BOOK REVIEW Top Dive Sites of the World, New Holland Publishers 0171 258 1293. Hardback £29.99.
Where do you want to go?" When a travel agency sent me this unusual open invitation recently, it caught me on the hop. How should I decide?
I looked at my map of the world. There seemed to be so much that was blue and I seemed to have seen comparatively little of it. I was spoiled for choice. If only a copy of Top Dive Sites of the World had been sitting on my desk!
This is a coffee-table book from New Holland, the company that publishes the successful dive-guide series. In a way it is a spin-off from those books, with Lawson Wood and Guy Buckles among the 11 contributing writers. With Jack Jackson as the arbiter of choice, the publisher appears to have taken material gathered for its guides and distilled it into the best of the best.
One hundred and sixty-eight 30 x 26cm pages give scope for 300 high-quality colour photographs to be displayed in a way impossible with the smaller format of the guides. Well-drawn maps accompany side panels covering climate, water temperature, visibility and how to get there.
Some of the photographs will be familiar, like Lawson Wood's queen angelfish, which introduces the Caribbean section. He must have sold the use of this frame a thousand times over!
The book also includes many diving experiences that you might have enjoyed or will recognise, such as shark-feeding in the Bahamas, diving the Brummer in Scapa Flow, Dolphin Reef in Eilat, the reef at Sha'ab Rumi, the two wrecks of Lhaviyani Atoll in the Maldives, Jellyfish Lake in Palau, the whale sharks of Ningaloo Reef and the mantas of Yap.
Rather than devaluing the book, including such sites lends it authority. None of the 75 locations is dealt with in any great detail - there would not be space.
But this book is great for whetting the appetite, and a useful reference should someone suddenly ask where you would like to go!
Wreck diving as an art
Most divers would agree that there are enough wreck registers and guides around to satisfy us for years to come. So is there room for another book on wrecks? A quick flip through Lizzie Bird's The Wreck Diving Manual soon provides the answer. There is.
This book breaks new ground, because not only is it written by an active and experienced diver who knows her subject thoroughly (Lizzie is a BSAC National Instructor) but it concentrates on the art of wreck-diving.
There is something here for beginner and experienced wreck diver alike, and few will read it without benefiting in some way.
The main subject matter is well laid out and indexed, and topped and tailed by comprehensive chapters on the law, wreck location, dive planning, special equipment and wreck research.
If that sounds dry and dusty, don't be put off - it isn't. Each subject is well-presented and very readably written. The chapter on shot lines is particularly good, and in the one on wreck research, Lizzie even manages to dream up five scenarios, a form of entertainment much enjoyed by National Instructors.
What comes across strongly is that this manual is written from first-hand experience, its tips and techniques tried and tested by the author.
It is not top marks all the way, however, because many of the book's illustrations fall short of the high standard generally achieved by the text. A fair proportion of the photographs are obviously dated, and a couple are badly out of focus and crudely retouched.
Most regrettable, perhaps, is the fact that the author has chosen to do all the line drawings herself. They convey the information required, but Lizzie Bird is no Rico Oldfield.
Illustrations apart, The Wreck Diving Manual fills an important gap in today's market, and is sure to interest most wreck divers.
The Wreck Diving Manual by Lizzie Bird, Crowood Press 01672 520320. Softback £12.99.
Restored to diving history
THE INFERNAL DIVER by John Bevan is a diving book unlike any other you have read or are likely to read. It tells a true story of the two pioneers and inventors of the diving helmet who were conveniently forgotten by those who later claimed the credit.
Pick up almost any book that deals, even passingly, with the history of diving and you will read that Augustus Siebe invented the diving helmet early in the 19th century. Alexander McKee was the first to suspect that brothers John and Charles Deane were the true inventors, and Siebe the leading manufacturer of their designs.
This is the gripping story of the triumphs and tragedies of the Deanes. Magnificently and expertly researched, it covers their lives and dives, their wrecks and deaths.
