Walter Hammond Gibbins – Australian Diving Pioneer

by Melven Brown

Here we focus on one of Australia’s pioneer SCUBA divers. Australia has produced many outstanding scuba divers, underwater film-makers, equipment technicians, spear-fishers and innovators. It all started in the late 1940s, when the sport of spearfishing was pioneered by Sydney divers including Dick Charles and Edward Du Cros, who formed the Underwater Spear Fishermen’s Association (USFA) and immediately began promoting the sport around the country …… it grew rapidly! In this report, HDS Aus-Pac historian Mel Brown salutes Sydney pioneer sport diver, Wally Gibbins.

Walter (Wal) Gibbins was born in Sydney in 1930, finishing his schooling at Crow’s Nest Technical School in 1944. His pioneering diving career began in 1947 when his family moved to Middle Head, where the clear waters enticed him, in the summer of 1947, to fashion some diving gear and develop an interest in spearfishing.

He dived alone around Middle Head for some months without meeting any other divers, until the Underwater Spear Fishermen’s Association (USFA) was formed in April of 1948 by Sydney diver Dick Charles. Wal enrolled as a member and was elected to the committee shortly after. The USFA began a vigorous period of promotion of the new sport. In late November 1951, 21 year old Wally and fellow USFA committee members Edward Du Cros and Dick Charles visited Tasmania’s north coast region, to promote the USFA on behalf of the newly formed Underwater Spear Fishing Association of Tasmania. A report in the Burnie Advocate newspaper of November 26th advised they would give “demonstrations of underwater spearfishing at Wynyard, Burnie, Penguin and Devonport” over a three day period during their tour. The article included a picture of the three men with some of their diving gear and trophies they had won in competition. Wally was a particularly gifted spearman, who was unbeaten in spearfishing competitions in the ensuing years.

In 1953, Wally discontinued club activities to undertake a six month trip to the Great Barrier Reef for the filming of Australian actor Chips Rafferty’s classic film “King of the Coral Sea”. This ground-breaking Australian movie required particular expertise in underwater filming and swimming and Wally was just the man for the job. He supplied the film production team with unique Australian-made “Lawson Lung” scuba units, which he had assisted in designing and building in Sydney. They were used extensively during the production of the film and Wally also doubled as stuntman, for one of the actors.

Three years later, Wally began his professional salvage diving career in Dutch New Guinea (now Indonesia’s West Irian province). Then, on his return to Sydney, he began working for Barnes Scuba Service, another Australian manufacturer of scuba equipment, before founding his own company known simply as “The Diving Company”.

At the urging of Ben Crop and Ron Taylor, Wally returned to spearfishing competitions, competing for the first time at the 1961-62 National Titles at Currarong, where he was runner-up in the pairs, third in the open and headed the winning team on the final day. In 1965, Wally was chosen to represent Australia in the World Spearfishing Championships in Tahiti.

Shortly after, he left Australia again to work as a diver in salvage operations in the Solomon Islands, where there were a great many WW2 wrecks. He also joined Ben Cropp, assisting in the making of a number of TV documentaries based on a trip around Australia and a return to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands revisiting the many wrecks he had discovered there.

During his career, Wally’s various diving interests had seen him hired out as a guide-diver on the Barrier Reef, making underwater movies and recording more documentaries with the Japanese, again in the Solomon Islands on WW2 wrecks.

Wally was engrossed in shell collecting, with an amazing collection and was instrumental in locating the habitats of some very rare shells, which had been previously been unknown to science.

Wally was a true Australian pioneer underwater man, he bridged the transition period from spear-fishermen to scuba diving enthusiast and played a significant part in the development of very early Australian-made scuba equipment, namely the “Lawson Lung”. He passed away in 2006. Attached images are from Mel Brown’s Collection.

Wally Gibbins
Wally Gibbins head shot
Wally Gibbins with fish