As autobiographical summaries go, “I’m just an ordinary guy who has done a bit of collecting,” doesn’t exactly do justice to the life aquatic of Ray Ives. Here is a man, after all, who had to be brought back from the dead after he passed out on the bottom of the sea due to incorrectly mixed gas in his tanks; a man who was required to live for up to 35 days at a time in a cramped underwater chamber as one of the country’s first ‘saturation divers’ – a career that took him all over the world; a man who worked alongside Red Adair for ten months in 1981 trying to counter the catastrophic Ixtoc oil leak in the Bay of Campeche, Mexico.
To meet Ray Ives, however, is to understand that the 76-year-old former Royal Marine and commercial diver is really not very comfortable talking about the experiences he has had. He’s genuinely bemused as to why anyone would want to make a film about him, as a local director did in 2011 for an award-winning short story, or indeed interview him for a Sea Portrait. So it is fortunate that his story unfolds through the remarkable collection of artifacts that he has ‘scrannyed’ from his years of diving in the waters around the South West. Some people are a mine of information: in Ray’s case, he’s a museum.
Housed in a pair of converted cargo containers on Yacht Haven Quay, ‘Ray’s Plaice’ is nearing completion at the time of our visit. Our ‘curator’ is busy applying the finishing touches – placing a deep-sea diving helmet atop a ship’s binnacle; setting World War II ammunition alongside 17th century cannonballs; and to the walls sticking archive pictures of his escapades around the world.
“Most of this stuff I found on my dives around Plymouth, Dartmouth and Brixham – you can’t believe some of the things people dump at sea,” he says. “It’s like the biggest rubbish dump in the world: ammunition, lamps, bottles, guns, bayonets, a rapier dating back to 1722 – I've picked up all sorts. Some of it has come from wrecks – like this piece of leather here. That was from the Catharine, which sank in Plymouth Sound in 1786. I've found rare coins – you always get excited when you see something shiny!”
As word of his collection has spread, so the ‘donations’ have started to come in – a preserved leatherback turtle shell which washed up in West Cornwall; an antique cannon still in working order; a Sten machine gun and some rifles. And then there are the diving pumps and hoses that remind you just how slender the umbilical cord to life was for a diver in the industry, working 600-feet below the surface in near total darkness.
“I suppose you could say I'm a pirate, a modern day pirate,” Ray says after some consideration.
Now we're talking.