One brother was an optimist, the other a pessimist; one successful, one doomed to failure and a grisly end. They started from a poverty-stricken background to become the world's first commercial and military divers.
Their story moves from London around the British Isles as they search for wrecks and treasure. John Deane became Britain's diving and explosives expert in the Crimea, where he won the nickname "The Infernal Diver".
The writer's research reveals other characters, such as the self-effacing but brilliant engineer George Edwards of Lowestoft, who first proposed "the loose flange". This made the original Deane helmet safer by bolting it on to the suit, so that the diver would not drown if he leaned forward.
John Bevan, the Chairman of the Historical Diving Society, researched the Deanes for more than ten years, gaining a PhD in the process! He has "righted a wrong" while producing both a reference and an exciting story.
The book is beautifully produced and illustrated with more than 180 photographs, drawings and maps, and 24 colour plates. The first edition is limited to 1000 numbered (and if required signed) copies.
Although far from cheap, this book would make a wonderful present for a departing DO or Branch Chairman. Every serious diver should have one!
The Infernal Diver by John Bevan, Submex (0171 3733069). Hardback £59.
Are your procedures up to scratch?
I remember using an earlier edition of Michael Gale's Marine VHF Operation as my main information source when I took my Certificate of Competence examination.
Now, some ten years later, much of the text appears unchanged, but careful inspection shows how the book has evolved with changes in current practice. That I gained a lot from reading this new edition shows how easy it is to slip into bad practices over time.
The author follows a logical path through the background knowledge required and proceeds to sections on specific operations. The theory is aimed directly at exam requirements and a cross-reference system is used to identify relevant questions.
Bearing in mind that the book is closely related to formal legislation, the author does well to avoid adopting a cold format. To pass the exam you need theoretical knowledge, practical experience and the nerve to overcome fear of radio operations.
The book adequately covers the first requirement and will go a long way towards achieving the second, if not the third.
Later sections cover specific procedures such as calling the Coastguard and Coast Radio Stations, with scripts that can easily be modified to suit your needs. One or two calls using these procedures should overcome any misgivings.
Important to existing users are the changes in procedures described for certain areas around the coast, particularly in the English Channel.
Similarly, the new section on distress calls provides a good insight into the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), due to take effect from 1 February 1999.
This is a useful addition to any boat-user's bookshelf, but you will get maximum benefit by using it as a reference book while working towards your examination.
Marine VHF Operation: GMDSS Edition by Michael Gale, Fernhurst Books (tel. 01903 882277), Softback £7.95.
If you are looking for a romantic destination to which to take your partner, the Seychelles must surely be a leading contender. Consisting of more than 100 tropical, palm-clad, granitic islands scattered over the Indian Ocean, they rate in my book as Paradise on Earth - particularly La Digue.
The Diving and Snorkelling Guide to the Seychelles is another in the Pisces Guide series. Its 90 pages contain details of 35 dive sites. The disappointment is that 24 are those visited by the Seychelles Underwater Centre in Beau Vallon Bay, on the island of Mahe.
This is a shame, especially as the book starts with an overview of the Seychelles incorporating the Admirante Islands, the Aldabra and Farquhar groups, and mentioning both Praslin and La Digue.
To add insult to injury, the chapter entitled Praslin and La Digue almost fails to mention the latter island at all! It scrapes in with dive sites 34 and 35.
That said, if you are going to Mahe to dive (and many people do) this book does cover most of the sites you are likely to visit.
Lawson Wood's photographs are on the whole appetising and his descriptions of the dive sites chatty and eminently readable.
The Seychelles enjoy a considerable tidal range, so most sites are diveable by boat only. Visiting divers being unlikely to bring their own boats, they can probably get all the information given here from the dive centre.
However, the guide makes good preparatory reading for those planning to visit this exotic location.
Diving and Snorkelling Guide to the Seychelles by Lawson Wood, Pisces Softback £7.99.
