New Wreck Found – ex-HMAS Pioneer

The unmistakable sight of a rudder and stern was the first glimpse we got of a vessel that has been forgotten for some 83 years. From our initial landing spot, we moved up through the twisted metal, coiled cabling, beams, plating, and on it went until we hit the pointed bow of the once 93m long ship. The signs were all there at that the ship had been scuttled, but who could blame me for a quick look for a bell around the bow.HMAS_Pioneer_by_Allan_Green_SLV_H91.325_2122

Sitting in 67m, the dirty conditions made for a rather dark dive on the day. The 45 minutes we spent on the bottom gave us reasonable time to cover the length of the wreck and capture stills and video for identification purposes.

It took a team of maritime research boffins a week, and us another dive on the site to say with reasonable certainty that shipwreck is that of ex-HMAS Pioneer. A light cruiser originally built for the Royal Naval as HMS Pioneer, she entered the Royal Australian Navy in 1912, was stripped down and sold off by 1926, and finally scuttle outside Sydney Heads in 1931.

Identifying the shipwreck was an interesting affair. The very pointed bow and design of the propeller struts suggest strongly that the vessel had Navy origins. This reconciles with the fact that many ex-Navy vessels were scuttled off photo 4Sydney in the earlier part of last century. As usual, there seems to be a fair bit of Internet chatter about the find, petty squabbling by parties unrelated to the project, and some discussion about what the vessel might actually be.

Initially we suspected the vessel could be ex-HAMS Vendetta or ex-HMAS Pioneer, however an initial review of the images from the dive had led us to discount these two vessels due to the shape of the bow and position of the hawespipe. Subsequent dives on the wreck caused us to back track and ultimately we believe that she is indeed Pioneer. The bow appears to have been cut down one or more decks (presumably to salvage material), changing the appearance of the boat significantly. Also the rudder and keel design did not reconcile to the Pelorus-class arrangement plans that we had, however we eventually found dry dock images of Pioneer that reconcile we what we see underwater.

photo 5The size and direction of the shipwreck should provide an easy target to either shot or anchor on. The bow is facing south-east, with the stern towards the north-west. Bottom composition is mostly sad with some rock, so it is conceivable to snag a rock and not be on the wreck. My preference would be drop a shot mid ship (33 51.850’S 151 19.844’E  – WGS 84 DD MM.mmm) and excursion from there depending on what you want to see.

Many thanks to Scott Willan for finding the shipwreck to begin with, and the team David Wood, Max Gleason and Geoff Cook (skipper).




Shot Line Calculations

We often shot wrecks or potential target in order to better manage in-water and surface operations on decompression dives. I put a few calculation matrices together to aid in shot usage (and anchoring for that matter), so thought I’d share them.

  • Distance to Target – given a fixed depth and shot line length, the matrix provides the distance to original drop target from the current buoy position. Use this in conjunction with a GPS to determine if the shot is on target. Given the short some time to settle in, then position boat next to buoy; if you’re any further away from the original target on the GPS than the distance in the matrix the shot is off target.
  • Shot Line Angle – provides the natural angle of the shot line off the bottom for various lengths and depths. Use this to determine how long a shot line you need/want. Optimum angle is subjective, but I prefer the steepest descent angle possible. I like 60-70 degrees in current to help the shot/anchor grab, but this is all relatively to chain length, line diameter, surface float shape/size, etc…

Click here to download the file.


  • Adequate wind/current is present to allow the buoy to pull back completely.
  • The shot line is linear, not bowed by shearing current, deco stations, etc…
  • The shot weight/anchor is on target i.e. It did not get blown off on descent.

Mini Review: Nauticam NA-5D mkIII Deep Test

Descending down a vertical wall in the Coral Sea, I watched the depth exceed the 100m rating provided by Nauticam and thought to myself “I hope the engineers I spoke to really know their stuff!”. Stopping at a 125m (410ft) to observe a deep sea fan, I paid some attention to life support before testing out the functionality of the 5D mkIII housing.  I’m glad to say, there were no leaks, no creaks, and no issues of any kind.

