Bookshelf: One Breath

One Breath: Freediving, Death, and the Quest to Shatter Human Limits – Adam Skolnick

One Breath - Adam Skolnick
One Breath – Adam Skolnick

This is the book on freediving that has long needed to be written. Structured, well researched, and focused, you must to read it if you have an interest in the sport. It is the best book by far that I, a rank outsider to freediving, have read on the subject.

Adam Skolnick centres his narrative on two figures: Nick Mevoli, who died during a dive in 2013, and William Trubridge, world record holder and organiser and around whom the small freediving community seems to pivot.

Skolnick explains the development of the sport, and narrates the life of Nick Mevoli, attempting to unravel the obsession that freediving engenders in its participants. With detailed descriptions of freedving competitions, such as the Vertical Blue series of events, this is the closest I have gotten to understand the mechanics of the sport, and the impulse that drives its participants. There is no attempt to airbrush the physical toll exacted by freediving or to gloss over the dangers of the sport.

Here’s an illuminating review of the book:

The dreadful (and unnatural) toll of freediving

Get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.

If you’re interested in freediving, read (with caution) The Last Attempt and The Dive, watch The Big Blue, and also watch this video of William Trubridge diving to 100 metres, which is utterly transcendent.

Bookshelf: Pristine Seas

Pristine Seas: Journey to the Ocean’s Last Wild Places – Enric Sala

Pristine Seas - Enric Sala
Pristine Seas – Enric Sala

Those of us who will likely never visit Kingman Reef and the Line Islands in person should be grateful for Enric Sala. Marine ecologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, Sala brings the same substance, urgency and gravitas to his underwater photography that Thomas Peschak does. He can truly be called a conservation photographer, having left a career as a research scientist to work on saving the ocean’s wild places.

Sala’s current project is to explore and protect the last pristine marine ecosystems on the planet, and to this end he has led expeditions to comparatively untouched locations around the world. This book documents ten of those expeditions, from tropical to Arctic waters. Rich with photographs, contextualised with beautiful National Geographic-style maps, it is a delight.

Read an interview with Sala here, and an article about the man by author Juliet Eilperin can be found here.

Get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.

If this is right up your alley, check out Blue Hope as well.

Bookshelf: Sharks

Sharks – Michael Muller

Sharks - Michael Muller
Sharks – Michael Muller

Michael Muller is probably best known for his work as a portrait photographer (focusing on celebrity subjects). He also has, it turns out, a longstanding fascination with sharks. While working as a commercial photographer for Speedo, Muller designed and built a waterproof housing for his 1,200 watt studio strobe lights. Incredibly, he takes these lights underwater – assisted by two to six divers and at least one person on the boat – and has spent a couple of years travelling the world to photograph sharks. 

The resulting photos, of bull, tiger, white, hammerhead and several other species of shark, are fascinating. They are unlike any shark photographs I have seen before, with a cinematic quality and the intensely unusual property – for most underwater photos – of being filled with light. Sharks swim out of bright white light towards the camera, and many of the images are deliberately over-exposed, heightening the dramatic effect. The jump from having professional-quality camera strobes to essentially a full studio lighting rig underwater is enormous, and the results are visually stunning.

Muller’s pictures, to me, emphasise the otherness of sharks. They do not look like cuddly, approachable (although in many cases Muller went very, very close to his subjects) or easy to fathom animals. I like this. Some approaches to conservation try to emphasise how sharks do not intend harm, and attempt to demystify them, with the aim of making them comprehensible and thus worthy of protection. The genre of photography that shows divers and sharks apparently harmoniously inhabiting the watery realm is invariably more about the humans than it is about sharks. That criticism cannot be levelled at these images.

The final sections of the book contain a species guide, essays about shark ecology and conservation, and technical information about the photographic equipment and shot set up. Some of the shark biology and conservation information was contributed by Capetonian shark conservation biologist Alison Kock, who put False Bay’s white sharks on the scientific map.

You can preview some of the images from the book here, and an interview with Muller here. The Washington Post and Wired have image-rich features on this project, too.

This is an enormous book (standard Taschen fare). You’re going to need a bigger bookshelf (a joke about this book which has no doubt been made forty times – I apologise). You can get a copy here (South Africa), here or here.

If you’re a fan of shark photography books, you could also check out Shark and (more substantially) Great White and Eminent Grey.

