Vintage diving helmets including copper & fibreglass helmets and associated equipment.


By Des Williams HDS Aus-Pac

 Surfacing after a dive, there is nothing more unsettling to a diver than the sound of a boat travelling at speed above. One must keep an anxious lookout for churning propellers whilst praying they are not about to pass overhead. The risk of serious injury or death from motor boat “bite” is ever present and most, if not all, experienced divers can relate tales of near misses.

The 1950s and 60s were boom years for spearfishing and scuba diving, which also coincided with a boom in aluminium and fibreglass runabout affordability, so it wasn’t long before the increased danger to divers became very real indeed.

By 1960, the spear-fisher’s representative body, the Underwater Spear Fishermen’s Association (USFA), was pressuring all state maritime authorities to recognise the diver’s flag, composed of a red background with one white diagonal stripe from the top right hand corner to the bottom left hand corner and for it to be incorporated in the States flags code. It was thought that the red background of such a flag was universally recognised as a warning of danger. It was the diver’s flag design being supported by American sports divers at the time.

Its design was originally conceived by Denzel Dockery in the early 1950s and was sold through his dive shop at Flint, Michigan, USA. The flag was seen by Ted Nixon, a sales rep for US Divers and he offered to promote and sell the flag nationally. It wasn’t long before the flag gained recognition by various US states and county ordinances who legalised and more importantly, enforced its use.

Under pressure by the USFA for an officially recognised single diver’s flag, the Australian Ports Authority (APA) approached the Ministry of Transport (MOT) in London for advice. Not surprisingly, a complicated British solution was forth-coming! The MOT deemed the US sport diver’s flag as unsatisfactory! They recommended the APA adopt the International Code of Signals flags H over D. Yes, a TWO flag signal to convey the message “I am engaged in submarine survey. Keep Clear.” Internationally, the H flag flown separately means “I have a pilot on board” whilst the D flag separately means “keep clear of me – I am manoeuvring with difficulty”.

It was decided that as the H over D flags system was the accepted and recognised signal to shipping of all nations, it was therefore of greater significance. As the Australian Navy also agreed with this view, the H over D flags signal was adopted during 1962 and was to be flown from a boat during diving operations. And, to be sure, to be sure, it was also recommended that a supplementary red and white flag, (as originally used in the USA!) was to be towed on a float to indicate the presence of a diver in the water. No doubt, Australian flag manufacturers rejoiced!

Not surprisingly, a period of confusion followed, as the individual Australian States, prevaricated over which system to use. The next confusing flag development came in NSW on 2nd June 1967, when the Maritime Services Board of NSW made the following announcement “A new signal flag is to be adopted in NSW to signify the presence of skin divers in underwater operations. This was announced today, by the Maritime Services Board which indicated that at a recent meeting of the permanent committee of the Australian Port Authorities’ Association, it was decided that a red flag with a white diagonal cross should be adopted throughout Australia, to denote the presence of skin divers. The Maritime Services Board will promulgate regulations in due course to give statutory authority for the use of the red flag with the white diagonal cross in NSW.”

This single flag (the NATO Flag 4) was exactly what divers had wanted and in NSW at least, rapidly gained acceptance whilst the US sport diver’s flag was quickly abandoned, for the new closely similar flag. However, no sooner had Flag 4 been introduced, than a combination of international events and the rise in sport diving popularity, dictated a further change.

In 1885, the British Board of Trade had introduced the International Code of Signals to be used by vessels at sea. At this time the code consisted of 18 signal flags. In 1902 the code was revised to consist of 26 flags containing all the letters of the alphabet. The Alpha Flag (Flag A), a white and blue swallow tail burgee, had originally flown to let other vessels know that the boat flying it was restricted in its ability to manoeuvre and should be given right of way. It was traditionally flown when helmet divers were operating from a vessel. Well, brilliant! Finally, a decision to use a flag, which had signalled diver’s below since the 1880s!

