By Bob Halstead
Irvin Rockman embraced all of Australia’s sport diving history, and did it with a passion. He started diving and taking underwater photographs around 1954. By 1974 he had published “Underwater Australia”, the first book of full-page underwater colour photographs by an Australian in Australia. He filled his leisure time with diving expeditions in Australia and around the world, and was one of the first Australians to dive Papua New Guinea.
We eventually dived regularly together in PNG on the dive boats FeBrina, Telita and Golden Dawn and became firm diving mates. I would say “buddies” but we only converged underwater at crucial moments, drawn together by some magical underwater discovery or encounter. We were, however, diligent buddies for evening drinks on deck to tell lies about our dives. As I wrote earlier this year:-
“I have been diving a lot recently, my very latest expeditions with the self proclaimed World’s Greatest Jewish One-eyed Underwater Photographer, no less than the esteemed Irvin Rockman. Irvin started diving before it was even invented and is the President for life, infinity and beyond of Underwasser Yidden, a group of profane reprobates who travel to PNG to un-civilise the Natives and promote the depravities of Melbourne Business Society.”
We were hoping to dive together again in November this year but alas this will not be. Irvin passed away on the 30th August finally succumbing to cancer at age of 72. No doubt foreseeing his eventual journey to “infinity and beyond” he is still legally our President, and will remain so for, well, ever. He is irreplaceable.
Irvin sometimes adopted the pseudonym Morris Levy (and others), probably just to confuse authority. Years ago he was falsely accused of being a Mr. Big in the Melbourne drug scene, a victim of Australia’s deplorable tall poppy culture where politicians and Government bureaucrats target the particularly exuberant and successful of its citizens. He used code words (Crayfish and Gefiltefish among others) to expedite ideas and confuse the dilettanti.
He was particularly contemptuous of bossy young dive masters trying to enforce the Workplace rule book on him, and this led to an abandonment of diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea after many early crusading adventures on Coralita and Reef Explorer.
After the introduction of the Goss Workplace legislation in the 1990s he simply refused to subject himself to its insanity. Irvin never changed his stand even after the legislation was largely repealed. He demanded to be treated like an adult, and believed in personally assuming risk and taking the blame if something went wrong. Metaphorically, and probably literally, very few have been deeper, or stayed down longer than Irvin.
Quite recently Irvin qualified as a re-breather diver and added Caustic Cocktail to the many exotic drinks he has sampled. This was a minor once-only libation and he soon got re-breather technique under control. Irvin had the distinguished “Sea Sense” of experienced divers, and avoided getting into trouble in the water even when in later years he became a bit wobbly above it.
On board any boat he was always ready with a humorous quip, without deleting any expletives, and our correspondence was rarely without some sybaritic irreverence. He shocked some – but was loved by more. Damn it, he was fun.
He abhorred the tedium and pretentiousness of polite society and would rather be profane than spout patronizing platitudes. Irvin maintained a genetic contempt for phonies. After meeting Kevin Rudd in a lift on the way to a dinner they shared, he commented to me that he was “really impressed with Rudd’s insincerity”.
A two-term Lord Mayor of Melbourne, sometime owner of Rockman’s Regency Hotel in Melbourne and ultimately mega-successful businessman with the creation of Seek.com, Australia’s leading online jobs agency, Irvin was nobody’s fool, and suffered no fools.
He loved diving, but died ashore leaving a shiver of disappointed sharks now deprived of long held epicurean ambitions. There is a hole in the ocean. I’m going to miss him more than these words can tell.
Just a year ago in response to a request from me he wrote this prophetic recollection.
(aka Irvin Rockman)
MY EARLY YEARS IN DIVING
My mother wanted me to play tennis, but she would have even been happy with golf. Unfortunately, I have never had affinity for any balls, except my own.
So in 1954 when I first went to Heron Island and started snorkeling with Sharks and Manta Rays and Arthur C. Clark – who I later found out was gay, there was no turning back for me. I was hooked on diving for the rest of my life.
We old farts of diving are a dying breed. Poor old Henri Bource has gone and was one of the greatest. Ron and Val are still going strong, and Ben Cropp remains a legend to be admired. John Harding, the coastal gypsy, potters around Coffs Harbor and searches the internet for reminisces of the old days. Barry Andrewartha is only young in his 60s.
In later years I became close friends with Bob Halstead much to my chagrin. He and I have a banter that makes the 700 dialects of Papua New Guinea seem like Esperanto.
But although we are getting older, “age shall not weary us”. Diving still holds the great allure, the wonderful feelings, fascination with fish – and all the above can be digitally enhanced. There was a time in the 50’s when I used to spear everything that moved, but now of course with the invention of Viagra, there is no need to spear anything.
I spent some time many years ago working with Hans Hass to ban underwater mechanical weapons. Well that didn’t go very far but it was a great thought at the time. If only we could stop the Japanese Whaling – wouldn’t the underwater world be much better.
We have been so lucky to start diving in the middle of last century, we can only hope that mankind does not muck-it-up for our children and they can get some of the great joy that we have had, and still have, from the underwater world.