FAMILY LEGACY: Toni Cameron was the first female in Australia to work with dolphins and fondly remembers the heyday of her father Jack Evans' Pet Porpoise Pool, a tourism game-changer  in the 1960s and '70s.
FAMILY LEGACY: Toni Cameron was the first female in Australia to work with dolphins and fondly remembers the heyday of her father Jack Evans' Pet Porpoise Pool, a tourism game-changer in the 1960s and '70s. Alison Houston

Memories of diving into Pet Porpoise Pool

JACK Evans was arguably the Steve Irwin of his day.

A full-on, larger-than-life entertainer who flirted with danger, people came to the Jack Evans Pet Porpoise Pool during the 1960s and '70s as much to see him perform as the dolphins, seals and sharks he cared for.

Daughter Toni (now Toni Cameron) was the first female in Australia to work with dolphins, and says "they were like family".

She is proud that today the Jack Evans Boat Harbour at Tweed Heads honours the man who made his mark on the Gold Coast in its early tourist days, and pays tribute herself by telling his story at local community groups.

"Dad was a fantastic showman," said Toni, who worked alongside him for 17 years.

She recalls one afternoon when her father jumped over the side of the porpoise pool mid-performance to rescue a family of four from a nearby overturned boat, saying to a packed audience only: "My daughter will take over, I've got to go."

In huge waves, and with just a tyre to hang on to, he brought the family to safety.

Having climbed back into the performance area, he asked Toni how the show had gone, only to be told: "We were all watching you!"

The Early Years

THE eldest of five children, Toni's father was born in Grafton and christened Stanford.

Showing his character early, he decided at five that was no name for him and he was to be called Jack.

Moving to the Sunshine Coast, he took up swimming and surf lifesaving, ultimately becoming an Australian champion and representing Queensland five times.

"Dad rescued hundreds and hundreds of people over the years," Toni said.

"Even when he was young, he was convinced that every child should be able to swim, and he gave free swimming lessons on the Maroochy River."

He worked as a canecutter, on the roads, fishing, and hiring out "surfoplanes" (the first inflatable boogie boards) and shelters on the beach.

Only after his death in 2002 did Toni discover her father had also fought in Jimmy Sharman's iconic boxing rings, being known as "The Big Fisherman" or "The Big Lifesaver".

With so many American forces based on the Gold Coast during the war years, Jack became convinced there was money to be made.

He and Toni's mother packed up some beach gear, arriving at Coolangatta Railway Station with just two pounds in their pockets and nowhere to stay.

They spent the night sleeping on the surfoplanes under what is now the Uniting Church and started hiring out the gear at Kirra the next day, walking away with five pounds - riches.

They found, however, that the area was also teeming with sharks, which were understandably bad for business, and so began Jack's reputation for shark-hunting.

"Whenever there was a shark attack they would call Dad," Toni said.

The public's dual horror and fascination with sharks saw Jack put his catches on display at the surf lifesaving sheds, to be viewed for the price of a silver coin donated to the local clubs.

"The smell of putrid shark is one I'll never forget," Toni said.

"Dad got very complacent with sharks, and he had some near-misses."

On one occasion, he and his mate didn't realise that while they were towing a dead hooked shark to shore, a second shark had bitten into the first's head and become snagged by the same hook.

"It thrashed violently to get free (but) Dad, completely unaware of this new shark, put the resulting bumps down to the swell, until thrown into the water with the live shark," Toni said.

The Pet Porpoise Pool, its fearless showman owner Jack Evans and his glamorous daughter Toni were often the subject of newspaper and magazine articles.
The Pet Porpoise Pool, its fearless showman owner Jack Evans and his glamorous daughter Toni were often the subject of newspaper and magazine articles.

The Heydays

JACK Evans built ocean pools at Burleigh Heads (1953) and Snapper Rocks (1957) and, still fascinated by sharks, built a second pool for them at Snapper, before re-establishing at the mouth of the Tweed River in 1961.

When the Boyd brothers fishermen brought him two dolphins, what would become known as "the world's only comedy porpoise show at Jack Evans Pet Porpoise Pool and Aquarium" was born.

"You never knew what was going to happen at our place," said Toni, who was 16 at the time.

"We lived on the premises and were with the animals - dolphins, seals, sharks - 24 hours a day."

She recalls honeymooners particularly making lasting memories by being dangled by one arm and tickled above the pool to see if they would fall.

"So much of what dad did then you couldn't do these days with health and safety and what we know today about conservation, but it was a different time," Toni said.

Always community-minded, she said one of her father's biggest fundraisers followed Darwin's Cyclone Tracey.

Magician Arthur Coghlan was dropped handcuffed into the shark tank and had to escape Houdini-style, while people threw coins into the pool to be donated to the cyclone victims.

"Dad always had a new idea," Toni said, shaking her head.

The porpoise pool eventually led to bigger things for others, including Keith Williams' Sea World, but Toni said she would always remember her dad as "a straight-out, honest, upfront guy".