Noel Edwin Hitchins was born on 21 October 1951 to George and Peg Hitchins. George worked for the Department of Immigration and so Noel's early years were spent in Canberra. His older sister, Barbara, says that Noel had the job in Canberra to bring in coal for the house's combustion heater. In a move that would be an early guide to his later actions, Noel seldom bought the coal in himself, arranging for his mates to carry the coal on his behalf.
In about 1960 the family moved to London, England, when George took up the post of Chief Immigration Officer at the Australian High Commission. On the six week boat trip they stopped in many ports, probably giving Noel the hunger for visiting remote locations that would be with him for the rest of his life. On one occasion on the voyage, Noel was apparently caught climbing down the anchor line to retrieve his football.
In London, Noel came home from his first day at school with 20 of his new mates. For the next five years the Hitchins lived in London. George purchased a motor home and most weekends he took the family sightseeing. They travelled all over England, Scotland and Wales and during school holidays, the ventured afield to Europe.
On these trips, Noel was given the role to collect timber for campfires and barbecuing. However, much like his time in Canberra, he soon rounded up the kids staying in the caravan parks and got them to gather the timber on his behalf.
In about 1965 the family moved back to Australia where they purchased a house in Maroubra in Sydney's south-eastern suburbs. Noel went to Maroubra High School and his first days back were a bit rough, he was a cockney speaking pommy, even wearing an English school uniform. The surf loving 'bra boys would not have liked this, and he had a few fights before being accepted as an Aussie.
Around this time Noel was walking around Lurline Bay, a small bay on the north side of Maroubra, when he saw a much older bloke fishing. This was xxxxx (sorry, name to come). He was all of 19 years old. Noel soon was snorkelling in Lurline Bay and in a short period of time, he and xxx had started a spearfishing club, the Maroubra Shags. Within two weeks the Club had 20 members, with Noel as the President.
When Noel left school he started work as a clerk in the NSW Housing Commission. At the same time he was studying and later started work as a Pathology Technician at St Margaret's Hospital. He was the only male among all the female nurses and he was very popular with his mates when the end of year parties started.
In 1969 Noel travelled to the Mid North Coast of NSW and the village of South West Rocks. He went snorkelling at a place called Fish Rock. This was the cleanest water he had ever seen. Returning to Sydney, he declared that one day he would return to SWR to set up a dive centre.
When he was 23, Noel spent nine months in the Cook Islands with Mick Stewart. From here he went to England meeting up with George and Peg. During the eight months in England, Noel met an American, Paula. Paula would later marry Noel. From England, he moved to America for a year before returning to Sydney.
Shortly after returning, Noel and Paula moved to Kempsey, the town closest to SWR. Here he worked as a Pathology Technician at the Kempsey Hospital. Noel was preparing to live his dream.
In December 1980 Noel opened the South West Rocks Marine and Auto Centre. Mick Stewart looked after the auto side of things while Noel ran the dive, fishing and marine shop with help from Paula. Soon they had three sons, Peter, Kevin and Nick.
One of the early decisions made by Noel was to offer boat dives no matter how few people had booked in. He would take out as few as two divers, sometimes even going for one person. This was a very successful move as the word soon got around that you could get a dive at SWR even if there were only two of you on a trip. Soon he was running boats on most weekdays and it was very rare for him to have to run out to Fish Rock with less than a full boat. He also expanded the business and built a huge expansion at the back of the existing shop. This contained a new auto workshop, two shops, a new dive shop and dedicated dive accommodation. The two shops were leased out to Government departments guaranteeing income.
As anyone would tell you, Noel would never pay for something he thought he could do himself. His two dive boats were Alloy Cats (nicknamed Alley Cats) and over the years they were much modified and their engines rebuilt time after time. I remember a number of times when he grabbed me to assist him in making major modifications to the boats. His biggest work was when he cut the boats in half and welded in a new section to create much bigger boats. While Noel was certainly a good businessman, he was not the most organised person. In fact, he was probably one of the least organised people I have ever met in my life. Dives never left on time, he often forgot he had taken bookings for people, nothing ever ran to a timetable. However, despite this, people liked diving with Noel. His personality was overwhelming, his sense of humour catching, his love of diving catching.
