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Australia Scuba Diving Legend - Mike Ball

When 2 dive legends meet, something magical happens ... In Cairns, Australia in February 2010 our own dive legend (or should that be leg-end?) Gavin Macaulay popped out to a coffee shop with the slightly more celebrated figure of Mike Ball to chew the fat about all things dive related ...

Mike Ball - a scuba diving legend in Australia

Mike what can I get you? Tall, skinny latte…long black…?
A cup of coffee please.

So, what's with the crutches?
Well it's an old knee injury from my Royal Marines days. I have, in the last 10 years, been doing a lot of trekking. After recent treks in England the knee degenerated and I have recently undergone a cartilage replacement operation. They took part of mine to a lab, where they grew new cartilage from the original and have now inserted that. So I am in the recovery period.

Where are you from and how did you get involved in diving?
From Hampshire in the South of England. My first dive was back in the mid 1960's when an American friend with a black Buick and a trunk full of scuba tanks took me and my brother to a southern beach in England. The instruction was limited to "this is how you buckle it up. Don't be too long". After leaving the services, aged 20, I headed for Australia and that's when I fell in love with scuba diving.

Why did you decide to make Cairns your base?
I first came to Sydney as a 'ten pound Pom' in '68 at a time when Australia was looking for immigrants and it cost 10 pounds to get here. I got involved in diving there, joining the Australian scuba divers club. One day a chum and I decided to head north in a wreck of a car, eventually settling in Townsville. There I opened the 1st dive school on the Great Barrier Reef in Townsville. Eventually we expanded to Cairns.

You once had a number of liveaboards under the Mike Ball umbrella. Now there is just the one - Spoilsport. Talk us through that.
It all began in 1981 when we built a state-of-the-art training centre in Townsville, a great set-up with a pool and tubes leading off it which were visible both from the centre and the outside. We were involved in pioneering developments such as the first Stinger suits and creating guidelines for solo diving.

Our 1st boat was a daytrip boat called Divemaster out of Townsville. Then we had Watersport, our 1st catamaran, one of the 1st big liveaboards in the world and the 1st catamaran liveaboard in the world. Supersport was built in 1986 in Western Australia. All of this was being done on finance from Queensland Development Bank, so we never had a huge amount of our own money behind us. Then Spoilsport was added in 1990. It was built by Austal Ships who were then building abalone boats. They have since gone on to become world leaders of building cutting-edge boats and they are the holders of lots of nautical records! Paradise Sport was added in 1998 and was operating in Papua New Guinea. All these boats were the best in the world at the time.

However the clouds started gathering as far back as 1989. There was an airline dispute in Australia with no commercial planes flying for 5 months. Can you imagine that? It caused unprecedented problems for businesses like ours. We had an AUD 3.6 million debt to service. Interest rates were 19%. It was a crippling debt in those circumstances. We simply needed to sell 2/3 of the company to Japanese investors. It was the only way to keep going. However the next 10 years were great. We worked very well together and so everything was rosy.

Then in the late 1990's we experienced an internal clash regarding the future strategy of the company. It was deadlock. So I ended up agreeing to buy out the Japanese shareholders in early 2001. Then 9/11 happened after I had agreed to buy them out. I was in a bit of a pickle. I had no choice but to proceed with the buy-out. The alternative would have seen the company wound up and I would personally have been bankrupt. So I did.

Then we had a very bad coral bleaching event occur off Townsville which hit our business badly, so I was buying at a very difficult time. The Townsville operation had to close and with that went any chance of paying the debt off. Supersport, Paradise Sport and the office were all liquidated.

Mike Ball's Spoilsport Australian liveaboard

So it was a series of unfortunate events. I don't think I could have done anything differently really, but ultimately it was a success story because despite all these catastrophic events, I still survived and am ticking along nicely now with all my energies going into Spoilsport. After all the pioneering with the training centre, Stinger suits, solo diving and pushing the boundaries of diving liveaboards, my greatest achievement was not going bankrupt.

