2 Wheel Vagabond

2 Wheel Vagabond


Tuesday 25 October 2016

Back to Aus

The original plan for my motorcycle journey was to ride from Australia to Europe in a year and from there spend another year traveling Europe on bike, all dependant on savings of course. I made the decision relatively early that I wanted to take my time in each country so I could see the sights, experience the local culture and meet local people as much as possible, with that in mind I reassessed my travel plan and dedicated 1 year to riding through South East Asia. This was probably the best decision I could have made as I really had the opportunity to immerse myself in most of the countries I visited. Of course you never see everything but I did my best, many other motorcycle tourers I met along the way admitted that they regretted rushing at the start of their journey only to later realise it was better to spend a little more time in each country , it is a once in a life time experience after all.

A year was up for me and my bank balance was looking a little on the light side, I decided to take a 6 month break from the bike and return to Australia for work and a much needed bank balance top up. I stored the bike with a friend in Malaysia while I went home and started sending emails, hoping to get some work asap, thanks to some friends putting in a good word for me I had a job Tuna diving as soon as I arrived in Aus. Luckily the tuna farms are close to my home town of Whyalla so I got to spend some time with my family in between jobs, which mostly meant watching Bold and the Beautiful and Judge Judy with my mum, I actually couldn’t think of anything else I would rather do. Hanging out with my brothers and sisters also meant the usual shenaniganns like the challenge of a 6am ocean swim in the middle of winter which sent me to the edge of hypothermia or a timed obstacle course through a Jungle Gym at night, of course someone always gets hurt and this time it was me and my shoulder. I needed some transport to get me and my dive gear about and although I had a romantic notion of cruising around in an old Beemer with sidecar for 6 months I opted for a Subaru Forester with the addition of a rooftop tent. This was a great little car and I saved a small fortune in accommodation by camping in the national park every night which was only a few km from work at the tuna farms.

Most people think that taking a break from an around the world motorcycle trip and working means leaving the excitement behind, that’s definitely not the case when you work as a commercial diver. Doing a tuna tow was a job I’ve wanted to do for many years, basically you head out into the south sea on a fishing boat with 6 crew, the boat tows a 50 meter diameter cage with a net that hangs about 20-25 meters deep. A spotter plane flies overhead in search of large shoals of tuna and when they spot one a pisane boat surrounds it with a net. Our boat then comes up alongside with the cage, divers swim a rope from the net to the cage and they are connected, from there a gate is opened and the fish are transferred into the cage. We catch between 1000 and 2000 tuna each time and we repeat the process until we have about 10,000 fish in our cage. Tuna farming is done in Port Lincoln, South Australia, the Great White Shark capital of the world and we net the fish at the edge of the continental shelf where the water depth can be between 200 and 2000 meters deep, so when we swim the ropes between the net and the cage in the deep, dark, sharky ocean we swim very fast indeed, especially as we are in the vicinity of a few thousand tasty tuna.

Once the Cage is full we slowly tow them back to the farms at Pt Lincoln where they are fed for the next year and then harvested. Our main job as divers is to check the cages every morning, some days there may be a dead tuna at the bottom of the cage so firstly we check for mortalities and if needed remove it from the cage, secondly we check for holes in the net, obviously if there is a big hole it means a shark may be in the cage and then our job is to remove the shark. We had a pretty good run with only the occasional mortality in the bottom of the net, it was 4 weeks into the tow and it was my day to dive the cage, as I made my way down the net I noticed 8 -10 dead fish, as I got closer I noticed they all had bite marks in them….. shit!!! I removed the dead fish out of a small hole in the net and then worked my way around checking for holes, I wasn’t long before I saw 2 very big holes in the net….SSSHITT!!! I had to work my way around the net to see if the shark was still inside, it takes quite a while to cover the circumference of the net as you’re pulling yourself along at the 10 meter mark. I was very alert, I didn’t know what sort of shark I was dealing with, interestingly when a shark gets in the cage they initially go crazy and eat all the fish that they can, after a while they get disorientated because they can’t get out and they just swim around, which means you’re relatively safe being in the cage with them. As I pulled myself along the net I kept checking outside as well as in, anything against the net is at risk of being taken by a big shark and I didn’t want a pointer outside the net to get hold of me. While I was checking outside the net I noticed a shadow in my peripheral vision and saw something big swim past my right shoulder on the inside of the net, it was about 4 meters and luckily it was a bronze whaler, I let out a sigh of relief in my regulator, if it was a great white I would have been out of there. Bronze whalers aren’t necessarily a safe shark but they aren’t anywhere near as aggressive as a Great White, Mako or bull shark and with all these tuna swimming around I was pretty sure I wasn’t on the menu. I finished my lap of the cage and found another 3 ½ meter Bronzy swimming around…. Damn. I called the spare diver and he joined me in the water to attempt to get the sharks out. The sharks are quite placid when they’re disoriented from swimming around the cage all night so you can swim next to them, grab them and turn them upside down, which kind of hypnotises them, from there you can guide them to an opening in the net…… definitely an interesting day.

