Life on Newcastle harbour isn’t easy - it can be wet, cold, dirty and often lonely.
But, for Fullerton Cove fisherman Phil Blanch, there is no better place to be.
And he’s thought that for the 36 years he’s been fishing.
His opinion is echoed by the many other harbour workers. Ferry deckhands, harbour divers, marine police, tug masters, hydro surveyors and even the Port of Newcastle CEO all agree - it’s great to work on the harbour.
As the morning sun rises over the water and a brisk breeze drifts around the harbour, even when it carries a sometimes-pungent smell of fish, it’s hard to disagree.
The way of life is what Phil loves most about his job.
“It’s a beautiful spot to be in, you can’t beat it: it’s a lifestyle,” he said.
“Imagine in the spring when the sun comes out and it’s crystal and warm - there’s no better place to be,” he said.
A fisherman’s day can start as early as 3am and can continue long into the night. It depends what you’re catching, what season it is and whether there’s competition about.
“It’s a hard life,” Phil says with a chuckle as he clasps a fish captured in his net and throws it into a bucket.
In our harbour, there’s a smorgasbord of fish to find, from hairtail, bream, jewfish, flathead and mullet to prawns and blue swimmer and mud crabs.
Phil is a multipurpose fisherman with multiple licenses, allowing him to catch fish, prawns and crabs.
But, it comes with responsibility.
“Tourists take everything, but commercial fisherman try to respect the industry,” he said.
“The popularity of hairtail fish really, really hurt the industry this year.”
It’s not just the tourists Phil needs to watch out for. There’s competition among commercial fishermen too. He says you’ve got to be careful on the water, especially leaving crab traps out, because there’s thieves about.
Fishing is like a game, Phil says, you never know who has already been on the water before you.
“It’s a shhh kind of game,” he said.
And it’s a game that, according to Phil, is in your blood. A third generation fisherman himself, Phil says on those freezing, lonely nights it can be hard, but there’s something special about being on the water alone, with nothing but fish to keep you company.
“I love the fresh air, the water does something to you. It’s like a campfire you just want to sit and watch.
“You don’t earn no money, but it’s beautiful being out in the water, plus you get to eat fresh seafood.”
Although it’s a competitive industry, it doesn’t stop fellow fishing mates from having a yack on the water.
“There are many other blokes you run into and you end up sitting there and talking for an hour,” Phil said.
“But, it’s not just the blokes that come up to you, the pelicans do too.”
Phil remembers an inquisitive dolphin peering about in the harbour once upon a time.
He says it used to come right up to the side of the boats, and it stuck around for about four years, but then disappeared.
“It was marvellous, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
In fact, in his time as a fisherman, there’s been more than a few times where he’s seen the unexpected.
He’s put nets out and retrieved pistols, rusted safes and the usual items like shopping trolleys and car parts.
“It’s a funny little industry,” he said.
“Every day is different, it beats being inside all day.”
And that sentiment is echoed by harbour diver David Purser. Much of David’s life has been spent under or on top of water and he says there’s a certain amount of nerve you’ve got to have to be in that line of work.
He’s been working on Newcastle harbour since 1973 and says while the equipment and safety requirements of the job have changed, the job itself has stayed the same.
David owns marine structure and rehabilitation company Harbourworks and together with his three-man team, they do everything from underwater welding, to underwater carpentry and even cutting steel two inches thick underwater.
“Anything that is in the water and under the water, we work on,” David said.
Their work is labour intensive and requires a certain level of fitness, especially because they can be underwater for up to four hours carrying a 12kg helmet on their head, an oxygen tank on their back and specialist tools in their hands.
“The divers have to do push ups regularly to keep up their shoulder strength,” David says with a smirk.
Today, divers go through diving schools, but in the earlier days, David said you learnt by getting a job on the harbour, which is exactly what he did.
He started by cleaning the bottom of ships while they were in the harbour. But, his love for the water started much earlier than that.
“I spent my life on the water, I was a spear fisherman beforehand,” he said.
“We’ve all spent our lives on the water because to do this job, you have to be water orientated.”
You also need to have a lot of confidence in what you’re doing, because most of the time, you’re working with about half a metre of visibility.
“If you can see your hands, that’s a good thing,” he jokes.
“People ask us about running into sharks while we work, but we can’t see them either.”
A lot of the work the divers do is in complete darkness. Doug Wilson has been a diver for 10 years and said he developed a familiarity with the work his hands needed to do.
“It’s definitely hard work, you’ve got to have a certain amount of nerve” David said.
“But, we go to work each day and it’s never the same.”