Wally Gibbins

A touching presentation speech for the Wally Gibbins Trophy read by David Birch at the 2015 USFA Awards night.

Walter Hammond Gibbins was born January 16th 1930 in Sydney. In the early 1940s he harpooned leatherjackets from the jetties of Sydney Harbour to feed his family before entering the water with his  homemade mask, snorkel, belts, a scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) system and speargun to chase bigger game so successfully that most speargun manufacturers use his speargun design even today.

Wally Gibbins - 68lb (30.8kg) Fairy Bower 1952
Wally Gibbins – 68lb (30.8kg) Fairy Bower 1952

Wally’s adventurous aquatic life was often compared to the leading French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau. He was a pioneer diver who spent thousands of hours exploring fish, shells and underwater salvage sites. He filmed many of this exploits for TV or films along with a team of high-profile names, including Ben Cropp and Ron and Valerie Taylor. Wally pioneered the trigger mechanism still used today in many guns.

He caught his first shark, a wobbegong, at Middle Head in 1947, and shot and landed the first man-eating shark in Australia – a bronze whaler in 1950. The capture of a shark by a skindiver (rather than a man being caught and eaten by a shark) created headline news. He also caught with a spear a 400-kilogram tiger shark at Sykes Reef near Heron Island in 1963.

In 1948 he helped form the Underwater Skindivers and Fishermen’s Association at Long Reef , winning spearfishing competitions for the next 10 years, as well as the 1952 contest between anglers and spearmen. Wally single handedly caught more fish than all 37 anglers who had fished from the shore or boats. The rest of the spearos that turned up that day, may as well have stayed at home!

The veteran dive operator Allan Power, now working in Vanuatu recalls: “There were skindivers who could dive deeper than Wal, but none could beat him at finding fish. He just knew where fish would be best found.”

Merv Sheehan, Wally Gibbins, Adrian Wayne 1994 Aussie titles Eden
Merv Sheehan, Wally Gibbins, Adrian Wayne 1994 Aussie titles Eden

His Sydney salvage business, The Diving Company, supported his aquatic adventures – enabling him to become Australia’s foremost wreck diver, discovering countless shipwrecks, including the Birchgrove Park in 50 metres of water off a northern Sydney beach and the wreck of the Yongala off Townsville. Wally dived alone to 76 metres on SCUBA to salvage propellers on the Yongala – exploits considered suicidal today, when the recommended maximum depth for sport divers is 30 metres due to dangers of decompression sickness. He also cleared many World War II sites around the Solomon Islands, a very hazardous job where many unexploded shells went off in the water on the way to the surface, and/or the beach. He recruited the local natives to empty the unexploded shells, and set fire to the charges on the beach.

In June 1965 he competed as part of the Australian spearfishing team at the world spearfishing championships at Tahiti where he blacked out after coming up from a dive estimated to be well in excess of 33 metres – a very deep and extremely dangerous freedive. His limp body was recovered by a former world champion from Brazil and taken to hospital.

Back in Australia, his collection of seashells became the best in Australia. It included the world’s rarest shell, the Gloria Maris, which he discovered in the Solomon Islands.

In 1994 under his guidance, I formed the Coffs Harbour Bluewater Freedivers Club. Wally became the Club patron, and supported me in creating Australia’s most conservative speardiving club of that time. He entertained younger divers in his later years with educational talks, and slide nights reviewing his extraordinary life of adventure.

In 1995, he became a life member of the Australian Underwater Federation.

John Black, Wally Gibbins, Robbie Montcalm, Aussie titles Eden 1994
John Black, Wally Gibbins, Robbie Montcalm, Aussie titles Eden 1994

In 2000, he was invited to the Millennium Party of Freediving Greats to be held in Los Angeles, California, where he was honoured for his contributions to the sport of underwater hunting. I was pleased to have raised over $2500 for him to attend, thanks to his many friends and well wishers.

Wally sadly died in Coffs Harbour in 2006.

Wally Gibbins
Wally Gibbins

Wally Gibbins inspired many thousands of divers and freedivers in Australia, and gave freely of his time to all and sundry.

I dedicate this trophy in this name, in the hope that he be remembered as a truly great pioneer of Spearfishing in Australia forever more.

David Birch
26th November 2015


Additional posts including Wally Gibbins:
Chesty Bonds Trophy
Portraits by John Harding

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