Richard James Dunbar Harris SC OAM (known as “Harry” to pretty much everyone except his dad, who called him Bert) is prepared to admit that if there was one time in his life when he was somewhat brave – at least for a few hours – it was this:
“I was 15, and me and a mate, Sam, were on an open-water diving course,” Harry says. “We were in the Gulf of St Vincent, five or six kilometres off the South Australian coast with our instructor and two other students. It was around 5pm when it suddenly got very rough. We went down one wave, smashed into the back of the next and the boat flipped over, tipping us all into the ocean.
“We managed to right it, but the boat was swamped and the engine wouldn’t start. From then on, we pretty much sat in this boat that was full of cold water for the rest of the night. Every now and again we’d hit another massive wave, the boat would throw us out and we’d have to scramble in again. It was a horrendous night. Sam and I tried to crack jokes and keep morale up because the two other students seemed very frightened – one of them started praying. I remember thinking, ‘We’re actually being quite heroic here,’ but by about two in the morning, my courage had deserted me.
How frightened were you?
I don’t remember fear being the emotion. It was more a sense of, ‘When will this misery ever end?’ And the thought that we might not actually make it. The boat’s floorboards started to pop up and the polystyrene flotation was drifting away, so the boat was actually sinking, and I realised that, even with a life jacket on, you could easily drown … It was a feeling of desperation. Thankfully, we were finally rescued by an old fisherman at daybreak.
Was that the kind of kid you were growing up –the kind who’d crack jokes in difficult situations?
I was the class clown and I was fairly extroverted when I was younger. I grew up as a skinny, sunburnt kid living in the suburbs of Adelaide. I was outside the house from dawn to dusk, hanging out with the local kids, kicking the footy, riding bikes, exploring, damming up the creek, catching tadpoles. I had two older sisters and lots of cousins – a big extended family. It was a stable, loving family, a very fortunate upbringing.
I’ve heard your mum and dad had to dissuade you from a few crazy ideas.
I don’t think I had any crazy ideas!
The one about turning the rose garden into a lizard pit?
Alright, there was that one. So Dad loved animals. He was a doctor, but his main passion was Australian birds, and parrots in particular. He had three really big aviaries in the backyard. I shared his passion for keeping creatures. I always had funny pets, like cardboard boxes with skinks and fish tanks with yabbies.
Once I set up an aquarium in the house from stuff that I’d caught off the coast, including a heap of crabs, and of course they all escaped from the tank. I remember literally six months later, I heard my mum shriek and there was this crab under the curtains, completely covered in fluff and dust, but still blowing bubbles from its little mouth.
Also, I really loved reptiles and I wanted to get a proper enclosure where I could keep big monitor lizards and snakes. Dad had this rose garden that he was very proud of and I thought we could maybe turn that into another aviary that I could keep my lizards in. He was very unhappy with that idea.
Have you watched The Durrells?
Yes! I was a bit like Gerald Durrell. Maybe not as bad, but the same idea of wanting to capture and study things.
Then you wanted to study marine biology.
When I was eight or 10, I started snorkelling and walking around on reefs. There was a family friend, Pat Harbison, who was a marine biologist and she made that idea turn into something more concrete.
She was a very patient woman. I’d go spearfishing and bring back fish and she’d tell me all about them … and all the reasons why I shouldn’t have killed them. Marine biology was absolutely the plan until one of my older cousins, who was actually studying marine biology, said, “Do not do it. Nobody can get a job.” That crushed my dream. But I also realised that maybe it wasn’t going to be as glamorous as I’d pictured.
I was going to be a cross between Jacques Cousteau and Lloyd Bridges [the star of 1950s TV drama Sea Hunt], out there with my aqualung discovering new species. I’m sure the reality is that you’re mostly looking at seaweed in a laboratory and working out how to farm fish more successfully.
So how did you find your way into medicine?
Well, then I thought maybe I’d be a vet, but I just missed out on veterinary science. I did, however, sneak into medicine at Flinders Uni, which was a bit of a default position but, as it turned out, a fantastic choice for me.
It was while you were at uni that you met Fiona. How did that happen?
My first memory of her was on one of those university orientation camps. She was just a very sparkly, lively, happy person, and we bonded over a few beers. We became friends first.
Fiona: We actually met in the Flinders University Tavern in Orientation Week. I was 17, he was about 18 months older. A couple of years later, love blossomed.
