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: 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.

Friday poem: The World Below the Brine

You’d almost think that Mr Whitman was a diver himself…

The World Below the Brine – Walt Whitman

The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick
tangle openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the
play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes,
and the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling
close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting
with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy
sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths,
breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed
by beings like us who walk this sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.

Underwater Alphabet Part 3

The third part of my nephew’s underwater alphabet… Here’s part one and here’s part two.

O is for octopus

Octopus at Long Beach on a night dive
Octopus at Long Beach on a night dive

P is for pufferfish

Puffer fish in Durban
Puffer fish in Durban

Q is for quay

Quay in Cape Town harbour
Quay in Cape Town harbour

R is for ray

Raymond the ray
Raymond the ray

S is for starfish

Sand sea star
Sand sea star

T is for turtle

Turtle in Jordan
Turtle in Jordan