Bookshelf: Ice Blink

Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Polar Expedition – Scott Cookman

Ice Blink
Ice Blink

In Ice Blink, Scott Cookman provides another account of the much-reported final expedition of Sir John Franklin to the Canadian Arctic, in search of a Northwest Passage. The story has been told many times, in many ways, and Cookman’s rendition is gripping.

Several theories have been advanced to account for the failure of any members of Franklin’s expedition to return. A few bodies have been found, and eyewitness accounts from Inuits in the areas that the Erebus and Terror were trapped in the ice provide some clues as to what happened. A conclusive explanation, however, has not been found.

Cookman advances the idea the the men were killed by botulinium toxin, introduced into their diets from poorly prepared tinned food.  He is dogmatic about this theory to the exclusion of all others, and at times makes it sound misleadingly certain that this was the cause of the disaster. In fact, experts fail to agree on what killed the men; other theories include lead poisoning (from the canned food), or simply just the cold and poor preparation.

I would recommend you read this book after you’ve familiarised yourself with some of the other literature about Arctic exploration and Sir John Franklin in particular, and are equipped to separate fact from hypothesis. If you’re interested in the subject, may I strongly recommend The Man Who Ate His Boots and Frozen in Time.

You can read the first chapter of the book here and a New York Times review here.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Climate Change

Climate Change: Briefings from Southern Africa – Bob Scholes, Mary Scholes & Mike Lucas

Climate Change
Climate Change

This is the book on climate change that I never knew I needed. It is written in the form of 55 questions and answers, from a South African perspective. One of the three authors (Dr Mike Lucas) is a biological oceanographer, so there is ample information on the effect of climate change on the marine environment. The other two authors are climate change specialists.

The book is well illustrated with photographs and diagrams. The authors address sea level rise, El Niño, water scarcity, the effect of rising temperatures on the Southern Ocean and Antarctic, and the survival of coral reefs, among other topics. The final few questions deal specifically with practical actions that can be taken to adapt to and (perhaps) avoid climate change, and one’s personal carbon footprint.

You don’t have to be a weather nerd to benefit and learn from this book. I encourage you to seek it out.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Blue Mind

Blue Mind – Wallace J. Nichols

Blue Mind
Blue Mind

In Blue Mind, biologist (turtle researcher) Wallace J. Nichols articulates and elaborates upon an idea you’ve probably already had all on your own: that being close to water is good for you. More precisely, Nichols is interested in what proximity to water does for our brains. In this book he presents scientific evidence for the salutary effects of water on humans, but does not shy away from anecdote. His tone is vigorously optimistic.

I don’t need to look very far to see evidence of Nichols’s hypothesis: Waves for Change teaches youngsters from violent communities in Cape Town to surf, and in the process effects an almost miraculous change in their lives. (They deserve your support.) Nichols also says that he can see a change – a warming – in people’s body language when they enter an aquarium. I spend enough time at the Two Oceans Aquarium that I should have an opinion on this, but I don’t, so I need to look more closely.

I admit that this book is on the fringe of what I would usually read – it is what I would usually dismiss as touchy-feely pop psychology – but I do think Nichols is on to something (and here I am in very excellent company). He holds a Blue Mind Summit every year, bringing together neuroscientists, artists and conservationists to discuss the ocean and the brain, and how to use insights about water’s powers for good.

Read a review at The Guardian, and an interview with Nichols at Outside Magazine. For the extra curious, read a quite a detailed profile of Nichols, also at Outside Magazine.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Cold

Cold – Ranulph Fiennes


I have been lax with book posts lately, but hope to remedy that in fairly short order (sorry for you!). This book, Cold by famed British explorer Ranulph Fiennes (not to be confused with Lord Voldemort), is the one that set me off on my recent epic binge on Arctic literature, which is far from over.

Fiennes has made a life of adventuring and exploring, crafting challenging itineraries across some of the most unforgiving terrain on the planet. He solicits sponsorship for the expeditions, and raises funds from book sales and speaking engagements.

This book focuses on his journeys through the world’s coldest regions. Fiennes intermingles historical accounts of exploration and discovery with his own adventures. It is surprising how, in the earth’s most extreme climates, life and travel has not gotten appreciably easier over the last several hundred years.

It was Fiennes’s historical account of the search for the Northwest Passage, represented in the greatest drama by Sir John Franklin’s final expedition, that drove me to seek out other books on the subject – I can recommend The Man Who Ate His BootsFranklin’s Lost Shipand Frozen in Time for starters. His accounts of his own travel in Norway, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic made me want to pack my bags and visit those magnificent places.

