LOOKING BACK: PETER WRIGHT
Peter Wright established the first dive boat charter out of Port Douglas in 1982, an operation that grew into the Poseidon business. He talks about those days — and now – with Pam Willis Burden
Peter Wright charted a round about course to becoming a pioneer of the reef dive industry.
He had always loved sailing and diving, but coming to Australia, after adventurous times in East Africa and the Caribbean, to buy a dairy farm in Malanda in 1974 was something quite different.
Peter and Barbara, with their two daughters, stayed there for five years while Peter and his farming partner completed a trial to grow cinchona, the quinine tree whose bark is harvested for use in anti-malarial drugs. Although it grew well, Australian labour costs were too high to sustain the project.
So the family came to Port and bought Whispering Palms, which he named. Formerly called Four Mile Beach Holiday Units, it consisted of a small house and six units in Langley Road, which was then a dirt track.
Peter remembers Port was a very nice little town in the early 1980s. “There were only a few hundred residents so everybody knew each other. Shoes were optional,” he said.
The Post Office was the meeting place because there were no mail deliveries.
There were probably 15 fishing trawlers operating and a few mackerel boats, but there was no marina until the Sheraton got up and running.
The main restaurants were Island Point, Nautilus and Catalina. Then Pier 319 was built and became a thriving venue and Peter remembers going to its nightclub, a social hub.
Peter designed Scheherazade, a 55 ft aluminium yacht which he put into chartering in 1982. Divers would spend 7-10 days on the Ribbon Reefs and venture into the Coral Sea.
“The boat was spartan by today’s standards with one toilet and no air-con,” he said. “But the food was very good and the diving superb. We took a maximum of six divers who were generally more experienced then, when diving was an adventure sport and not a social one.”
They did a great deal of exploratory diving and Peter found the best sites for them.
Peter’s was the only boat in Port Douglas dedicated to diving. The only other dive boats were based in Cairns.
From Port Douglas, Quicksilver II visited the outer reef with snorkellers and the Martin Cash had been operating since 1979 to Low Isles. Manny Sims ran Doreen Too on extended fishing trips right up to Cape York.
There were no moorings then, and no permits. “All you needed was a boat in survey and a licensed skipper,” said Peter. “You could go wherever you liked, and do whatever you liked.” Boats anchored right on the reef and sites were unlimited.
Peter’s first permit arrived in the mail after he had been operating for several years, and it was free.
Now permits can cost up to half a million dollars, but only the existing moorings can be bought and sold.
Peter explored all the reefs and made notes of the good ones because there was no GPS then. “You worked on dead reckoning and made accurate observations of where you were.”
When he went into the Coral Sea he used a sextant and tables for navigation.
Everybody swam year round. ”We never worried about Irukanji stingers, we’d never even heard of them in the early 80s. We were aware of Box Jellyfish on Four Mile Beach but people didn’t seem to worry about them very much and there were no recorded stings. There were definitely more turtles in those days and they do eat jellyfish, so they possibly kept the numbers down.”
Now Peter wears a lycra stinger suit even on the outer reef, but for 20 years he never bothered, and just wore his bathers.
Peter ran Scheherazade until 1992. “I had ran aground in the Trobriand Islands in New Guinea and the boat was totally stripped by the local islanders before it could be refloated.”
So Peter returned to Port Douglas and drove other people’s boats, including Nimrod, and Challenger and Coralita out of Cairns.
In 1994 he started the Poseidon brand with a 16 metre aluminum cray boat from Fremantle. He brought it round the top of Australia to Port Douglas and began daily snorkel and dive tours to the outer reef, taking 30 passengers.
His next boat, Poseidon II, was a 20 metre catamaran, custom built by Aluminum Marine in Brisbane in 1997, carrying 48 passengers. Peter had noticed a sliding rear platform on the live-aboard Undersea Explorer in Port and refined it for Possi II. “It was the best thing that ever happened to a catamaran because it gave you a really good waterlevel working platform which was fully retractable up to deck level when you were travelling. All the boats use that system now.”
In 2001 Poseidon III was launched, a 24 metre catamaran that could take 80 passengers.
The coral at the Cod Hole and Osprey Reef was hit by Cyclone Ivor in 1990 and there was 30-40 metre deep damage. But Peter says it recovered 4-5 years ago, even the soft corals did. “Osprey’s a brilliant reef but very badly needs protection from potential fishing threats.”
On a recent snorkel, Peter observed “The coral is just as good as prior to bleaching. A lot of it has recovered. There are patches of damage but it’s nothing like the scare stories in the press for the areas that day boats visit.
“It’s important to improve the water quality by reducing run off. The Reef is resilient but it can only be rebuilt after crown of thorns or bleaching events if the water is healthy and not too loaded with fertiliser or sediment.”
Peter says that CoTs destroy themselves eventually after eating out all the coral. They starve to death. The coral regenerates after the next spawning but he says “bad water quality is very advantageous to CoT at the juvenile stage, which benefits from increased phospherous and nitrogen in the water. They’ve only become a problem because of the slight deterioration in water quality and the removal of the triton conch shell which is a proven predator. Some snappers and maori wrasse occasionally eat juvenile CoT, so any fishing pressure is bound to have a detrimental effect on the balance.
“The greatest threat to the reef has always been cyclones because they totally devastate any reef in their path, but a healthy system will regenerate.”
He’s been bumped in the body twice by sharks but fortunately never bitten. Once, his passengers were sitting underwater waiting to see sharks. Peter dived down with a yummy yellow video camera and the shark came out of the blue and tried to take it, but hit him in the stomach. Iit’s the biggest fright he’s had with a shark.
In May 2014 he sold his Poseidon business to Quicksilver. “I was 74 years old, I’d had over 30 years of chartering full on, so I felt it was probably time to move on.”
Peter remarks “I personally hope that Port Douglas doesn’t develop to become a second Gold Coast, or move into highrise buildings. The quality of the resorts here already is excellent and I’d hope that any new development would maintain that quality.”
All you needed was a boat in survey and a licensed skipper. You could go wherever you liked, and do whatever you liked
Main photo: Peter Wright today. Inset, bottom left: Peter with grandson David in 1997. Top right: Poseidon III. Right: With a giant potato cod