Bookshelf: The Coast of Coral

The Coast of Coral – Arthur C. Clarke

The Coast of Coral
The Coast of Coral

I was a huge Arthur C. Clarke fan for many years (still am, I suppose), beginning at the age of about ten and reaching my peak during my university years. He’s a science fiction writer, the kind whose work – when read years later – actually foreshadows developments that are currently just beyond the reach of our technological capabilites, but quite feasible.

He also had a great love for the ocean, and this book is an account of a few months he and his buddy Mike Wilson spent diving the Great Barrier Reef in Australia during the early 1950s. The Aqualung had just been invented and their diving locations were remote, so they did a lot of skin and free diving to conserve their air supply.

The book is partly a travelogue, and partly a description of memorable encounters he had with sea life. It’s clear that the diving adventures Clarke describes heavily inspired Dolphin Island. Wilson took photographs, some of which are reproduced in grainy black and white in the book. There’s a hilarious one of a diver with his cylinder mounted upside down (by current standards) and the hose from his second stage snaking down the side of his body to his bottom.

In his foreword, Clarke mentions that he now reads the sections of the book in which he describes (and advocates) walking out on the exposed reef at low tide with some embarrassment. Coral is sensitive, and shouldn’t be touched. The book is also laced with accounts of spear fishing, a sport I think is ridiculous and distasteful. Disturbingly, they capture a turtle, harrass her extensively (sit on her back for photos) and then try to drag her (alive) out to their boat so they can eat turtle steak for dinner. Fortunately the difficulties they encounter in trying to get her offshore cause them to think better of their plan and release her. But a lot of the thinking is very dated and somewhat repugnant to modern sensibilities.

I was surprised by how funny Clarke’s writing style is – his sense of humour is not something that comes through in his science fiction writings. He speaks of having to “de-louse” one’s vocabulary after having spent any length of time in Australia, and dubs the word “bloody” as The Great Australian Adjective. His argument for turning down an exotic meal cooked by the inhabitants of one of the islands they visit is that he would be very distressed and disappointed were he to develop a taste for the rare meats on offer, and then be unable to obtain them when he returns to London or New York. I informed Tony of this excuse, and expect to hear it next time I cook broccoli.

In all, the book paints a fascinating picture of the Great Barrier Reef prior to it becoming the tourist attraction it is today. The reef’s vast extent is very apparent, and Clarke’s enjoyment of the underwater world is palpable and inspiring. I look forward to diving there one day.

You can order the book here.

Movie: Fool’s Gold

Fool's Gold
Fool's Gold

When we sat down to watch this, I warned Tony to concentrate because it’s a complex, demanding, nuanced film. Not. Set in the Caribbean, it’s an entertaining, fast-paced, TOTALLY undemanding and quite funny account of an underwater (and above ground) treasure hunt, which seems to be all that people do in that part of the world.

Fittingly for Valentine’s Day (apparently that’s sometime soon) there’s a love story in here somewhere too. Or a lust story – I couldn’t make up my mind.

The clarity of the water is unbelievable – top to bottom visibility – and even though the diving sequences are relatively brief in the overall arc of the movie, they’re entertaining. Curiously, the inimitable Donald Sutherland plays a fairly important role as a wealthy yacht owner, and the scenes in which he is taught to scuba dive (in a jacuzzi onboard the yacht) are priceless.

The film does perpetuate the myth that Hollywood stars are uniformly able to hold their breaths for upwards of three minutes, while performing complex tasks underwater and still looking attractive and put together. I choose not to believe this (and it’s not because I can only hold my breath for 30 seconds, and look like a deranged chipmunk while doing so). If I had a hot stunt double, I am sure I too could hold my breath long enough to anchor myself to a submerged cannon in a blowhole to prevent the rapidly incoming waves from washing me out of the top, and have a meaningful sign-language conversation with my significant other (also looking hot) while doing so.

There’s nothing challenging here, but sometimes that’s a good thing. After a weekend diving in two metre visibility at Long Beach, this reminded me that better days (and dives) are coming!

The DVD is available here. If you’re not in South Africa, you can get it here.

Movie: Thunderball

Thunderball
Thunderball

There is much to love in a quality James Bond movie, particularly one which starts with Bond having an extravagant fight with a man in a black dress, totally trashing a large regency-style drawing room in the process. This is one of Sean Connery’s early Bond films – released in 1965.

Two nuclear warheads have been stolen, and must be recovered. Bond travels to Nassau in the Bahamas where he does a lot of diving – some to find the warheads, some to flirt with the ladies, and some to fight with criminals underwater. One free diving episode features a lady diver holding onto the back of a clearly distressed turtle. As soon as she releases the turtle, it ascends for air. Poor dude!

Thunderball heavily inspired the Austin Powers movies, which adds an inadvertent element of humour when viewing them in retrospect. The villain, one Emile Largo, has an eye patch and a white fluffy pet cat, and throws failures and enemies into his pool of reef sharks, who obligingly eat them alive.

The aqualung had only been around for about 15 years when this movie was made, but it has some awesome underwater fight sequences (knives cutting air hoses, masks ripped off…), and features a huge orange sled/DPV capable of transporting up to six divers at once. The divers use harnesses rather than BCDs, the exhausts on their regulators are behind their heads, and they have no octos, but other than that look as good – or perhaps better, because their gear is a uniform basic black (including their cylinders) without bits hanging off – than divers today. Of course, they are a team of crooks, so they have to dress in matching togs.

When Bond eventually locates the sunken plane – incidentally containing his lady love’s completely undecomposed brother – he instructs his pilot to shoot one of the sharks milling around the site “to keep the others busy”. Nice.