Harry: It wasn’t this sudden spark – it was a slow burn – but I feel like having been such good friends for so long, when we did become romantically involved, that set us up for a lifetime together.
What was it that you loved about each other then, and what has kept you together?
Harry: I think it was the laughter and friendship to start with, and that’s remained the case, but now I look at Fiona as the rock of the family as well. Maybe that’s not very romantic, but the older you get, the more you want someone who you can trust.
Fiona: We went to the wedding of one of our nieces recently and she asked me, “What’s good about being married?” I said, “You’ve always got someone on your team with you.” And that’s a nice, safe feeling, but there have also been adventures. We have been married 32 years and we’ve had a lot of adventures together.
What was the best adventure?
Harry: Living in Vanuatu for two years. I was the AusAID anaesthetist, setting up the anaesthetic department, and also the diving and hyperbaric chamber.
Fiona: It was 2004. The kids [James, Charlie and Millie] were eight, six and four when we arrived, so an easy age to travel with. There was a great little international school, we made a fantastic group of friends and it was probably the best thing we ever did as a family.
We did have a cyclone while we were there, but it was just enough of a cyclone to say you’d been through one without causing too much damage. The avocado tree was heavily laden with fruit. I do remember that.
Harry: The other thing that Vanuatu had to offer was lots of caves.
What is it about cave diving that has you hooked, Harry?
There’s so much. I love the idea of citizen science. There have been expeditions where we’ve done water sampling and measurements, we’ve done sediment sampling for the CSIRO and the EPA. We’ve done quite a lot of biology – collecting invertebrates and little creatures from the caves.
Then there’s the exploration. The extra jewel in the crown is finding something that no one else has ever seen or swum through or walked through before. We find new caves, map them, and then give those maps and findings to the local authorities. This idea of genuine exploration is really only possible in caves these days. This is the last frontier.
Do you ever worry about him, Fiona?
I did worry quite a bit when the kids were little and he started to push the limits of exploration and depth. You feel a bit vulnerable when you have small children depending on you.
Have you become less concerned now?
Fiona: I suppose so, because he keeps coming back. And he’s very meticulous – perhaps a bit obsessive. He has all those skills that a patient wants in their anaesthetist – dot the ‘i’s, cross the ‘t’s, attention to detail, check things, check again, have a back-up.
Harry and Craig [Dr Craig Challen SC OAM, Harry’s friend, dive partner in the Thai rescue and fellow Australian of the Year] have had some near misses over the years, but they’ve always managed to get out of them.
Harry: Ninety-nine per cent of problems can be avoided by good planning, training and equipment, keeping a clear head and staying calm when things go bad. But there’s no doubt about it that when your own life is in danger in a cave, if something unexpected happens, it’s very hard to control the fear response … That’s when people die, because they panic.
It was an odd confluence of events that you were interested in cave diving and almost accidentally fell into medicine, which ultimately gave you the combination of skills that would save the lives of those 12 boys and their coach in a cave in Thailand.
One of the US correspondents in Thailand described me as a unicorn because I had this improbable collection of skills. You couldn’t design it.
There were other cave diving anaesthetists in the world, but perhaps not many at the level needed for that rescue. And maybe not so many who had spent their lives working in strange locations and doing unusual types of medicine.
What does courage mean to you?
It means facing and overcoming something that frightens you, and that’s why terms like bravery and courage and hero don’t sit well with Craig and I with regard to the Thai cave rescue.
While it was most people’s worst nightmare to swim into that cave, for us it was the least of our concerns. We go out of our way to put ourselves in those environments.
It wasn’t the cave diving that was the problem in Thailand, it was the boys … I truly didn’t believe the boys would still be alive by the time they came out. I mean, they were submerged and they were under anaesthetic, and you don’t have to be a genius to work out how perilous that is.
Their masks could fill up with water and they could drown inside them. We were using full-face masks that would seal around their mouths, but that seal could be breached at some stage during the three-hour journey out.
It doesn’t take much to drown – a teaspoon of water in your larynx can set it off. And if that didn’t kill them, maybe there would be some airway obstruction, or they would stop breathing under the anaesthetic.
At work, we monitor people carefully in a well-lit operating theatre when they’re under anaesthetic. We don’t turn the lights off and leave them for three hours and see if they are still alive when we come back.