I took the Nauticam NA-5D mkIII housing on a Deep Reef Coral Sea project with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, for both still and video work. The real question was ‘how deep can the housing go and function properly?’. The absolute depth is still unknown, but I’m happy to say it functions perfectly at 125msw (410ft) and no signs of pressure related issues were observed.

My first impression was that Nauticam have come a long way since I’d last looked at one. Specifically the controls were very impressive, such that the primary underwater controls had been routed to your fingers tips, rather than the easier solution of just putting a hole through the housing to engage a camera button at the closest location. Examples of this advanced ergonomics include the Start/Stop, ISO and Playback buttons, which are all thumb paddles (not small push buttons). The piano keys for Set and Q-Menu were also nice; the latter prompting me to actually use the function which had not been something I’d liked on other housings.

I experienced no issues with stuck buttons, problematic control or knob issues, which are typical problems when housings are taken near or past their rated depth. Nauticam engineers said their 100m rating was based on what they could functionally test with their vacuum machine, rather than what the housing could actually handle. As such, I took up the challenge of actually testing it in the field at that depth. I should also mention that I tested the 8.5” acrylic dome, not the glass one, which the engineers weren’t as confident with past the 100m rating.

The shutter release, shutter speed, aperture and zoom control all worked as advertised – and actually were very responsive with positive feedback. I had no issues with the housing after a week of deep diving, with most dives in the 70-80m range. The grips seem to have evolved a fair bit since I’d last looked at them, with the stainless steel brackets at the top of the grips providing a fair bit of rigidity which was nice.

Assembly of the housing was something that impressed me. The ports and extensions are easy to seat and lock (out of the box – including past the extension to dome), and the markings make it simple for a first time Nauticam user like myself to put together. I will confess to p_278_2having to resort to the manual to understand the port extension locking mechanism, as I assumed this would unlock from the housing side (which it does not), but I was quickly in the water a few minutes minute later.

A nice feature of the Nauticam solution was the Flash Trigger for Canon cameras, which allows optic fibre strobe syncing to be used. On technical dives I often sling my camera or push it through a restriction in a cave  or wreck. Not having to worry about cutting or breaking a wired sync chord is just a nice and something I miss since switching to the 5D MKIII.

Buoyancy Arms

One problem with an SLR setup and very deep diving is the weight of the setup. A heavy rig will increase your breathing rate (particularly shooting video), and at serious depths (e.g. > 90m/300ft), the increased work of breathing (or breathing resistance) on a closed circuit rebreather can be life threatening.


One solution is to use buoyancy arms, though to date the solutions I’ve seen and used have been sub-optimal. Stix float arms work in shallow depths but compress massively past about 40m – incidentally they return to form when you come back up which is quite interesting for such hard foam.

For a while now, I’ve been testing the Nauticam Carbon Fibre Float Arms in 12” configuration. Also rated to 100m, these had not problems at 125m and have seen repeated dives to depths in excess of 100m over the last few months. Nauticam apparently reinforced the inside with a honeycomb structure in order to ensure no flexing ad depth, which might otherwise crack the carbon fibre and cause leaking.

With the 60x300mm (12”) float arms and 8.5″ dome, I found the Nauticam rig to be far too buoyant. The same arms were perfect on my Aquatica setup (with 8″ dome), but the Nauticam housing is not as negative so the 200mm (9”) arms would suit better I think as I like my rig to be slightly negative rather than positive.


Configuration for Deep Dives:

Model: Nauticam NA-5DMKIII

Dome: 8.5” Acrylic Dome Port (18802)

Extension: Extension Ring 70 with 70 (21170)

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 II USM

Strobes: 2 x Inon z-240s /w Optic Fibre Sync via Nauticam Flash Trigger

Viewfinder: 180° viewfinder

Focus Light: Fisheye Fix Neo 2000W /w 6” arm


Disclaimer: A test housing and peripheral equipment was provided by Nauticam for the purposes of testing and review.


New Wreck Dived – MV Limerick

Descending rapidly to 107m, I found myself drifting further from the descent line and thought “I’m might not make this”, until of course the 140m long ship came into view beneath me for the first time in 70 years. With the keel on the upside down hull clearly visible, I thought I’ve finally succeeded after 12 months of planning and several failed attempts months earlier.