Now, as it turns out, running one boat is simpler and more satisfying. It is easier to make money and achieve high levels of customer satisfaction, as a single entity.

So what advice would you give anyone wanting to run their known liveaboard?
Make sure there is an excess of demand and you can provide better than what is on offer. Expect the unexpected. Have the financial resources to cope with severe challenges.

On a different note, can you name your top 3 dive sites?
The Yongala Wreck is completely unique. It is like being in a huge marine aquarium and is so different to a normal dive. It really ramps up the level of excitement and I am definitely a big fan of all-action dives. This, however, needs to be qualified by the fact that it is in an exposed location. Also it may not necessarily have world class visibility. Normally it is in the 15 to 25 range. A novice diver might not enjoy it because of the conditions. However for many experienced divers it is a mecca.

The Ulong Channel in Palau lives in the memory. When I did that dive I was blown away. It was like a dive site on steroids, which is right up my street. It had spectacular coral, lots of big fish, sharks and action galore as we drifted quite quickly for a considerable distance. I remember it had incredible diversity and pristine coral. I went back 3 days later when there was no current running which took the edge off things…but that can happen anywhere.

As a 3rd I must include North Horn at Osprey Reef. This is the shark attraction dive that the Australia dive liveaboard operators do. It is not unusual to see 3 dozen sharks and all from a natural amphitheatre. It is another high adrenaline dive and guests love it. It often has incredible visibility, beautiful soft coral on a very lively wall. There can be hammerheads and Potato Cod competing too. I love it.

One of the most memorable dive site names is 'Crack a Fat', which is Aussie slang for…………err a state of arousal. It takes place outside Garove Island, an extinct volcano, a truly lost world experience in Papua New Guinea. What an amazing location! We sailed into this flooded volcano, outside the entrance there is this breathtaking wall, it is enough to give you a…..

Hard one here: what is your favourite marine creature?
I must say I think I have an affinity for the local Potato Cod. These are fish the size of small divers and they practically pose for the cameras. It blows people away that you can "take photographs that your mother wouldn't believe". I picture their mums back home, where a fish can just about fill a plate, seeing photos of their kids in the water with these huge meaty beasts.

What is your most memorable underwater moment?
Well the Royal Humane Society gave me 2 awards for rescuing people and I would have to say that my most memorable underwater moment involved the actions that led to one of those awards. It isn't a story I tell, really so this is a bit of a Dive The World exclusive. In 1977, there was a yacht race on and 1 yacht ran aground and sank. Several people died, their bodies washed up on the beach. We were called to search the yacht. As we were doing so, my colleague heard feint cries for help from seemingly within the island. As it emerged, some of the crew had made it onto the island but 2 were smashed into this long crevice at low tide.

The first part of the crevice had become submerged as the tide increased. The waves and suction of the water had battered them around and deposited them in a place where the rising water locked them in. The water was still rising and the surge was going over their heads. They were breathing between waves. So we started clearing all the debris that had been washed in and was blocking this crevice which was now a cave really, sealed in by the rising water.

We finally got to them and managed to get them out by diving back through the crevice and buddy breathing with them until we got them to the other side. Then they were whisked off to hospital. One died a short while later due to infections from his injuries, but the other survived.

That's quite a story.
It is an incredible story and couldn't have been more dramatic if Hollywood had recreated it. I was delighted I could help them and felt privileged that my skills as a scuba diver could save lives.

Peace on the Reef signal to protect the coral - courtesy of Mike Ball

If you could create one worldwide law to be adhered to by all recreational divers and operators, what would it be?
Well we have introduced 'peace on the reef'. (he indicates with two fingers held up in a peace sign). That should be an extra hand signal used widely in diving. I would love to see it. From novice divers to the most experienced, when one diver lets another know that maybe something is happening, e.g. trailing equipment, then it is given and received without any negative emotion on either side. As divers we all have the common goal of protecting the reef so it is about co-operation rather than confrontation.

