- 1) Spring Loaded, by John Kean
- 2) Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive With The World’s Most Misunderstood Predator, by David Shiffman
- 3) The Underwater Eye: How the Movie Camera Opened The Depths And Unleashed New Realms of Fantasy, by Margaret Cohen
- 4) Wrecks of Key Largo, by Nicholas Harvey
- 5) The Brilliant Abyss: True Tales Of Exploring The Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life And Selling The Seabed, by Helen Scales
Spring Loaded, by John Kean
“With one small step for mankind out of the way I still had one giant leap to make. In the next 48 hours I had to go scuba diving, write about it and send my article and accompanying photographs to Diver Magazine before their editorial deadline. Right now, my chances of succeeding with that looked about as likely as winning Wimbledon with a frying pan.”
Ten years ago John Kean, who had made his name as Red Sea scuba instructor, deep diver and author of SS Thistlegorm, along with an impressive body of other must-read dive books such as A Walk On The Deep Side, set out alone on what remained of his long-planned “Coloured Seas Trip”.
This ambitious project, combining Kean’s twin loves of scuba and motorcycling, was doomed from the start in its original form. It had been very appealing to me, however, as editor of Diver and a fan both of his writing and of chronicled road trips. Because such trips rarely work out as planned, they’re exciting to try to reflect in a monthly magazine, with its wildly unhelpful lead-times.
The idea was to bike between hot and cold climes, touring and diving the Red Sea before transferring north to the Black Sea and then carrying on to Russia’s White Sea, linking up with local divers and bikers along the way. It was a great plan – and then the Arab Spring happened, the land route from Egypt to the Balkans was cut off and everything started going pear-shaped.
A very successful Red Sea road trip (21 dives over 5,000 miles covered in 17 days) was carried out by Kean and his buddy Yann and duly chronicled in Diver, but then came a hiatus while the pair tried to figure out how to get around the new obstacles in their way.
Then Yann got a job offer he couldn’t refuse and pulled out, leaving Kean determined to go it alone. That’s where Spring Loaded starts, and it’s as entertaining a travel book as you’ll read this year.
Fortunately, good travel books don’t depend on planned destinations being ticked off – it’s often the things that go wrong that provide the momentum. That’s certainly the case here. Diver readers might have seen the articles that resulted from the trip and know how it turned out, and for those who didn’t but are intrigued to read about it now, I won’t spoil the tale.
Nor will I pretend that the dives along the way were the most fascinating ever recorded, although the fact that so much of the underwater action takes place in Ukraine does lend the book a topicality – and a poignant reminder of happier times.
But the diving isn't the point, it’s the journey that counts and the people along the way, and it’s simply fun to join the author as he faces setback after setback but always comes up smiling. As he puts it: “Diving and biking are unbeatable. Put them together… I’m in the Pleasure Dome.”
John Kean Books, Amazon Kindle, £5.99
Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive With The World’s Most Misunderstood Predator,
by David Shiffman
Among this crop of new dive-related books, this one proved a pleasant surprise. Written by a US shark-conservation expert with a solid academic background, I understood that its purpose was to explain why sharks are sinned against, not sinning, and deserve our whole-hearted support. So I expected a rehash of the old familiar sentiments and, to be honest, to be a bit bored.
I had reckoned without David Shiffman’s lively style, which I imagine must make him a popular speaker as well as writer. Here’s a sample: “One time, I looked down at a lemon shark we were working up and noticed that it had a clump of hair on it. ‘That’s weird,’ I thought, because sharks don’t have hair. Then I realised that the shark had twitched suddenly, resulting in its dermal denticles scraping across my leg, taking the hair and a little bit of skin right off. The noise I emitted next was extremely masculine, no matter what the interns on the boat that day may claim…”
I warmed to him more with his forthright criticism of the sensationalism of Discovery’s Shark Week – whatever you think of such “institutions”, Shiffman is clearly happy to court controversy and feels secure in his no doubt hard-earned knowledge and convictions.
Why Sharks Matter seems to be aimed primarily at people who have dabbled on the fringes of shark and ray conservation and are now thinking of getting serious and looking for insights into the cause and the community.
I learnt a lot from reading it, especially in terms of questioning the easy assumptions we divers sometimes make for emotional reasons about protecting sharks, rather than being guided by the science.
It’s a matter of the greater good, says Shiffman: you can’t save every shark, and no conservation experts think you can, but you can save vast numbers by keeping the targets realistic and your approach diplomatic. In his world, sustainable shark fisheries are not only possible but desirable. Interesting reading. By the way, Shiffman is speaking at “For the Love Of Sharks 2022” in London in November.
Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN: 9781421443645
Hardback, 312pp, 15x22cm, £18.50 (Kindle £17.58)
The Underwater Eye: How the Movie Camera Opened The Depths And Unleashed New Realms of Fantasy, by Margaret Cohen
The title makes this book sound exciting, and it might well be just that for serious students of film-making. For me it’s a drily academic analysis of how the processes and aesthetics of creating images of the underwater world for topside audiences have altered over what has been little more than a century of movie-making.
