BELGIAN EXPEDITION – (GREAT BARRIER REEF 1967), WALLY MULLER, CROWN of THORNS

(This is a recent picture from the northern Great Barrier Reef)

‘Pierre’ wore a bright red wet suit thought to have been used in the James Bond movie Thunderball, just recently completed in Florida.

Most of the diving and motion picture equipment had been purchased from that movie lot, which guaranteed professional quality. But making interesting and informative films requires more than good equipment the project was to later learn.

The son of a Belgian university director had obtained an incredible budget to make educational films underwater on the Great Barrier Reef, with the help of an entire crew of a navy ship.

Occurring at a time when media interest in marine matters was still in the dark ages, therefore it went largely un-reported, yet it was and still is the most extensive single scientific survey of the Great Barrier Reef, ever.

The Belgian Navy had hired to the expedition this former British warship re-named De Moor. With a crew of 75 plus guests and Australian Ron Taylor filming in 35mm motion picture film for seven months.

Locations between Lady Musgrave and Lizard Island, at a time when few people knew these waters underwater.

Captain Wally Muller (formerly of Riversong – a fishing boat, and now Careelah a charter boat) was contracted to guide the De Moor through the largely uncharted waters of The Swain Reefs, and remain with the expedition as a support ship for the entire duration.

The pattern was ten days at sea, four days ashore. Noted coral reef scientists were invited to join along the way. Three were to be participants with Project Stellaroid (a major survey of starfish eating coral reefs in the North Pacific) HQ’d at Guam in 1969. Scientists Dave Barnes, Robert Endean and myself – a photographer.

(My involvement with the Belgian Expedition was as a deckhand, therefore a great time was enjoyed with friendship and positive memories. A major lesson learned would be: How too many people underwater handicap projects as various mishaps occur and require attention).

Corals scientist, David Barnes of Townsville travelled back to the UK aboard this ship and was aboard for eight months or so.

Giving our boat a tow seemed a good fuel saving idea but the effort wrecked Careelah’s gear box.  We limped into Port Douglas for repairs and over the next seven or more days discovered a sleepy town that would eventually become the up-market tourist retreat of North Queensland.  The contrast between then and now is both interesting and mildly disappointing.  Kay Overell (pictured) was our diving friend from Sydney.

In background on left is Robert Pearson who was to work with crown-of-thorns starfish problems, later.   Corrine was Pierre’s girl from Belgium who spoke little English.  Later were later married.

Chief engineer and No.2 in command was Jules, a pleasant and popular man known by the name above.  The Captain was Charles and the interesting story there was after retiring from the navy Charles had the personal satisfaction of seeing his son rise to become ‘Commander’ (or whatever the correct title is) of the Belgian Navy.

Crown of Thorns killed Ellison Reef (off Mission Beach, Queensland) during the late 1990’s.

Large CoT (below picture in 1988) is a long term resident of a bommie at Fitzroy Lagoon, Capricorn and Bunker Group where starfish ‘plagues’ have not effected coral reefs to any noticeable extent.

Dr Robert Endean was a guest scientist during the Belgian Expedition

VERY DANGEROUS DIVE

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Entering the water was necessary from the bow.

We were anchored in the lagoon at Middleton Reef (southern Coral Sea).  Wally Muller had roped Coralita’s anchor to an antique ships anchor we’d placed on the sand in the lagoon ‘yesterday’.

Now it was time to check the anchor.  I was joining deckhand Richard Weir for the inspection and would film it.

All dinghies were either out of the water or anchored on their own elsewhere.  In other words, no rescue vessel available.

Coralita was swinging in a great arc in the very strong breeze.  Easy to miss getting back aboard as a strong current was also running.  No problems.  All went well.

It was a cyclone called Colin.  Stronger than the cyclone that had wrecked Darwin a few years before.  This was 1975.  The wreck of the Runic, (pictured above during a previous visit) nearby, was battered by the heavy seas with waves breaking over her – we saw from a distance.

Wally Muller in 1971;  Wally Muller underwater with the ship wreck  anchor which saved Coralita during a cyclone at Middleton Reef.

FRENCH PACIFIC TERRITORY – CHESTERFIELD REEF

Captain Wally Muller navigated using a sextant, the era pre GPS

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Divers, John M Harding (senior) and Roy Bisson (on right)
This was the longest voyage undertaken by the famous charter boat in 1971. Newly launched the boat was 79′ in length and had accommodation for 16 divers (later reduced to 12), plus a crew of four.

The lure for such a voyage was shell collecting, a search for the rare volute thatcheri. Half the charter cost was paid by shell collectors. I was sponsored by a tabloid newspaper to write and photograph five stories that could be serialized over one week.

Text written especially for divers would be published in Fathom No.6 issue. Art director and diver, Roy Bisson being on the voyage.

From San Francisco the late Dewey Bergman (Sea and Sea Travel) was scouting on this voyage for what would become regular parties of American divers and underwater cameramen. The world was about to discover diving Australian style. The future voyages would not involve so much traveling time.

Marion Reef was the new inshore destination, still in The Coral Sea and today almost unvisited due to fuel cost considerations.

The Chesterfield Reef trip was our most memorable. Near perfect weather and a good crew of professional divers. For further information, including names of shipwrecks at Chesterfield Reef, see Wikipedia.org

Roy Bisson swim fins (flippers) were filmed simultaneously by my movie camera and another by Richard Ibara. This was Chesterfield Reef at it’s best.  Grey Reef sharks were territorial with these displays as they probably had not encountered divers before.