It took us 5 weeks to tow our cage back, we travel at 1 knot if we are lucky and if the tide is against us we end up going backwards, the worst was 3 days without making any progress. This would be fine if it was a leisurely trip with calm weather but the south sea can be rough, very rough. I was on navigation watch one night and the waves were breaking over the bow and over the wheel house, this was the roughest weather I’d sailed in, earlier the skipper, who was generally very calm mentioned that we should all re-familiarise ourselves with the exits in case we capsize during the night. This was definitely and interesting 6 weeks and the bank balance was looking better but not quite full enough, I had another job to go to on the other side of Australia, I was heading over to Broome for my second season of pearl diving.

The Trip from Whyalla to Broome is 4500km, I packed the Subaru and headed for the highway, camping along the roadside every night as I travelled the long stretches of road in central Australia. Broome is a town that has a rich diving history that stretches back over a 100 years when Pearl shells were first found on its coast, divers still head there today for the lucrative drift diving work collecting wild shell. The Pinctada Maxima pearl shell found in Broome is the largest pearl shell in the world and delivers the finest South Sea pearls, Drift divers collect the wild shell which are then taken to the pearl farms and cultured to develop the pearl. I was back on my old boat, the Clare 2, I’d spent plenty of time living on this boat and it was like being back home. When we dive for pearls we go out for 12 days and return to shore for 5, this goes on for the whole season which lasts 4 – 6 months depending on how quickly we catch the quota. The boat has a boom on each side with 4 weights hanging from each boom, the weight sits a meter from the bottom and a 40 meter rope trails off the weight, this is called the work line. Each diver has a work line so 8 divers are in the water at one time, searching for shell as they are hanging onto their work line and getting towed by the boat to cover as much ground as possible. Divers swim side to side and move up and down their work line putting shell into a bag that hangs around their neck, when your neck bag is full you move up the work line to your big bag that sits above the weight,  this is repeated for the 50 minute dive, up to 10 dives a day. If the tide is good and going with you
it easy to hang on but if the tide changes or you get stuck with a slack tide you have to use all your strength to hang onto the work line let alone move up to empty your neckbag.

I think drift diving has to be up there as one of the hardest jobs, everyday your muscles ache from the 10 hours of diving, you wake up in the morning with pain throughout your body, the worst of which is in your hands, after a few trips you struggle to open your hand fully, which we call the claw. Infection is guaranteed in the tropical water and any small cut turns nasty, many a diver spends there 5 days off on a drip at the hospital getting antibiotics pumped into them so they can dive on the next trip. Any diver will tell you it’s the best job in the world, it is definitely all about danger, excitement and adventure and spending 10 hours a day underwater means you see some amazing things. This season I lost count of the sea snakes and turtles I saw, whale season was busy with breaching whales making a commotion while we dived, as per usual there were numerous species of sharks both big and small, the 4 meter tiger shark that circled us on our deco stop was a rare sight and the 4 ½ meter saw fish that swam within arm’s reach was even rarer, best of all I managed to avoid the Irukandji, unlike a few of my unlucky friends.

At the end of the pearl season the bank balance was looking healthy enough for the ride to Europe, I packed the car again and did the road trip back to Whyalla ready to jump on a plane to Malaysia and be reunited with my bike to start my trip to Europe.


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