We sit on the balcony of the iconic Tathra pub on NSW’s far south coast, overlooking the shimmering Tasman Sea after the perfect day, diving for abalone. John’s colleague, Greg, lets out a satisfied sigh. “I wouldn’t go out diving if I couldn’t have a beer when I got back. Best thing about it”, he jokes, “is comin’ home for a cold one.”
“Really?” John raises his eyebrows lazily as he turns toward Greg, slightly surprised at his dive buddy’s comment. “Humpf,” he exhales, as he turns his gaze back to the sea.
John Smythe is a well-respected commercial abalone diver on the south coast of NSW, and has been for the past 36 years. It’s no surprise that John might seem a little perplexed if others are not in the abalone game for the love of it. His passion for the ocean in its entirety is obvious and the intimate relationship John shares with the sea runs much deeper than the back pocket. The leathery skin on his face is creased with deep lines, evidence of a life spent in the salt and sun. His eyes sparkle the same colour as the sea; like his body is filled to the brim with nothing but the saltwater that is his livelihood.
When he speaks, his voice is calming and nostalgic. It lulls you to want to hear more; pushes you along like a following sea. “I grew up in Manly and when we used to go surfing down the south coast here, we used to take every left hand turn that went to the coast.” “We never had much money, so the best way to survive was to go diving and catch a lobster, spear a fish, find some abalone, or a combination of all, and live off the sea to support our habit of surfing the coast” he remembers.
John’s tales are modest and dotted with the wanderlust that drove the 1960s and 70s surf scene. His aged black and white photos feature his older brother and their friends; late teens, with Holden station wagons stacked up with long boards. The backdrops of these memories consistently featuring isolated coastal hamlets or wild, coastal headland views, which today are exclusively devoured by empty mansions or holiday homes of a different breed. As John speaks, he disappears into archives of fond memories in his mind. The way he shares his story is captivating. It is this side of his character; the storyteller, which probably made him a popular geography teacher, his first career which he says he pursued purely for the holidays, “I mean I liked geography but I thought, there’s no way I can’t have heaps of holidays to go surfing.”
This shot was taken at Tidal River Wilson’s Promontory. Coming from the east coast it was one of the first times we saw the sun setting over the sea.
After a few teaching stints away from the coast, John was posted in the sleepy fishing village of Eden, fifty kilometres south of the Tathra pub where we now sit. It was here in the surf that John realised his working to surfing ratio could be improved even more. “I met a few guys who could surf all day when it was up and they were abalone divers”, John explains.
This shot is of Michael “Maca” McCormack taken at North Steyne in about 1964. Maca was one of the hottest goofies around and one of several groms who lived on Manly beach and were riding small boards (6ft) C1960-1964 when the old blokes were surfing 9 foot mals.
“I got to know them pretty well in the surf, and after a year or so, I arranged to buy a boat. When it was ready, I quit teaching.” The decision was as easy as that. There was no turning back. John traded the noisy classroom for the solitude of the rocky reefs of the south coast, and pimply teenagers for creatures of the deep. But comparatively, how does he find it, submerged under the sea with his own thoughts for hours at a time?
The shot under water was posed for a mate with an underwater camera who took this of me with an armful of abalone carrying to my net bag.
John laughs, “Yeah it’s a bit like anything really, you might get a repetitive song playing in your head over again, but it’s not a bad place to sort of ponder and think a bit.” “Of course,” John corrects himself, “you’re concentrating on the job and looking for abalone, but there’s always something else to look at. “Like you’ve always got your favourite gropers. You practically know ‘em by name ‘cause they’re such a territorial fish. I might drop into a place once every month and you’ll have the same gropers coming out saying ‘hey buddy, give us a feed’. They quite like a feed of a sea urchin,” John says, matter-of-factly.
“I guess saltwater means my whole life. My reason for being.”
With 36 years spent on the ocean floor, it goes without saying that John would have experienced a ‘David Attenborough’ moment or two. On one crystal clear day he hadn’t been working for more than 10 minutes at a depth of 40 feet when he remembers the sun suddenly disappearing and being engulfed by darkness. “I looked up and a huge school of baitfish was swimming over the top of me. As I sat there on the bottom looking to the surface, the fish circled tornadoes around my upward bubbles, occasionally letting in silver flashes of sunlight all the way to the top where the kingys [kingfish] just cruised around.” John continues “And below where it was dark and gloomy, you could see the barracuda getting a feed underneath.” Quite the ethereal sight for a day in the office. With each story Johns shares over a beer or two that afternoon, it becomes more and more apparent that his connection with the ocean and its inhabitants has evolved to become much more than simply a day job that also allowed him plenty of time to surf.
During the 1990s, the number of abalone stock in some areas of NSW dropped to just 5% of their former populations due to disease from the protozoal parasite, Perkinsus. This, teamed with the ongoing issue of poaching or what John likes to refer to as ‘theft’, put enormous pressure on the abalone fishery, causing the commercial and recreational fishing regulations to be severely tightened, and in some cases, completely banned. As you would expect, most commercial abalone license holders, fought the reduction in quotas and increased abalone size limits with everything they had. Although John admits they were initially “hard to take,” he supported the decision, because as he explains “You want this thing to sustain itself forever or even improve, you want it better than when you got in [the water].” As an abalone diver, John has been able to observe the physical impact he has on the fishery everyday, “You can see what you’ve taken off the bottom but you can also see what you’ve left.” A hint of that school teacher enthusiasm still remains in Johns voice as he explains, “A lot of fishermen throwing nets over the side and bringing them up, aren’t always aware of what they’re leaving behind. But the abalone divers see the impacts they’re having and its good to finally be able to see that [the improvement of the fishery] happening again” You can’t help but wonder what our fisheries would be like if every person had the same respect for the sea and the role it plays in our lives as John does. His lifetime journey with the ocean seems deeply interwoven and complicated, yet John puts it so simply. He knows where he stands. “I like that I’m dominated by the sea” he says, with a kind of realisation as he says it. “I guess saltwater means my whole life. My reason for being.”