Deep Descent

Bookshelf: Deep Descent

Deep Descent: Adventure and Death Diving the Andrea Doria – Kevin F. McMurray

Deep Descent
Deep Descent

I really don’t know if I can recommend this book in good conscience. I devoured it over the space of a day and a half, but it gave me nightmares for several nights running, and when I started thinking about it during the two dives I did just after I finished it, I almost panicked – twice – even though I was in four metres of water at Long Beach.

The Andrea Doria was a magnificent Italian cruise liner that sank in 1956 after a collision with another ship in the north Atlantic. The ship itself was enormous, a work of art, and outfitted with great attention to detail. It lies at over 70 metres depth, an 18 hour boat ride from the North American coast (and thus hours from the nearest decompression chamber). The wreck is subject to howling currents, and as you can guess, the water is freezing. All that said, it’s become a sort of Mount Everest to a particular breed of deep wreck diver, even though the factors listed all place it squarely outside the domain of recreational scuba diving.

McMurray describes the sinking of the ship, but his main focus in the book is the diving that has gone on in the decades since the ship sank. The Andrea Doria attracts a particular kind of diver that I am reluctant to characterise (because I will be rude – but I will probably give in after a few more paragraphs), and there have been fifteen diver fatalities on the wreck. McMurray (a diver himself who has dived the Doria several times) describes the circumstances of several of the deaths, and the other characters involved, in some detail.

As the ship lies in international waters, many of the divers – if not all – who visit her are keen to loot the ship of its china, crockery, fittings, and whatever else they can find. This activity was a contributing factor in the deaths of many of them. I was astounded at the chutzpah with which many of the divers penetrated the wreck – all the guidelines we learned in our Wreck Specialty course were flouted with aplomb. Owing to the depth, it’s very dark down there. The interior of the wreck is collapsing, and as it is a modern ship there is a maze of cables and numerous other hazards to entangle the unwary. In general those who died penetrating the wreck got lost (none of them used reels) or trapped in cables inside.

The depth of the wreck necessitates incredibly complex gear configurations, and in more than one case the diver’s gear arrangement meant that he died inside the wreck. A multitude of clips, pony bottles (two different gas mixes for decompression, plus double tanks on one’s back) and a bewildering array of hoses put all but the most experienced divers under pressure. During a moment of stress, accidentally breathing at depth from your cylinder of pure oxygen (for use at the final, shallow decompression stop) will most likely be fatal owing to oxygen toxicity.

Another danger of a dive like the Doria is decompression sickness – because of the depth, but also because the cold water increases the risk of DCS. The actual bottom time in most cases was half an hour or less, and the depth necessitated extensive decompression on the way up. Divers clipped themselves to the anchor line – the currents and remote location of the dive site meant that getting lost at sea carried with it a significant chance of a lonely death. Inexperienced or unprepared divers who shoot to the surface in such circumstances – whether through a failure to control buoyancy, or (more commonly) either a malfunction in their gas setup, an out of air situation, or panic, are likely to suffer an air embolism and die as their lungs explode. Paralysis is the other option.

I was thoroughly freaked out by this book, but peversely enjoyed it a lot – literally could not put it down. If I’d read it before I started diving, I don’t know if I’d have taken up the sport. The point is, though (and I wouldn’t have known two years ago that this isn’t “normal” diving), that the divers who do dives like the Doria – whether on air (can you imagine the nitrogen narcosis at 70 metres?) or on trimix (where a proportion of the nitrogen in ordinary air is replaced by helium) – are fringe operators, lunatics looking for something that recreational scuba cannot and should not provide. There are individuals who are careful, methodical and motivated by things other than proving a point – whether to themselves or their communities – but they seem to be few and far between. This branch of diving is rightly spurned by mainstream scuba diving magazines and operators.

The sport I do is safe, fun, and non-competitive, characterised by a spirit of co-operation. The diving these wreck cowboys engage in is dangerous, motivated by the wrong things (collecting china so that you can one-up the other divers? I think not!) and characterised in many cases by a competitive spirit, aggression, and a LOT of machismo. There is no place for that kind of carelessness or for any element of competition in recreational scuba diving.

You can get the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here on If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here. There’s tons more information on the subject on this website, including some pictures that show just how dark and murky it is down there.

(As an aside, there’s a Seinfeld episode called “The Andrea Doria”. The script can be read here.)

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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