least partial responsibility for their own actions when participating in high-risk activities. But much still remains to be done.
James Cook University, for example, insist that those diving undergraduates who are simply learning to take underwater photographs, (and doing no more than is done by recreational divers) have a commercial diving medical before then restricting them to a maximum depth of 9 metres. This is pathetic. It would be good to get some leadership instead of ass covering.
Workplace legislation does not recognise the diving category, “professional adventurer”. We have done scientific research in PNG with Dr Genie Clark that, because of ridiculous restrictions, would simply not be possible in Australia. It’s Australia’s loss.
The greatest menace that diving faces is that of government interference. And following hot on the heels of government intervention is the legal profession, who have shown themselves to be only too happy to take advantage of an opportunity to make themselves and their clients rich by putting all of the blame for a situation on to the dive operator: Often for actions that were completely beyond the operator’s ability to control.
Divers actively participate in their own safety. They are not – or shouldn’t be – passive adventurers as are, for example, those people going for a balloon ride. The present insurance crisis stems out of this evil combination of inappropriate Government legislation and grubby lawyers.
Q. As far as diving is concerned, ‘safety’ and ‘adventure’ seem to be strange bedfellows. What are your views regarding the imposition of regulations and Codes of Practice onto the industry?
Codes of Practice imply that risk and danger is the same thing. They are not. Risk is a function of the dive – danger is a function of the diver. So codes of Practice for diving are just tedious, politically correct, scuba courses.
On many occasions, I have challenged bureaucrats to just rank the ten most important things that they think a dive boat operator should do to operate “safely”. They cannot do it. They would rather write a book and make me scuba dive with a snorkel, or with a buddy, or make succeeding dives shallower. All of which, in certain circumstances, can make a dive less safe.
Q. How should diving be approaching those challenges?
Diving certification agencies have done a wonderful job over the years. They should continue to demand high standards for certification, but I do believe that the time is right to abandon the so-called Advanced Scuba Certification for divers with miniscule experience of 10 – 12 dives.
Ideally, the agencies should initially issue a provisional certification that only becomes life-long on completion of, say 50, dives within a two-year period. Were that to happen then we wouldn’t have so many supposedly certified divers out there waiting for disaster to strike. Diving safety revolves around increasing one’s skill levels, one’s knowledge, and using the right equipment.
Q. Apart from the mechanics of diving, do you have a personal Philosophy or view of the activity? And a vision of how diving might develop?
I have very strong views on diving philosophy. I believe adventure is the Art of Successfully Experiencing Increased Risk. It is not recklessness, nor is risk the reason for the adventure. I believe in being skilled and knowledgeable. I do not believe in trying to decrease risk – I believe in increasing ability to match risk, and having a realistic assessment of my own ability. There are lots of things that I cannot do – cave diving for example – but those dives that I do, I perform with as much thoughtfulness and efficiency as I can muster; each a perfect dive.
In that respect, experience and analysis are great teachers.
Q. What role do you see – if any? – for the future of technical diving?
I love the idea of recreational rebreathers, but never again want to be in the position of supervising them myself. What happens when the diver has not surfaced after 4 hours and you do not know where he is? Wait for another 2 hours? On the other hand, If we can track them and talk to them …
That is what we now desperately need. With that sort of technology, I would be interested. As for me, my brain is full. I would never cope. I would love to dive to 200 m down the reef slopes – but it had better be in a submarine.
Q. What aspects of diving give you the most personal joy and pleasure?
I love exploration diving, and leading divers on exploratory cruises. I have been fortunate enough to be able to dive many sites that no one has been to before. Discovering a fish or critter that we haven’t seen before is incredibly satisfying – and if we can also get a picture of it then we’re in heaven.
Q. What are your most memorable diving experiences?
I remember every dive – but among my most special was a deep dive where I realised that I had just seen a fish that no one ever realised existed. We had studied the genus with Genie Clark and I was hanging at 5 metres making an oxygen stop with Genie and trying to explain to her on a slate what I had just seen. No one else on the dive had seen it. We stayed another day at the site, made another deep dive and confirmed that it was new to science.
But the dives that I particularly love are those made at first light with a low sun in a clear sky and the suns ray’s shimmering over a perfect coral reef. It’s so beautiful, and a time to commune with nature and rejoice at being alive.
Q. What do you regard as your greatest contribution to – and achievements within – diving?
I hope I have brought adventure into people’s lives by enabling them to discover for themselves some of the most fabulous underwater sites and creatures to be found on this planet.
The above interview took place in 2003. Bob Halstead passed away on the morning of the 18th December 2018 in the arms of his wife.