Finally, I thought if they survived those two things, it would be the cold. You lose so much heat in three-degree water in an ill-fitting wetsuit – skinny little kids – and being anaesthetised makes you lose heat as well.
In retrospect, I can explain why those technical issues were all overcome, but at the time, this was unprecedented, it was highly risky, and to my mind almost certain to cause the death of some, if not all, the kids.
Why did you go through with it?
Because there was only one other option, which was that I would get on a plane and go home and those kids would die in the cave very, very slowly from starvation or infection, let alone the psychological impact of that.
What are you going to do? Give them some infinitesimally small chance, knowing that if they do die, at least they will be asleep under anaesthetic? It was an easy decision.
How were you feeling, Fiona, while it was all going on?
Harry would text me every day to say he was out and would ring me when he got back to the hotel, so I wasn’t worried about him in terms of the cave diving. But I was worried about the boys.
And I was worried that if any or all the boys died, what was that going to mean for Harry? That’s a very different narrative. Then he’s not the hero, he’s the guy who killed those boys in Thailand. We actually had that conversation. What if they die?
How did you feel when the last of those boys came out, Fiona?
It was an immense relief, but it was also the exact moment that Harry’s sister came around to tell me that their father had just died, and that changed everything.
Jim was 88, it wasn’t a tragic death, but we weren’t expecting it that week.
Did you have to tell Harry?
Yes, and that’s not something you want to do over the phone.
I would have loved to have let him just go to bed that night and tell him in the morning, but there was too much media attention, and I thought one of the grandkids might put something on Facebook and he’d find out there.
It was a roller-coaster of emotions. He came back to find all the TV stations on the footpath, but he also needed to get together with his sisters and plan a funeral.
Since that time your lives have changed in ways you couldn’t have imagined. There has been the Australian of the Year Award, there has been a book (Against All Odds), a podcast (Real Risk – The Adventure Podcast), a National Geographic documentary (The Rescue). Now an as-yet-untitled Netflix series and a feature film (Thirteen Lives, directed by Ron Howard).
Harry: Who knew that being a nerdy cave diver for all those years would change my life and give me these incredible opportunities? It has been a profound experience.
Which aspects have meant the most to you?
Harry: I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with a couple of charities. One is the Operation Flinders Foundation.
Fiona: They take troubled young people – kids who are on the verge of being expelled or maybe getting in trouble with the law – up to the Flinders Ranges on a 100-kilometre walk with just their backpack. I volunteer with them as well.
Harry: I love the Flinders Ranges. It’s a pleasure to show young people that countryside. What I hadn’t anticipated was how difficult it would be hearing their stories.
Most of them have gone off the rails for a reason – often because of the experiences in their lives … Some horrible things have happened, which comes out sometimes while you’re walking.
It’s been a real challenge for me to hear some of that. And you think, ‘What have I got to offer someone who has been through those experiences?’ But I’ve learnt that being a good listener and showing them love and respect is enough sometimes.
I remember one boy who wanted to be a dancer. He had done some ballet, but the peer group pressure and the bullying were overwhelming, particularly from his father.
One day, I was watching him playing this game – this slow-motion kung fu thing – and his moves and his athleticism were incredible.
So I told him, “You have this huge talent. If you love dancing as much as you say, that’s what you’ve got to do.” There were floods of tears and he said, “No one has ever said anything nice to me, let alone that I’m good at something.”
This term unicorn is another metaphor I use with these kids. I think they’re unicorns – they’re waiting for their moments. They just need to not be crushed while they’re waiting.
Which leads us to your new children’s book Alfie the Brave.
Harry: Yes, it all came out in this book. Alfie is the least brave dog ever.
He is, in fact, our family dog, and he makes me look like a hero. He is scared of everything – every sound, every bird, every skateboard. I felt like he was a bit of a metaphor for me as a young person.
I went through life being scared of a lot of stuff and a bit ashamed of not stepping up, until I found this thing I thrived at. Scuba diving was something I loved enough to not worry and just do it.
That happens for Alfie, and it’s true, we’re all waiting for that opportunity to find our thing.
And has being a hero changed Harry, Fiona?
Our life has changed, but Harry hasn’t.
Alfie the Brave, by Richard Harris, is published by Penguin Random House Australia. Out now.
You can read this story and many others in the May issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now