The Darkness Below

Bookshelf: The Darkness Below

The Darkness Below – Rod Macdonald

The Darkness Below
The Darkness Below

The Darkness Below is a follow up to Rod Macdonald’s diving memoir Into the Abyss. It takes up more or less where the first volume left off, providing a brief synopsis of Macdonald’s diving credentials for the reader who is unfamiliar with his work. Macdonald is a Scottish diving legend, and has devoted much of his diving career to finding and identifying hitherto undived wrecks off the Scottish coast. He dives in the often dark, cold waters of the North Sea, with a group of diving friends, off his own rubber duck, and the impression I got from both his books is that he and his buddies are meticulous, cautious, and not motivated by ego. This is an essential quality to become an old diver, I think.

Macdonald and his friends search for wrecks using several methods. He maintains good relationships with local fishermen (he lives in a small village called Stonehaven in Scotland), and has on occasion got tips from them of locations where their nets have snagged. These are often undiscovered shipwrecks. He also scans hydrographic charts, looking for wrecks. These marked wrecks are often indicated on the charts to be some distance away from their actual location, so surveying of the sea floor is required in order to locate their exact position. I learned several useful tips for reading hydrographic charts from Macdonald’s descriptions of how he works.

Running through the book as a separate theme is the evolution of Macdonald’s diving practices, as he progresses from open circuit scuba on air to trimix to a closed circuit rebreather. A case of the bends after a series of repetitive deep dives which his friends on rebreathers completed without incident forces him to reconsider his earlier resistance to becoming a rebreather diver. The flexibility of the device for decompression dives owing to fine-tuned gas mixes and precise, on the fly calculations, leads to shorter, but more effective decompression time.

Once a wreck has been located, Macdonald and his buddies plan and execute a dive (or several dives) on it. Most of the wrecks close to shore in (relatively) shallow water have been dived and identified, leaving virgin wrecks further offshore in water up to 80 metres deep. Macdonald’s knowledge of ships of the modern era seems to be encyclopaedic, and he and his buddies are able to pick out features, patterns of damage and construction materials on the wrecks they dive that provide essential clues to identifying the wrecks. Observation and measurements combined with a lot of archival and book research leads to positive identifications, but this process is sometimes fraught with uncertainty.

As I was when I watched the BBC documentary Wreck Detectives, I was touched by the reactions of survivors and relatives of those who perished on some of the wrecks that Macdonald discovers and charts. Even though many of the wrecks he dives are of World War II vintage, the emotions and recollections of survivors and descendants are still surprisingly intense. This human element adds great meaning and significance to the work of identifying the wrecks. Many of the wrecks are war graves, or at graves of the fishermen who went down with the ship, and the divers treat them with respect and care. Not once do they contemplate looting the wreck for artifacts (compare, if you will, the divers who visit the Andrea Doria), and the motivation for doing these dives is unrelated to treasure hunting.

This is one of the best diving books I’ve ever read. If divers like Rod Macdonald are shaping the future of the sport, and establishing the ethos and ethics of wreck exploration and discovery, I’m very happy to be involved.

You can buy a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here or here if you’re not.

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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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