In the early 1990s Noel separated from Paula and in 1994 Noel decided to split the businesses and concentrate on diving. The fishing and marine centre was sold off but he retained the ownership of the buildings.
Around this time, Belinda Kerr came to work for Noel. Belinda was a dive instructor (Noel was not) and she was the opposite of Noel. Organised, neat and of course, beautiful, she soon made the business even more successful. She took over the upfront management and soon got Noel organised (well as much as anyone ever could). Dives started to leave on time, the snacks on the boat improved (and were never forgotten back in the shop) but the laughs on the boat remained.
It was not too long before Noel and Belinda fell in love and in June 1996 their son Tim was born. The business thrived. Noel started to further his studies, finally becoming an dive instructor, a Master Class 5 and even undertaking real estate studies.
It was around this time that Noel decided to campaign for further protection to Fish Rock and grey nurse sharks. Even though by now he had been diving Fish Rock almost every day for more than 16 years, he saw that the local environment was changing. He noticed was that tiny anemones, never seen before at Fish Rock, were colonising the area and soon after, very small clownfish taking up residence in the anemones. At the same time, the grey nurse sharks which had previously only been seen at limited times of the year and even then, in small numbers, seemed to be increasingly being seen.
Like anything Noel did, he did not do it by half. He tirelessly campaigned for the protection of Fish Rock and grey nurses. He was rewarded with some limited protection for Fish Rock from spearfishing and later, the declaration of protection zones for grey nurse sharks around the island.
Together with Belinda, they entered the dive centre in the local tourism awards and in 2000 they won a NSW Tourism Award for excellence in ecotourism.
In 2000 Noel and Belinda purchased a property west of Kempsey. Nicknamed The Prickle Farm due to its infestation with lantana and other weeks, it was Noel's retreat. Never able to sit around doing nothing, on days when diving was not possible (and even after a day's diving), Noel would be at the property slashing and poisoning the weeds and building a shed. As with all things, Noel roped many friends and visitors into helping.
In late 2001 Noel when visiting Sydney to be presented with an award for his efforts in the protection of the grey nurse shark, he became ill. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but he never let this fact extend beyond his immediate family. About this time Noel encouraged his eldest sons to work in the business and the boys were soon being tutored by Noel in dive mastering and coxswaining.
In late 2003 Noel let the boys take over more responsibility for the running of the dive operation and when in early 2004 he put the South West Rocks Dive Centre up for sale, many people could not understand how he could be considering getting out of the dive industry.
Noel had started building a tree house for Tim. After seeing an episode of Law and Order in which a young boy who lost his father was found sitting in his unfinished tree house, Noel was spurred into action and finished the structure in time for Tim to celebrate his 8th birthday with his mates in the tree house.
Noel's illness had seemed to be under control but in 2004 it deteriorated with the cancer spreading throughout his body.
During the second week of February 2005, Noel had become so affected by the disease that he was severely weakened. Towards the end of the week it became too much for him to bear and he decided that he could no longer fight it.
In the early hours of Saturday 12 February 2005, Noel died.
Noel's funeral ceremony was held on 15 February 2005 at Smoky Cape Lighthouse at South West Rocks. This location looks out over the dive sites that Noel took so many thousands of divers out to visit, Green Island, Black Rock and, of course, Fish Rock. As well as his wife Belinda and youngest son Tim, his eldest sons Peter, Kevin and Nick, his father George, his sister Barbara who was visiting from the US and his ex-wife Paula were in attendance. The weather was perfect, with the water a tropical blue colour.
