Shadow Divers

Bookshelf: Shadow Divers

Shadow Divers – Robert Kurson

Shadow Divers
Shadow Divers

This book is gripping – I loved it. It describes the discovery and diving on a German U-boat in the northern Atlantic Ocean. It took over six years before the vessel was conclusively identified, and Kurson describes the process followed – including multiple dead ends – by John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, the two divers who persisted with the mystery long after others had lost interest.

It’s a mixture of terrifying deep wreck diving and penetration, WWII history, and personal drama that I found quite irresistible. Three divers died on the submarine before it was identified, and every imaginable diving accident – from entanglement to DCS to panic to nitrogen narcosis (a big feature, since the sub lies at about 70 metres and initially the diving on her was on air), and the constant risk of being lost at sea if you didn’t surface on the line – occurs. I still don’t think this kind of diving is for me – the dangers are too great.

I admired the determination of Chatterton and Kohler to put a name to the submarine, thus providing closure to the families of the German officers who perished on board. Their rectitude and determination not to desecrate a war grave and the resting place of nearly sixty men was admirable. It’s possible that, had they agreed to rummage among the human remains all over the submarine, they’d have located an item of someone’s personal effects that would have speeded the identification process, but they refused to disturb the bones.

The culture of American deep wreck diving sounds as though it is quite macho and cowboy-like (one group of divers wore matching denim jackets with a skull and crossbones on it), and for Chatterton and Kohler to buck that trend was a big thing.

I learned one useful thing that has stayed in my mind since I finished the book – maybe I knew it all along, but it was articulated here in a clear manner: when you run into difficulties in the water, solve the first problem completely before you try to solve a second or third one. You need to answer each problem fully when it occurs, because accidents happen when a small thing is ignored, which then combines with another problem to cause a life-threatening situation.

In the acknowledgements, Kurson mentions Deep Descent by Kevin McMurray, which describes diving on the wreck of the Andrea Doria in the same dangerous, cold, rough piece of ocean. Many of the protagonists in MacMurray’s book appear in Shadow Divers, as do the same pair of dive boats – the Seeker and the Wahoo. He also cites Neutral Buoyancy by Tim Ecott, another of our favourite diving books, as an inspiration and source for some of the decompression theory.

Unfortunately the aggressive, fiercely competitive ethos that has been allowed to fester among this particular group of divers has led to the publication of a rival account by Gary Gentile (who appeared extensively in Deep Descent). It’s called Shadow Divers Exposed and apparently refutes much of what is described by Kurson. Gentile is clearly a bitter and angry man, with several axes to grind. It does however seem possible that in focusing the book so squarely on Kohler and Chatterton, Kurson allowed it to seem as though the two of them are due more credit for identifying the U-boat than they really are, so this book should be read with a small measure of caution. I would still strongly recommend it, however – the overarching truths and events described did take place, even if a few small-minded participants and observers would quarrel over specific details.

The book is available here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go 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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