A History of diving in Gibraltar
In early 2020, a paper was released suggesting that Neanderthals living in Italy were purposefully diving to the seafloor in order to obtain specific shells, which were later used as tools. As such, the origins of diving may lie in much deeper antiquity than once believed. By the time of the Great civilizations such as Greece or Rome, diving was commonplace. Scholars such as Plato and Homer describe the use of sea sponges for bathing, the likes of which must be recovered from the seafloor. In the days of the Greeks this was achieved by freediving using weights, a system still used on islands such as Kalymnos to this day. Accounts from conflicts such as the Peloponnesian war also state the importance of military divers.
Other writers such as Aristotle described that Alexander the Great typically dove using an early diving bell, exploring much of the Mediterranean. The Romans also used diving to collect Murex shells, which could be used to create a purple dye, typically worn by senators or state officials. Numerous records detail the use of diving bells and weights to allow for such dives also.
The use of diving bells became widespread with many companies using them for salvaging wrecks. The use of a bell allowed a large volume of air to be lowered down to depths. This allowed a free diver to remain submerged for an extensive period of time.
By the 1600s, diving developed once again. While diving bells had become commonplace, the first diving suits were developed. While diving bells remained popular, accounts from Germany, Spain, England and others show that numerous inventors developed their own versions of underwater breathing apparatus.
In Gibraltar, records of two brothers John and William Braithwaite show that numerus salvage dives were carried out around the 1780s. Due to the high number of wrecks submerged around the Strait of Gibraltar, they created a successful business for themselves.
While the Braithwaite’s were using their design, the reported first “successful” diving helmet was patented in 1829. The inventors, two Englishmen named Charles and John Deane later published the first diving manual, following successful dives on wrecks such as the Mary Rose.
The development of self-contained rebreathers were developed in the early 1800s. One such example was developed by Sierur Toubolic, a mechanic in Napoleon’s Imperial Navy. This early design worked with an oxygen reservoir being delivered constantly by the diver themselves and circulating in a closed circuit through a sponge soaked in limewater.
This was developed overtime into what we know now as scuba. Scuba apparatus came in open and closed circuits; where the used air is released into the water or where the diver’s carbon dioxide is filtered from unused oxygen. The open circuit was popularised in the early 1940s by individuals such as Jacques-Yves Cousteau. However, the closed circuit was developed and utilised by Militaries around the globe including in Gibraltar, especially during World wars 1 and 2.
Two Lieutenants, “Bill” Bailey and “Buster” Crabb formed one of the earliest counter-defence diving teams. Their main adversaries were Italian frogmen operating from further up the Spanish coast, under the instructions of J. Valerio Borghese. The aim of these frogmen was to place explosive charges on allied ships at anchor without detection. The Italian frogmen were also better equipped than the British who lacked even basic essentials such as flippers. One notable altercation occurred between Bailey and an Italian frogman in the summer of 1942. Both men drew knives, with Bailey coming out as the victor without any notable injuries.
Following WW2, diving on the rock became more accessible. Recreational diving truly began on the Rock in the 1960s, mainly in the guise of spearfishing using an aqualung. It was not until the Royal Engineers developed their own diving club for serving personnel and select individuals that Gibraltar had a specified club for divers. The British Sub-Aqua club Special Branch 317 (BSAC Special Club 317) later joined with the RAF Diving club to form the Joint Services Sub-Aqua club under the direction of Colonel Ernie Archer and Major Peter Ormroid. By the 1970s saw the arrival of a civilian BSAC branch dubbed the BSAC 888 club Gibraltar. Headed by two BSAC instructors, Eric Shaw and Frank Denham, the club saw numerous members in its early years and still retains many of them. In present, Gibraltar still has a BSAC diving schools, in addition to one run PADI, as well as NOUWI.
To this day, Gibraltar remains an impressive dive location given its wealth of history, including numerous wrecks ranging from Spanish siege barges, tanks, planes in addition to the world’s first artificial reef- the Camp Bay Artificial Reef Project. The other draw to diving in Gibraltar is the unique range of flora and fauna, resulting from the combination of the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The Rock draws a large number of divers each year and will likely continue to do so for years to come. The accessibility of diving courses is at an all-time high, making it the perfect time to learn, or for those more experienced divers, to get back in the water.