People and Places
29/09/2021
Man on a mission to save the Otama
by Mornington Peninsula Magazine

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Wayne Gibbs

Wayne Gibbs

Photos supplied by Western Port Oberon Association

As a little boy, Wayne Gibbs would rush home from school to watch his favourite TV show, Flipper, and on Saturday nights his parents knew the TV was reserved for him to watch the ultimate man of the sea, Jacques Cousteau. “I always wanted to be a diver, ever since I was a little boy,” Wayne says. “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve dived Tahiti to Palau and seen many incredible things, but the biggest joy was teaching people to dive. Taking them for their first scuba dive, a simple dive (at) Portsea pier or Mornington pier, and they’d come out of the water absolutely blown away as if they’d been to Mars or the moon.”

Wayne has been fortunate to combine his great loves – the sea, diving, and filmmaking – in his career. He started out with a dive shop and charter business, then became an underwater cameraman, and then moved on to owning and operating a television production company. Wayne filmed and produced several documentaries aired in Australia on National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. Through his production work, Wayne met Max Bryant, the president of the Western Port Oberon Association. WPOA volunteers operate the Victorian Maritime Centre at Crib Point. “I’ve volunteered with the maritime centre from day one; that’s about 20 years now,” Wayne says. “I assist with all their video requirements, website management and social media.”

The Victorian Maritime Centre is a not-for-profit organisation whose volunteers maintain the museum, curate the collection, and catalogue maritime items. “We also provide tours to car groups, motorbike groups, yachting groups, Scouts or Girl Guide groups. We have visitors from all over.”

Wayne and Max were united by a major WPOA project: to bring HMAS Otama from Fremantle to Hastings. “One day Max phoned me up and said, ‘Do you know anything about Otama the submarine?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know all about it’. Max said, ‘I’m going to try and get it for Hastings and I would like you on board the project’.” WPOA was successful in its application to secure the vessel, and with a $500,000 grant under the Centenary of Federation program the HMAS Otama was moved here in April 2002.

Max’s original vision for HMAS Otama was to develop the submarine into one of Victoria’s premier tourist attractions, similar to HMAS Ovens at the Western Australia Maritime Museum. The WPOA is committed to preserving HMAS Otama as a tourist attraction, to pay tribute to those who served in Australia’s silent service, and to honour the two Royal Australian Navy sailors who lost their lives while working in the conning tower when the sub dived off Sydney Harbour in August 1987. It is also committed to enhancing the prosperity of Hastings and surrounding towns through tourists drawn to see the submarine.

Wayne explains the significance of the Oberon-class sub in Australian defence history: “Otama was a spy vessel, one of two Cold War vessels. HMAS Orion was the other sub. They went places they shouldn’t have really been. The crew of these tours received medals, though they have no idea what actually for.”

Photo supplied by Western Port Oberon Association

The dream to bring HMAS Otama ashore and restore it as a tourist attraction is no small task. “Progress has been slowed through changes in government and securing council approvals.” Last February, its future came under threat when the vessel began listing. “A strong storm caused a ballast tank to take on water, which caused the list. However, the hull is totally intact.” The WPOA has also been issued with ‘direction to move’ notices by Parks Victoria over the past three months, and there’s been community division about whether the vessel should be brought ashore and preserved, or sent to the scrapyard. “We have been working a number of Facebook pages and at the moment it is running about 97 per cent positive for the project.”

Two petitions were lodged with the Victorian Legislative Council last July. The first was from the WPOA calling for government support to preserve the submarine as a tourist attraction and will be tabled in Parliament by retiring Eastern Victoria state Liberal MP Edward O’Donohue; the second calls for the submarine to be removed from Western Port because its “dangerous condition” makes it a “threat to the internationally recognised and protected waters of the Western Port Ramsar site”.

The WPOA has been given until October 2 by Parks Victoria to find a way to bring HMAS Otama ashore. Parks Victoria’s marine and maritime regional director Jo Richards said: “We will continue to work with the Western Port Oberon Association on the future of ex-HMAS Otama.” 

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