Margaret Cohen is an eminent professor of English (and French and Italian) literature at Stanford, and for some time she has specialised in works relating to the ocean. So anyone expecting to trip lightly through the history of underwater cinema should realise that you’ll be taking the textbook route.
The first section lays out the 19th-century foundations, the period when few people had the means to see for themselves, let alone depict, the underwater world – a domain as remote and unfamiliar to the average Victorian as Mars.
Eventually we get to 1914 and read about the father of underwater filming, JE Williamson, with his vision of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. You can probably guess the classic cinematic works covered after that: the pioneering offerings of Cousteau, Hass and Malle; through The Creature from the Black Lagoon to Sea Hunt; the Bond movies, fascinated with diving to the point of fetishism; Besson’s The Big Blue and so on. A recurring theme is women being used mainly for underwater decoration, wholesome or otherwise.
Pool-based as well as ocean-based cinema is dissected too, from The Graduate to Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (I hoped Cohen’s analysis might make me want to give that exercise in tedium another try, but I’m afraid it didn’t).
It’s interesting to learn how a combination of technology and imagination solved the various optical challenges, and how perspectives changed from flat aquarium to fully immersive, adding diver- and shark’s-eye to third-party observer views.
And, in passing, how what seemed to be the brilliance of Jaws in holding back on the shark shots was not designed to allow audiences to use their imaginations so much as a necessity with Bruce the latex shark proving such an unreliable prop.
It was Lloyd Bridges as the intrepid Mike Nelson in Sea Hunt who won me over to the undersea world as a child, and here the analysis concentrates on classifying plot devices used to maintain the appeal of the TV series over 155 episodes – basically, would our hero or those he had to save run out of air, out of time or get eaten?
Interestingly, Cohen identifies that somewhere along the way – around the time of Jaws, The Deep and The Abyss – the underwater world lost its battle with outer space to be the big draw for movie-goers. Then she sweeps on through to the Blue Planet era and the business of engaging the public in saving that planet.
For a book dedicated to the visual arts, one big downside is that the reproduction quality of the many underwater images is generally poor. Stills from movies, especially old ones in mono, are always likely to be problematic, and I would rather have seen fewer, larger and more carefully selected plates better rendered.
Princeton University Press, ISBN: 9780691197975
Hardback, 344pp, 16x24cm, £28 (Kindle £26.60)
Wrecks of Key Largo, by Nicholas Harvey
Incredibly, we’re already up to Book 12 in Harvey’s AJ Bailey adventure series. The fictional female dive-boat operator has now become semi-real to a lot of readers and she’s back, but this time venturing away from her Cayman Islands home to the Florida Keys for a scuba-diving conference – and, of course, an encounter with desperate criminals.
That’s good, because she and her girlfriends need to follow a trail of clues and dive deep into iconic Keys shipwrecks such as the Spiegelgrove, Duane and Bibb.
One of AJ’s friends, Emily Durand, I learnt was making a guest appearance from the books of another diving-based novelist and friend of Harvey’s called Nick Sullivan. So I guess I’m just going to have to explore his The Deep series now (that’s another five books to read!).
Harvey is British but lives in Key Largo, with the Caymans as his second home. A PADI Divemaster, he has dived almost all the non-fictional sites described in his books, and as a prolific and imaginative story-teller he hasn’t let me down so far.
Look no further for exciting diving descriptions – his underwater narrative is always compelling and believable and in this book is among his best. Next up is Anchor Point in January.
Harvey Books, ISBN 9798830363747,
Paperback, 15x23cm, 268pp, £9.99 (Kindle £3.69)
The Brilliant Abyss: True Tales Of Exploring The Deep Sea, Discovering Hidden Life And Selling The Seabed, by Helen Scales
I reviewed this book in Diver last year and here it is now in paperback, freshly appealing only if saving a couple of quid is the deal-breaker. Helen Scales is, I reckon, one of the best and most original writers (and broadcasters) covering the undersea world.
The first half of The Brilliant Abyss is a compelling journey through those parts of the ocean that scuba-divers won’t see first-hand – the deep-trench seabeds, the black and white smoker geothermal vents, the deep-lying seamounts and so on.
You might expect describing the spectacularly visual life-forms of the abyss without benefit of illustrations to be tough, but the challenge hardly seems to faze Scales, who can conjure up word-pictures with little apparent effort.
The Brilliant Abyss is less about weird creatures than the importance of the deep ocean to the planet’s well-being, especially as a biological carbon pump and source of antidotes to the illnesses that plague humanity.
Then, just as you’re marvelling at the author's ability to make science not only accessible but enjoyable, she takes a sudden turn into politics and the sinister threats to the deeps.
If you were only vaguely aware of the practical realities of the deep ocean as a rubbish dump and a target for potentially catastrophic fishing and mining activities, she makes it all jump into frighteningly sharp focus. You’ll be outraged to read about the two-faced organisations charged with safeguarding the deep seas while equally thirsting to exploit them.
The book is sparing on preaching but it’s hardly needed – the alternative futures are laid out all too clearly. This is an enjoyable, informative and also an important piece of work.
Bloomsbury Sigma, ISBN: 9781472966889
Paperback, 352pp, £10.99 (Kindle £5.89)
Also on Divernet: 6 New Books For Divers