Our hope is that it would become something that everybody should expect as a norm of diving, whether giving it or receiving it. It shouldn't be seen as an act of scolding but as part of diving ethics. So you can give it with a clear conscience and receive it in good faith.

Do photographers damage reefs?
Yes of course they do. Everybody does to some degree. With the average person it may be of no consequence – a minor brush or a breakage that can recover quite quickly. With photographers they have more motivation to push the limits. Sometimes their equipment is so expensive they almost think they have licence.

Well that's the issue, really. Divers need a specific licence to dive at night, or beyond 18m, or with nitrox but any flapping idiot can enter the water with a camera (point and click or expensive and cumbersome) without any special training or proof of ability.
Exactly. There should be a compulsory photography qualification before allowing divers to take cameras. They should be assessed on their finning techniques, breathing techniques and buoyancy control around a reef while taking photos. Only after that should they be signed off to take a camera with them. Divers should need to demonstrate a good level of expertise, not just go through the motions.

In your personal experience, where have you dived and been disappointed?
I once did a liveaboard some 15 years ago in North Sulawesi from Manado up to Sangihe and the ring of fire and hardly saw a fish bigger than my fin, which disappointed me. However having said that we still enjoyed great visibility and bio-diversity. It was a magical location. So there are always some positives to be taken from any new place.

Also, with the extent to which some destinations are affected by weather, it is possible for everywhere to be disappointing at some stage, to some people. It is nature we are dealing with, not organised entertainment.

... And the most under-rated?
Australia scuba diving! In recent years, as new destinations have been discovered, the reputation of the Great Barrier Reef has waned somewhat among experienced divers, for one reason or another. However, when you look at what's available from the top end of Ribbon Reefs all the way down and out to sea with Osprey Reef and Bougainville: Potato cod, great bommies. Minke whales, adrenaline pumping action of the Coral Sea, deep walls, thriving shark action, pygmy seahorses, leaf and lacy scorpion fish, great visibility… It stands up against anywhere if you ask me.

Yes I know what you mean. In fact I had bought into that perceived wisdom about the Barrier Reef as a dive vacation destination, but I must say that having been diving here for the past couple of weeks I quite agree. The area has a great deal going for it and experiencing the best of what it has to offer in high season would satisfy the vast majority of experienced divers, even the more demanding ones.
So your opinion in now more informed. It is good to hear you say that. The disadvantage is that by comparison with many little sheltered island places, much of the Barrier Reef is in exposed conditions, not that close to shore. So total satisfaction level is rather weather dependent, yet its character is its allure as well.

How do you foresee the future of recreational diving?
Well there has, in recent times, been a shift away from the babyboomers category who were committed to the sport. They found diving and it became their main focus and they were hardcore. Now, with the modern generations they don't totally immerse themselves in anything. They dabble in various pursuits. So less of them will be turning up with all their gear. There will be more of an expectation similar to that of traveling to a ski resort where all is provided. It has become a more mainstream pursuit and the industry has needed to adjust to that.

I also foresee it being harder to be an owner/operator with huge businesses owning more of the market. It is true in many areas of business: globalisation and the rise of the superbrands making life hard for smaller businesses. The super fleets tend to drive up the standard and have economies of scale for better marketing and career paths. However it is hard to beat any owner/operator who is determined to be the king of his patch.

Thanks Mike. It has been a great pleasure.
The pleasure is all mine.

With that we upped and left the Cairns coffee shop and headed back to Mike's office. Crossing the road, a car was approaching but Mike, on crutches, upped the pace and made it swiftly over the other side as I dithered and let the car pass. The guys in the car were all smiles at the greying chap on crutches dashing to beat the traffic.

It is an instructive tale. Younger than his years, still going strong in the dive vacation industry and refusing to be slowed by something as trivial as a knee operation, Mike Ball seems to be proof that you just can't keep a good man down.

 

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