The Last Dive

Bookshelf: The Last Dive

The Last Dive – Bernie Chowdhury

The Last Dive
The Last Dive

The Last Dive is a number of things: a history of how cave diving techniques came to be applied to advanced wreck diving (use of lines for wreck penetration, for example), the story of the early days of mixed gas diving in the United States, the chronicle of the close-knit bands of divers who risked their lives to explore the cold, deep waters off the north Atlantic seaboard of the USA and retrieve trinkets from the many vessels wrecked there, and a biography of Chris and son Chrissy Rouse, who were involved in all of the aforementioned threads of the tale. The central subject of the book is the Rouses’ death while (or just after) diving on the German U-boat discovered by a local dive boat skipper.

I first encountered the Rouses in Robert Kurson’s book Shadow Divers, a gripping read about the efforts to identify the same mysterious German U-boat that the Rouses perished on, off the coast of the US, and Deep Descent, which describes diving on the wreck of the Andrea Doria and features many of the same divers and dive charter operators. Their relationship is (perhaps too) sympathetically portrayed by author Bernie Chowdhury, a friend of the family.

The Rouses were extremely technically proficient divers, but their downfall seems to have been their fraught and fractious relationship that was characterised by vicious bickering and name-calling that stopped only when they put regulators in their mouths to descend into a cave or onto a wreck. Chowdhury shows how their difficult (but ultimately loving) relationship led them to doing a dive (their final one) onto the U-boat when the conditions were decidely sub par. Their choice to dive to over 80 metres on air, when they were proficient in mixed gas use, as well as what seemed to be the firm conviction of Chrissy (the younger) Rouse that he was immortal, also appears to have contributed greatly to their deaths.

Both Chris and Chrissy Rouse died of DCS – Chris died in the water within minutes of surfacing, and his son Chrissy hours later in a recompression chamber. They had both ascended rapidly without any decompression stops, from a longer than planned dive to over 80 metres, having lost their stage cylinders in their disorientation after emerging from a disastrous penetration of the submarine during which Chrissy became trapped under a fallen book shelf and a self-inflating life raft.

Earlier in the book, Chowdhury describes his own experience of very serious decompression sickness, which gives great insight into how debilitating (if not fatal) the experience of being bent can be. His enumeration at the end of The Last Dive of the serious physical conditions now prevalent among divers of his generation who have persistently pushed the envelope and, in many instances, been bent and recovered, serves as a cautionary tale to those who believe that no-decompression limits are for wussies.

As I expressed in my review of Deep Descent, I strongly disapprove of the macho cowboy attitude that seems to be (have been?) disturbingly prevalent among the divers and charters of this generation (and not limited to the United States). But Chowdhury’s book is more than an ode to the glory days of artifact retrieval and experimentation with trimix. As a history of cave diving, mixed gas diving and advanced wreck diving it’s invaluable. As a diver himself, conversant with all these disciplines, Chowdhury is able to explain in simple terms concepts that would slow down someone who hasn’t done a dive course. The book is very readable despite the technical subjects covered.

Chowdhury does not conclude that the risks taken to achieve what this particular group of divers did were unreasonable, and does not overtly criticise the Rouses for the attitudes and behaviour that – I think most sensible people would agree – contributed to their deaths instead of just a scare that might have forced an adjustment to the dive plan. While he admits to having experienced times of ambivalence about diving, particularly when he describes the strain it placed on his relationship with his wife and son and the long road to rehabilitation that followed his episode of the bends, his equilibrium surprisingly undisturbed by the loss of several friends and acquaintances to the sport he loves, and his own health difficulties.

For some more perspectives on this book and the perceived accuracy of the descriptions of the events it covers, you can read this review and this discussion.

You can purchase the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not. The Kindle edition is available here and here.

Oh, and go sign up for some DAN insurance, please?

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Clare

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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