Fiennes faces death and disfigurement several times in the course of Cold. His determination and courage are notable but he is definitely a man of an earlier era. There are interviews with Fiennes here and here. A review of Cold can be read here.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Sharks in Question

Sharks in Question – Victor G Springer & Joy P Gold

Sharks in Question
Sharks in Question

After an extremely enjoyable and informative experience with Whales and Dolphins in Question, another volume in the Smithsonian’s “in question” series, I sought out Sharks in Question.

Published in 1989, this book is chiefly enlightening as a primer in how shark science and attitudes towards sharks have progressed in the last quarter century. Like Ainley and Klimley’s Great White SharksSharks in Question is seriously dated. Far from making this a frustrating reading experience, I found it incredible how much more certain we are of so many things that the authors mention here in speculative terms.

If you’re looking for some current shark science, I would recommend Global Perspectives on the Biology and Life History of the White Shark or Sharks of the World. You could also check out the BBC’s wonderful Sharks series. If you are looking to complete your library of all things shark, however, you could find a place for this volume.

You might be able to get a copy here (South Africa), otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: Voices in the Ocean

Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins – Susan Casey

Voices in the Ocean
Voices in the Ocean

It is clear from the first pages of Voices in the Ocean that Susan Casey is enchanted by dolphins, and her book does not shy away from the mysticism and wild attributions of almost supernatural powers that dog our toothed marine mammal friends. She is author of The Wave and The Devil’s Teeth, and favours an immersive and almost obsessive style of engagement with her subject. This makes for good reading.

Despite the persistent thread of woo running through the entire book, Casey manages to expose important and awful aspects of humans’ relationship with dolphins. Some of these are often overlooked. She visits dolphins in theme parks, goes to the cove at Taiji in Japan (location of a famous dolphin hunt), and – in what I view as the most important section of the book because the topic is so under-reported – the Solomon Islands.

The Solomon Islanders have a long history with dolphins, both slaughtering them for their teeth (as money), and capturing the animals to sell them to marine parks. The scale of the Solomon Islands’ involvement in dolphin killing and trade is massive and horrific. Some of the incidents are completely pointless, executed in order to hold conservation organisations to ransom. Casey visits the islands, meets some of the players, and tries to make sense of the chaos and menace she finds there.

Casey concludes with a study of the Minoan culture on Crete, a hopeful note after a trip into the hellish depths of depravity that seem to occur more often than not at the human-dolphin interface. You can read more about Voices in the Ocean at Outside Magazine, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Bookshelf: Rescue Warriors

Rescue Warriors: The US Coastguard, America’s Forgotten Heroes – David Helvarg

Rescue Warriors
Rescue Warriors

Much of this book reads like one of the Reader’s Digest “drama in real life” stories that I used to devour from the magazines that my granny brought us when she came to visit. (She’d also bring a packet of Sparkles or Cadbury Eclairs.)

Journalist, activist and former war correspondent David Helvarg (who also wrote Saved by the Sea and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean) spent two years embedded with various branches of the US Coastguard in order to experience their work.

I had naively thought that the US Coastguard, despite being funded by the government, and despite their website having a .mil for military domain name, was just a slightly larger, more financially flush version of South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI).

I was wrong. The mandate of the US Coastguard is to enforce maritime law (this is its primary difference from the NSRI) as well as to perform search and rescue operations. Viewers of the Deadliest Catch series will be familiar with the rescue work of the Coastguard in extremely challenging conditions. As a result of its law-enforcement mission, the Coastguard uses weapons and provides a lot more military-style training than you’d expect from a pure rescue operation. The Coastguard falls under the department of homeland security and operates cutters (with guns), icebreakers, small boats, helicopters, and other aircraft.

Helvarg’s conservationist tendencies shine through in several parts of Rescue Warriors, and he does not shy away from confronting the aspects of the Coastguard that he finds problematic. His contention is that the Coastguard receives far less publicity than it deserves. This book goes some way towards bringing attention to the individuals who have saved tens of thousands of people during Hurricane Katrina, via water evacuation during the September 11 attacks, and in countless other less well-known emergency situations.

This is a gripping read which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was amazed by the amount of funding and equipment that the Coastguard has at its disposal compared to the NSRI, even though the organisation is actually badly underfunded, especially when considered relative to the rest of the United States war machine. I was also impressed by the egalitarian approach that draws many women to join the Coastguard and enables them to rise in its ranks. The Coastguard made all its jobs available to women in 1977, something which other branches of the military have not yet done.

You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.