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Fairwind’s Missing Crew

Since we discovered the MV Fairwind in 2009, I have been contacted by family members of all the Australian crew members. All have been understandably very happy to finally know what had happened to their brother, father, uncle, etc… Some identified with the Fairwind after the ABC’s 7:30 Report feature, and the others seem to have found my website through the power of the Internet.

I was quite surprised today to get an email from a guy in PNG, who’s great uncle was lost in the Fairwind tragedy. I was surprised as the crew list was published as 5 named Australians and 12 Papua New Guineans. Actually the newspapers of the day highlighted the social attitudes of the 1950’s and stated things like “12 blacks”, “12 niggers” and “several PNG natives”.

For the record, I’d like to add a named person to the crew list of the MV Fairwind:

Mr Cecil Himogo, Crewman, of Seasea Village, Milne Bay, PNG

Wreck or Rock?

Descending at speed on DPVs we pass 90, 100, 110, 120 metres; the pressure squeeze on my drysuit begins to exceed what I consider comfortable levels and the my power inflator, having been designed by an evil person, fails to keep up with the rate of descent. Like an inverted Polaris missile I reach for my wing inflator, which has of course has found its way into a position that requires shoulder dislocation to reach. After levelling out and getting  my first glance of the bottom I thought, “This is a wreck for sure, look at all the plates on the bottom”, though at second glance I was disappointed to see it was actually plate shaped coral.

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Annular Eclipse Photography

On my recent trip up with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, we were lucky enough to encounter a annular eclipse. Despite the poor weather, the clouds parted just long enough to capture the event. I was lucky enough to borrow a filter on the boat and get a few shots, though it’s certainly not the easiest thing to do on a pitching boat.

Last Single Point of Failure

As I descend rapidly with my trigger finger hard against the DPV throttle, I begin to realise that the little trickle of water running down my neck isn’t just a little leak, but instead has quickly turned into what feels like a geyser. Before I know it I’m on the bottom in 80m with a fully flooded suit thinking “How did this happen?”. I quickly got out of Dodge before my predicament went from unpleasant in the 20C water, to life threatening an hour or two later.

The cause of my drysuit flood turned out to be the SI Tech silicon neck seal, which had pulled out of the ring that holds it in the suit. I suspect it pulled out progressively whilst doffing, though can’t be certain. What I do know for sure if that I’ll be inspecting my drysuit before any major dives in future, as I was meant to be diving the SS Federal in 120m on that day, so was lucky it happened on a Sydney wreck instead.

Complacency is also a factor in my demise here, as I had a minor leak on an earlier dive last (presumably due to a milder version of the same fault). I failed to inspect my suit, which would have trapped the error. An overwhelming sense of “she’ll be right mate” and laziness is no doubt to blame, which is stupid when you consider thermal protection is really the last single point of failure in our technical diving configurations.

On a side note, I’ve otherwise found the Si-Tech silicon neck and wrist seals to be both comfortable and reliable.

Nautilus Lifeline – An 18 month review

I eagerly awaited the arrival of my Nautilus lifeline (NL) some 18 months ago, and have carried it on every ocean dive I’ve done since (sorry guys, I’ve no logbook so can’t tell you how many dives it has done, but we’re talking 200-300). I’m pleased to say that I’ve not yet had to use it in anger, which is a pretty good thing in my book. With the unfortunate demise of my old website, so too was my old NL information page lost so I thought I’d build a new one.

I do a lot of deep diving, which regularly means long drifting decompression in the ocean under a surface marker buoy. Now if everything goes to plan, we deploy the buoy from depth and the boat will track the drifting buoy and pick us up several hours later, and often 5-10 miles from the original dive site. This is where the NL comes in, if the boat misses the buoy or leaves the site without us (intentional or not), I’ve got a last stand defense against being left in the ocean bobbing like a cork.

