On a diving trip to Sri Lanka, Brendan O'Brien meets up with resident, author and visionary Sir Arthur C Clarke to hear tales of his early underwater experiences, encounters with alligators and drinking very vintage wine with Cousteau
He is the originator of communications satellite theory; the writer of more than 80 books; and he has shared an Oscar nomination with the late Stanley Kubrick, for the movie based on his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. Less well known, however, is Sir Arthur C Clarke's adventurous and pioneering diving in the 1950s and '60s, which is what I went to talk to him about at his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Waiting outside his office in an ante-room full of awards and honours, I ponder on his dislike of being interviewed. "I'm completely fed up with talking, even about myself," he has said.
He was right, he doesn't do interviews. After an hour of talking, I'm still no nearer to knowing anything about his diving than when I first went in.
He may now be wheelchair-bound, but his mind is still active. At times I feel as though he's interviewing me. He probes me on everything from current affairs to my views on his "ego-chamber", where I had been waiting.
In-between he answers important calls, checks his e-mail and deals with the constant demands on every moment of his time. He shows me photographs on the walls of him with the Pope, Prince Charles, astronauts and Elizabeth Taylor. He wants to know if I'm willing to play him at ping-pong, introduces me to his pet chihuahua, Pepsi, and asks about my thoughts on cloning: "I'm having some of my DNA sent into space. One day someone may make a clone of me!"
Eventually I see some of the books he wrote about his diving adventures on his office bookshelf. "Ah, none of the diving books are in print at the moment - I'd love to get them out again." He picks up his book from the 1950s, The Challenge of the Sea. There is an illustration of men working in an underwater environment. "It was a simple idea, astronauts practising underwater. That was my idea originally."
He outlines his theory on the phases that any new idea goes through: "Don't waste my time; it's possible but not worth doing; I said it was a good idea all along; I thought of it first"!
Against the backdrop of his garden and tropical birdsong, Arthur starts to recount how he came to discover the underwater world.
It all started in 1950, in the White Horse Pub off Fleet Street, where the science fiction enthusiasts of the day would meet to exchange ideas.
In this pub Arthur met Mike Wilson, an ex-merchant marine. As Mike recounted tales of his underwater adventures in the Far East, Arthur became hooked.
Mike seems to have been the catalyst for an idea that was already there. Years later Arthur said of his start in the diving world: "It was my interest in astronautics that led me to the ocean. Both involve exploration, but that's not the only reason. When the first skin-diving equipment started to appear in the late 1940s, I suddenly saw that here was a cheap and simple way of imitating one of the most magical aspects of space flight - weightlessness."
After buying his own skin-diving equipment he practised in local pools and in the English Channel. As for training he says: "There wasn't really any, you just did it."
In 1953 Arthur's writing and book promotion took him out of the country to the USA. "I took my diving equipment and bought an underwater camera." He starts laughing as he recounts one of those cultural hiccups so easy to make in another country.
"I went to the YMCA pool in Atlanta to test my new underwater camera against a colour chart. The pool was empty when I went in. What I didn't know was that in those days the YMCA men swam in the nude. I can't imagine what they must have thought!"
As he worked his way down the East Coast, he took every opportunity he could to go diving, including in Florida's freshwater springs.
"I took my camera in with me. I didn't really know what I was going to photograph until I came head-to-head with an alligator! It was so close to me, all I could think about was taking its photograph. I didn't think that it would attack and as I took pictures it must have sensed that it wasn't scaring me. It just turned around and swam off."
Arthur's friendship with Mike Wilson continued and it wasn't long before they put their plans to explore the world's oceans into practice. In 1954 Arthur set off on the ss Himalaya to Australia, to explore and photograph the Barrier Reef for a book, The Coast of Coral. It was en route that he first visited Sri Lanka. There he met Rodney Jonklaas, famous on the island for his spearfishing activities.
Once he had completed his work in Australia, Arthur went back to Sri Lanka with Mike at Rodney's invitation. The three of them photographed and filmed Sri Lanka's then plentiful shark population, explored new dive sites, and discovered wrecks full of treasure.
For years they were part of the early pioneering diving scene. In such a small community of divers it was inevitable that Arthur would meet other names in diving: "I had a lot of contact over the years with the Cousteaus." And, true to form, Arthur is quick to remember the amusing times. "I remember when Jacques brought up some 2000-year-old wine from a Greek wreck. He opened some, drank it, licked his lips, waited a moment and just said: 'Mmm, bad century'!"
Having made so many accurate predictions for the future in his science-fiction books, I wondered if Arthur had any predictions for the diving world. "Ah, I'm sorry, I don't take much of an interest in diving any more," he confesses. He did his last dive several years ago, at the age of 75. The dive site was a wreck at 30m, which he renamed "the Polyp Gardens" because of its abundance of coral polyps. There can't be many divers who dive up to this age; perhaps he can be excused for not taking an interest any more.
I tell him about some of the latest developments in diving, starting with rebreather technology. He is fascinated by the new equipment and how it has the outward appearance of an astronaut's backpack. After listening, he sits back and asks: "Whatever happened to that idea that was in the film The Abyss - you know, that liquid that you could breathe?"
Ideas in such films are often the result of the writer's and director's experiences. I ask what influences his diving had on the movie of his book, 2001: A Space Odyssey. He talks about the space walk and the training for it. Then, remembering the camera the astronauts used to take photographs of the monolith on the moon, I ask Arthur if this was based on a housed underwater camera. He grins and nods.
He doesn't seem too impressed by the developments in free-diving as a sport: "It all seems a bit silly really." He then thinks for a while and says excitedly: "I did a breath-hold for 3 minutes and 45 seconds once. It was on the ss Himalaya (his trip to Australia in 1953) and I was practising in the ship's pool. I would have got to 4 minutes if I hadn't been interrupted by the other passengers. But you can't really blame them for being concerned!"
Although he may call it "silly" now, Arthur used to conduct 30m free-dives regularly. It was on one such occasion in 1973 that he damaged his inner ear. "All the diving hasn't helped with my hearing," he admits.
With this background it's no surprise that one of his favourite films is The Big Blue: "I love the soundtrack and its ideas." He frowns as he remembers that he has lent out his only copy and can't remember to whom.
Arthur has always shown a concern for the marine environment, especially in Sri Lanka. In 1996 he was quoted as saying: "The ocean is man's last frontier. Until now we have been hunters and gatherers... now we must be responsible farmers." He has also written on marine issues in the story The Deep Range, all about ocean farming and whale-ranching.
And he has repeatedly spoken out against the dynamiting of the reefs and coral mining. I ask him what his latest concerns are. "I'm interested in what is being done around the world to monitor dolphins. With tagging and research we're finding out more. There used to be a large pod off Trincomalee (on the north-east coast of Sri Lanka) but I don't think they are there now. Too much dynamiting." This isn't dynamiting by fishermen, but part of the efforts of the military to prevent Tamil Tiger incursions.
I talked to Arthur just before my diving tour of the island started. What I'd really come to hear were his views on Sri Lanka's diving and what to look out for. Throughout the interview he had evaded questions on the subject, and only as I was leaving did he comment.
What he said didn't have much significance for me at the time, but after the trip I thought about what he had been trying to say. Was there more than one meaning to his parting words: "Look out for the sharks"?
Appeared in DIVER - May 1999