Deep into his element

At 84, veteran diver, explorer and doco maker Ben Cropp still has a lot to do

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SEA FARE: A six-time Australian spearfishing champion, Ben Cropp has never lost his passion for the sport and gets out on the reef at every opportunity.

SEA FARE: A six-time Australian spearfishing champion, Ben Cropp has never lost his passion for the sport and gets out on the reef at every opportunity.

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He's found more than 100 shipwrecks - and recently discovered yet another.

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MORE than six decades after first donning goggles and a snorkel, diver, explorer and documentary-maker Ben Cropp remains immersed in the sea and all it yields.

Now a fit and active 84, he still delights in heading out to reefs in search of shipwrecks to film and record or fish to catch.

In December, with his son Adam, the man who has uncovered more than 100 shipwrecks discovered yet another, this time off Sudbury Reef, near Cairns.

While it has yet to to be confirmed, he believes the vessel could be either the Undine, last seen in 1873, or part of HMS Mermaid, whichsurveyed much of the northern and western coasts in 1827. It was wrecked on Flora Reef in 1829.

When The Senior called,Ben was leaning towards the Mermaid.

"I won't say it's definite, but it's possible that the keel and part of the hull drifted off when it was breaking up and landed on Sudbury Reef about 15 miles to the north," he said from his home near Port Douglas.

GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF IT: Ben at the site of his latest discovery. He believes it could be the wreck of either the Undine or the Mermaid. Photo: Adam Cropp

GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF IT: Ben at the site of his latest discovery. He believes it could be the wreck of either the Undine or the Mermaid. Photo: Adam Cropp

"I've found a lot of wrecks that way - sometimes they've drifted 50 miles or more."

For the first time, Ben - whose other son, Dean, also shares his dad's love of the deep - used an underwater drone to help find the wreck.

But while he has nothing against technology, he prefers to rely on his eyes and years of experience: "the old-fashioned way".

For him, that means wearing polaroids and working along the top of a reef looking for straight lines and or dark shapes. Many a time has a line in a reef turned out to be anchor chain, or a dark blob a windlass or cannon.

"I go for the simpler, cheaper scuba units because I find them more reliable, even the pipe, which can't be improved on. I don't go for knickknacks. No matter how many gauges you put on it, the simple original tank is still the best."

Good instincts are vital: "Remember, some of these wrecks have been buried for a long, long time, and many have only a little bit showing. It might only be an anchor fluke sticking out of the coral rubble. Even that fluke might be covered in coral."

Ben said spearfishing kicked off his career, which also included shark hunting, until he turned his back on it in favour of conservation in 1963.

"All the famous early divers like Cousteau and Haas started out spearfishing. That's what enticed you into the water: to get fish. That then progressed to things like photography and wreck-hunting."

Ben's first discovery came in about 1963, when he found the Catherine Adamson off Sydney.

"It was called the 'booze ship' because it had a lot of beer and wine, and when it went up on North Head all the locals had a pretty good time."

A few years later, Ben and two others found Matthew Flinders' two ships, the Porpoise and Caro, which were wrecked in the Coral Sea. In 1977, came his most famous discovery, HMS Pandora, which was sent to capture the Bounty mutineers and sank in 1791.

Having spent most of his life around coral, Ben, who lives at Wonga Beach, north of Port Douglas, has strong views on protecting the Great Barrier Reef.

While the inner reefs are in bad shape, he said, reports of the death of the outer reef are premature and the threat posed by bleaching and the crown of thorns starfish is overstated.

"The distance of the Great Barrier Reef from the shore is a saving grace," Ben told The Senior.

"What I call the true reef is far enough out to escape most of the pollution.

"It may not be as good as when I was diving 60 there years ago - I've seen some deterioration - but it's pretty bloody close to being the same.

"People should know that.

"It's not very damaged, it's not under excessive threat, like some scientists have claimed, but the pollution side needs to be cleaned up. "

The areas of greatest concern, Ben says, are run-off from cane farms, toxic sewerage, ballast water dumped from ships, and dredging.

He is particularly worried about dredging and its effects of inner reefs, saying it stirs up toxic mud, increases algae and decreases water visibility.

For evidence of what it can do, he points to Heron Island, where he says visibility is less than half what it used to be.

"In the '60s and '70s the average visibility was about 80 feet. From the '80s on it has been about 40 feet.

"I guess people going there today accept that as the norm - but it isn't.

"And that's because of the massive plumes of muddy water coming in from Gladstone Harbour. I've travelled by helicopter and seen it."

Another of Ben's passions is Australian pre-history.

"I've done a lot of research, and top of my bucket list is to find a pre-Cook, pre-Dutch shipwreck.

"I know they're there. I even have an idea where and I've spent years searching.

"It's hard because at 500 years old it's going to be buried and there's going to be very little sign of it.

"But I've got enough clues in my research to know that the the Portuguese and the Spanish were here before Captain Cook.

"We have two very important things: a map from 1661 showing a Spanish tent settlement on Cape York Peninsula - on the site of Bamaga airport - and another French map from 1703 clearly shows the east coast of the peninsula."

The clincher, he says, would be to locate the Santa Isabel, which vanished even earlier - in 1595 - during one of three Spanish expeditions sent to the peninsula looking for the precious metal.

"That's the one I'm looking for. I believe it is there."

Ben still gets out in the water - mostly snorkelling - about once a week, often bringing home a feed of fish or crustaceans.

"I'm still at it but I do get tired. My main problem is that I have very bad knees - they've worn out on me, and not from praying!

"After an hour in the water I'm buggered. But I've always had lots of stamina and I refuse to stop. That's my motto: Don't stop."

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