The film concludes with an EPIC underwater fight scene – goodies in orange, baddies in black – involving perhaps 30 divers. There is hand to hand combat, lots of spear guns, knife fighting, and a lot of frantic finning. Nearly a quarter of this two hour movie was filmed underwater.

There is so much goodness here… The standard Bond misogyny – women swooning over him and being used and discarded in short order, very short shorts on unashamedly hairy men, a young Sean Connery… and a boat called the Disco Volante. The underwater scenes are very well done, and plentiful. What’s not to love?

The DVD is available here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here.

Bookshelf: Neutral Buoyancy

Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World – Tim Ecott

Neutral Buoyancy
Neutral Buoyancy

Tim Ecott is a journalist who learned to dive just after the death of his mother. Through diving, he learned to cope with his grief, and channelled it into a sense of wonder and curiosity as he explored the underwater world.

Neutral Buoyancy is hard to locate in a particular genre, but a rich reading experience nonetheless. It’s partly a history of diving, part an account of some of the wonders of the marine world, partly a description of diving medicine, but Ecott allows himself to be sidetracked frequently (this is a good thing – sometimes an author who can’t keep to his topic is annoying, but Ecott’s diversions are wonderful). The narrative is interspersed with accounts of specific dives he’s done, all over the world, and he flits engagingly from topic to topic as the opportunities arise in the text.

He visits the sponge divers in Tarpon Springs, Florida – Greek families who have done this for generations. The 1953 Robert Wagner movie Beneath the 12 Mile Reef was shot there and features characters akin to the fishermen and sponge divers he interviews.

The chapter on free diving was fascinating – I am constantly amazed by what the human body can tolerate (and even excel at). I was also captivated by Ecott’s reverent descriptions of his encounters with various forms of marine life – from a sea cucumber that looked like a penis, to an underwater encounter with dolphins on the hunt for mackerel, to giant sponges. He recounts a terrifying dive in the English Channel during which he almost died, and blissful underwater experiences where everything was perfect and beautiful.

Tony is busy reading this book, and in his opinion it’s a must-read for Divemaster candidates. Ecott describes the development of our understanding of how breathing pressurised gases relates to dive physiology (Boyle’s law, the dive tables, and so on) in a holistic, fascinating and very readable way. The Divemaster manuals don’t really do the subject justice, whereas Ecott fills in all the gaps.

Tony and I love diving together. We do, a lot, since I tag along when he has students on weekends, but our particular favourite times together are when we are buddies and Tony isn’t having to look out for the group, count divers to make sure no one has gotten lost, or be an instructor. We did a fun dive on the BOS 400 late last year, and the two of us had a blissful ten minutes alone after the other divers had gotten low on air and ascended. Ecott dives with his wife, Jessica, and can relate:

There is great intimacy in diving with another human being. Diving with someone you trust as a diver is a very good idea. But diving with someone you love brings a shared joy and dependency which is a reinforcement of the closeness you feel above water. Underwater, the communications is not verbal, and a light squeeze of hand or the brush of shoulder is an intensified connection in a different world.

Buy the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise go to Amazon.com.

Bookshelf: Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King – Brad Matsen

Jacques Cousteau
Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau’s name is synonymous with the ocean (a fact his descendants continue to exploit), but it was news to me that he essentially invented and pioneered the field of underwater photography as well as the aqualung, allowing divers to swim freely underwater.

This book covers his career from initial free diving exploits in the Mediterranean, to world-famous filmmaker. I found the initial sections of the book, where Cousteau and his friends experimented with different types of diving apparatus and jury-rigged numerous solutions to problems they encountered, to be the most interesting.

His later years aboard Calypso, travelling the world documenting the oceans and the changes wrought upon them by man, were characterised by a spirit of cameraderie and boyish exploration. As the Cousteau juggernaut gathered momentum, however, his attention turned to fundraising and he spent less time on the sea and more time schmoozing potential donors.

Fortunately (for both me and Cousteau) not much is made of his personal life. He was a notorious womaniser who kept two homes for fifteen years before his wife’s death, and immediately married his satellite wife and recognised her two children thereafter.

As a side note, reading this book revealed to me the extent to which Wes Anderson’s quirky masterpiece – my favourite movieThe Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – was informed and inspired by Cousteau’s life and work. The design of the Belafonte parallels that of the Calypso (both converted minesweepers with viewing ports underwater). The scene at the film festival where the Belafonte is illuminated at her berth in the harbour is straight out of Cousteau’s life. The red knitted hats, matriarchal figure of Zissou’s wife, and the style of film making combining shots of handsome, rugged explorers with the wonders of the deep are also heavily inspired by Cousteau.

This is a fascinating, quick read. As someone who was born in 1978, after the peak of Cousteau’s career, discovering how much of a global name he was, how recognisable his face was thanks to his television work, and understanding the story of the life that has – even still – made him into a household name filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of the development of ocean exploration and documentary production.

The book is available for purchase here if you’re in South Africa, and on Amazon.com. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

Bookshelf: Extreme diving

Not for everyone, but definitely fun to read about… Here you will find accounts of dives to great depths, to shipwrecks and into caves, and dives pushing the limits of human physiology. Find a book about extreme diving in this lovely list.

Cave diving

Deep diving and technical diving

  • Raising the Deadcave diving tragedy at Boesmansgat
  • Fatally Flawed – reminiscences of deep cave diver Verna van Schaik
  • Deep Descent – diving the Andrea Doria
  • Shadow Divers – identifying a WWII submarine in the north Atlantic
  • The Last Dive living fast and loose as deep technical divers
  • Submerged – the memoir of Daniel Lenihan, who has worked around the world to preserve underwater heritage sites
  • Dark Descent – diving the wreck of the Empress of Ireland

Commercial diving

Freediving