Attending the funeral were well over a hundred people. Local friends and divers from South West Rocks attended in large numbers with others like his business partner and long time mate, Mick and employees like long time coxswain Trevor.
Friends from his schoolboy days in Maroubra like Phil Short, Dave Burns and Paul Wright were there.
The dive industry was well represented, with Dive Adventures owner Jerry Witkowski and longtime employees Samantha Jackman and Jane Jenkins, dive shop owners Ron Hunter from Forster, Chris Connell from Mullaway, Bob Diaz from The Entrance, Chris Norman from Nelson Bay,
People came from as far afield as the Gold Coast and numerous people travelled from Sydney.
It was a very moving ceremony, with Peter, Kevin and Nick speaking about their Dad's influence on them. Other speakers included Ron Hunter giving a rendition of how Noel finally got him back many years later for ripping him off when he purchased his first wetsuit. Even the person who introduced Noel to the sea way back in 1965, was there.
After the ceremony, a few people went to the Smoky Cape Cemetery where Noel was laid to rest. Afterwards, a short wake was held back at the lighthouse. Many people also took the opportunity to walk up to the lighthouse lookout and said a few quiet words while overlooking Fish Rock.
It was a long trip back to Sydney.
I first met Noel Hitchins in the early 1980s when I visited South West Rocks regularly on holidays. During these visits I used to buy bait and other things from him but I never really knew him. When I decided to learn to dive, I actually inquired about being taught at Noel's shop, but ended up being taught at Jervis Bay. Over Easter 1989 when planning a trip to SWR, I decided to do some dives. As Noel's shop was busy on Good Friday, I booked in with Noel's opposition, Action Divers.
On arriving at The Rocks, my brother Stephen said I had to meet this crazy bloke who ran the other dive shop. After the Easter weekend, we booked in on a dive with SWR Marine and Auto Centre. Thus I really met Noel and we became friends for the rest of his life.
Over the years since then I visited SWR more times than I can count. I soon discovered that some other people Stephen and I knew from Sydney were boyhood mates of Noel's (Phil Short and Dave Burns) and we had all grown up in the Maroubra area, although Noel was a few years older. On days when there were not too many customers, we would spend our time on the run out to Fish Rock, the surface interval and the trip back asking the most ridiculous trivia questions, telling the worst jokes and laughing all the time. With Noel, a dive trip was never boring.
Soon I was staying at Noel's house when visiting and being treated as friend rather than a customer. We did many insane things over the years. Noel decided at one time to build an artifical reef off the main beach and we transported things like Hills Hoists, tyres, motor cycles and other things out on the boat to the site. A full sized Hills Hoist is not the easiest thing to transport on a small boat.
On the same trip we took the clothes line out, we did a dive that as far as I know has only been done that once. Noel led a dive with my brother Stephen, Phil Short (a mate of Noel's from Maroubra and a member of our dive Club), Frank Coyne Jr and myself where we did a circumnavigation of Fish Rock in perfect conditions. What a dive!
When Noel or Belinda went overseas and had to fly out of Sydney, or had business in Sydney, invariably they would stay at my place. In return, I stayed at their place, although Noel got a lot of work out of me, getting me to assist his boat modifications and repairs, taking me to the prickle farm to labour, becoming his assistant when moving Belinda's parents and leading dives for him when there were too many inexperienced divers for him to handle.
When Noel died, I was in Melbourne on a dive trip. Belinda rang me to tell me the news. Like everyone else, I was shocked. Now things made sense, Noel putting the dive business up for sale and then setting his eldest boys up in the business. I never could figure out why someone who loved the sea and diving so much could just get out of the business. Now I knew why.
The trip back to Sydney and the very early drive to SWR for Noel's funeral was like a bad dream. Even when I met up with the many friends at Smoky Cape, it still did not seem real.
Noel, I and many others will miss you. The dive industry of Australia has lost its most unique and lovable character. Life for many of us when visiting South West Rocks will never be the same again.