During the Fourth Assembly of the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO) held during 1965, the International Code of Signals was revised with the changes to become effective from January 1st 1969. Of particular concern to divers was the revised meaning given to Flag A. Its meaning now was “I have a diver down – keep well clear at slow speed”.

A recommendation by the Australian Port Officer’s Association on the adoption of the International Code of Signals Flag A, as the flag to be flown by vessels having divers in the water, was accepted by Port and Maritime authorities throughout Australia and came into force on 1st April 1969.

It was subsequently agreed that Flag A must be flown from boats and must measure a minimum of 915mm X 760mm. In 1983, the Maritime Services Board of NSW introduced a regulation approving the flying of Flag A from a buoy, or float, in use by spear-fishers or divers, providing the flag measured no less than 700mm X 200mm. Sanity prevailed and this is still the status quo today.

Your reporter was still cautiously diving under the H over D flags system in Victoria, during early 1970, even though the new single Flag A had been approved eight months earlier. Unfortunately, the new Flag A was not immediately understood by all boat users, so divers were very circumspect in its use during the first few years. Back then, it was not uncommon for fishermen to motor up to a dive boat to ask “what flag is that?” The Scuba Diver’s Federation in various States were quick to set about a national advertising campaign, to promote the new Flag A, amongst all boat users. Bumper stickers were handed out and signs erected at boat ramps during this campaign. Today, the Flag A is widely understood and as always, for your own protection, you are strongly urged to “Fly the Flag for Diver Safety”.


Leut Frederick Lowrie RAN

This year (2017) marks the 75th anniversary of RAN (navy) diving at HMAS Penguin. HMAS Penguin (II) (Balmoral) was commissioned on 14 July 1942. This post is about the first officer in charge of diving at HMAS Penguin. Read more

John Johnstone

John Johnstone (Johnno) was borne in England and emigrated to Australia as a young man.
He was already well known as a diver in Australia when he was asked to take part in the salvage of the Niagara. This ship had been travelling from England to the US loaded with gold bullion to pay the US for supplies provided in WWII. After stopping in Sydney it moved on to Auckland. A German ship had recently mined the shipping lane out of Auckland and the Niagara hit a mine and sank quickly on leaving the harbour.
For this operation Johnno did not actually dive. The team copied the diving bell used by the Italians to salvage the Artiglio. From the diving bell Johnno, or his brother who had been seconded from the RAN, would direct the grab that was used to first tear away the ship and then to bring up the gold. The team recovered almost all the gold making it the most successful salvage to that time. As there was a war on and the gold belonged to the crown, the team received nothing but their standard pay. Read more

The Oil Drum Diver

by Des Williams HDS Aus-Pac

During the 1930s, many young men were inspired by the deep sea exploring exploits hero of the time, William Beebe, who astounded the world with his descents in his bathysphere, to depths never reached by man until that time. Many home-made diving helmets were reported in the Australian press, a trend which actually extended around the world at the time, such was the excitement generated by William Beebe and his colleague Otis Barton. Read more

Deane Diving Image

Helmet Diving in Australia – The Earliest Record

by Des Williams – HDS Aus-Pac

When was helmet diving first employed in Australia? This is a question we often get asked at the Historical Diving Society and one which we are now able to answer with some certainty, following our detailed historical research. Read more

Helmet Diving Video

Max Gleeson, author of several excellent books on NSW shipwrecks, and the Yongala, and cinematographer, has kindly made available online a video of the NAUI Helmet Diving Course held in Portland, Victoria. 

Diver Adverts

As mentioned in previous issues of our magazine, we are running free classified ads for members in “Classic Diver” magazine.

If you would like to advertise your interests, equipment you are looking for, books you have for sale or exchange, gear you have for sale – anything related to diving history please email a short description directly to our Editor, Jeff Maynard at

Make sure you include your name and email (along with address or phone number if you want).