Our limited range tests of the unit worked fine, though I took away a few points:

  • Turn the volume up, as on a windy day in the ocean the lower volumes are difficult to hear (you’ll definitely need to remove your hood too)
  • The 3 second delay between when you push the talk buttons and when the voice communications actually get transmitted is far from intuitive. It contravenes normal radio operation and from my experience makes communications difficult if the user is unaware of this (easy to do in an emergency)
  • Hitting the RED button to initiate a DSC distress call is very easy to do, much more so than talking over a radio (particularly under stress). This is also well safeguarded against accidental presses too
  • Although changing the assigned VHF channel of either talk button in water is a feature, doing so is impractical and not something I plan to do (take charge of the VHF conversation and dictate channels to the other party)
  • The unit is positively buoyant and will float, though I still think a secure wrist tether is a necessary evil when using it to allow a hands free mode to attend to other tasks
  • I’m not too sure about the merit of the flashing strobe, it seems a little weak to be seriously useful but I’ve not real data to back this up
  • Replacing the USB charging cap is easily forgotten

Some features I’d like to see in the unit are:

  • A back-lit display and/or buttons (though I concede this may come with a serious power usage problem).
  • The ability to send an information based Digital Selective Calling (DSC) message (e.g. position report), as well as the distress message via an independent button.

Generally speaking the unit is small enough to fit in a dry suit pocket with ease, has a great depth rating of 130m (something we’ve tested many times), and the battery life in standby modes seems to be quite respectable (i.e. I’ve not noticed any dramatic drop in the battery level whilst not in use). If you haven’t read between the lines, I’m a big fan of this device and think it is worth every cent.

VHF Certification, DSC & MMSIs

Now this is where it starts to get a little silly. In Australia in order to use any VHF radio one is required to have a Marine Radio Operator VHF Certificate of Proficiency (MROVCP), which you need to do a short course and exam for (cost is about $150). As far as I can tell, anyone can use a VHF radio in the event of an emergency; that is if you were a passenger on a boat and the skipper (captain) was lost at sea you’d be fully entitled to pick up a VHF radio and call for help; or better yet initiate a DSC distress call. I ask then why can’t someone carry a NL and only use it in an emergency? The answer in my view is nothing, but I am NOT a lawyer and can’t confirm the law on this matter.

Unfortunately to enable the RED distress button you need to have a MMSI. In Australia these are issues by AMSA and also require a MROVCP, so to get the full capability out of the NL you need to do the course. What I also learnt in my VHF journey is that in other parts of the world MMSI numbers are issued freely (e.g., and that you can practically put any 9 digit string into the NL in order to enable the DSC feature. The one down side to using a fake MMSI (or one not issued in Australia by AMSA for Australian waters), is that in Australia when the DSC distress call is initiated, the MMSI won’t be able to be reconciled against a database of MMSI numbers. I’m no expert here, but I’m sure the rescue agencies will still come and get you, and boats in the immediate area don’t have that database anyway so will be none the wiser. I consider this analogous to an international yacht travelling into Australian waters and making a DSC distress call with a foreign MMSI.

Boat Information Card

As I dive on many boats, commercial and private, I’ve put together this little card that I give to new skippers (captains) that describes the NL and how I use it. from my experience to date I’ve found that skippers are very welcoming of such information as many had never heard of the NL before. I’ve also encountered about 20-30% of commercial charter boats that don’t have DSC enabled VHF radios, and slightly more recreational boats without them too as VHF is more of a commercial frequency in Australia. On the back side I’ve also included our red/yellow surface marker buoy protocol, though I understand this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For reference, here is a word document for those wanting to do a similar thing – the template is free and re-use or modification is welcome without permission.



Disclaimer: I don’t sell or have any relationship with Nautilus Lifeline. I paid full retail for my unit and am just sharing my experiences with fellow divers and boaters in order to increase safety. 

Rebreather Forum 3 Videos

I was bummed out to miss Rebreather Forum 3 (RF3), as who really knows when the next one will be. I noticed today that some of the presentation were recorded and are now available online. I took particular interests in the talks by Evan Kovacs given his focus on imaging making, and he certainly builds some cool toys! Simon Mitchell’s talks as always are great, and there are lots of interesting views to be heard within the community.


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