CD-Rom REVIEWThe Sacred Mirror of Kofun by Jean-Michel Cousteau, 3-disk CD-Rom, Emme Interactive, Paris (tel. 33 1 45 615430; e-mail www.emme.com) £34.99
Virtual Jean-Michel Cousteau: "The difference between fiction and reality is very slim!"
I tried. I really did try. And after several lengthy sessions at the PC wrestling with Jean-Michel Cousteau's first CD-Rom The Sacred Mirror of Kofun, I felt I was getting the hang of it.
I had been wandering like a ghost around the "fully rendered 360* explorable environment" that was his futuristic craft Antares for what seemed like weeks before solving enough clues to do some actual diving. It was a bit like getting to the end of BSAC Novice theory sessions.
But every time I set off around the Micronesian shipwreck in search of clues I ended up getting bent, and would be whisked back to my virtual cabin while the supercilious robot E.D.W.A.R.D. gave me a piece of its mind.
I would be confined there for five days at a time, on a diet of virtual pizza and orange juice. This would have been quite pleasant had the beautiful female scientists I kept seeing on QuickTime video clips been allowed to join me, but they stayed resolutely in their own cabins throughout our voyage, presumably disgusted at my incompetence.
Diver recently slated a CD-Rom for being little more than a book transferred to disk. The other side of the coin is this, a CD-Rom so relentlessly interactive that unless you are spending a week off sick in bed you may never find time to master it.
Which is a pity, because this is an ambitious and in many ways admirable multi-media product that blends adventure-gaming with education. It contains an interesting marine life encyclopaedia and searchable database, and some stunning 3D graphics.
With two hours of video footage and 80 hours of gameplay, you should feel you've had your £34.99's worth by the time you crack it. Whether you would go through it all again is another matter.
The premise is that your undersea exploratory mission in the Pacific with Cousteau and a handful of reclusive scientists is cut short by the disappearance of one John Braddy, who is trying to locate the Sacred Mirror of Kofun. This, we are told, is "a Japanese artifact of power and protection that brings peril to all who oppose it".
I never got close to finding it, let alone opposing it. But then, Jean-Michel is aiming at a more youthful market (although a 10- and a 13-year-old admitted to being frustrated by the product: "Why so long to get to the diving?").
I asked Jean-Michel about the investment required for a project on this scale. "It cost somewhere around 8 million francs," he replied - which means that he needs to sell some 23,000 copies at UK prices to break even.
"Apart from the financial side my goal is to reach as many people as possible. I feel that with interactivity we are allowing young people to become active again, not just encouraging them to watch life go by as TV does, but to get involved."
Best-known as a film-maker, Jean-Michel is clearly excited by the possibilities of CD-Rom, although conscious of the current technical drawbacks. "With the video clips the number of frames per second remains a problem, though the biggest limitation is the size of the images," he says. "But I believe the breakthrough will come within a year and a half, and I look forward to having full-screen video images."
The underwater footage for The Sacred Mirror of Kofun was shot around the islands of Truk and Palau. For a documentary-maker, wasn't combining fact with fiction quite a challenge? "I had to let go of the traditional academic approach and allow a little fun into proceedings."
I couldn't help mentioning that on the promotional video of the making of the CD-Rom, Jean-Michel and his dive team had not appeared to be having much fun - on the contrary, they had looked decidedly moody.
"We spent seven days on Truk and 14 in Palau. We had to be extremely careful as some of our dives were quite deep, up to 50m, but we were working very quickly," says Jean-Michel. "I could have done with another week - there are other wrecks I would have liked to dive, but we had to be very focused."
The underwater team also had a run-in with a live torpedo on one of the WW2 wrecks. "That was scary. The head did not explode, but the compressed air container that formed the propulsion system had rusted away. It exploded while we were down and was spectacular."
Jean-Michel had found some initial difficulty in adapting to the demands of the CD-Rom medium. "I had no idea of the formidable task such a collection would involve. A one-hour film special for TV has a beginning, a middle and an end, and I decide the pace. But with CD-Rom you have to tackle it from so many different angles.
"It took a little while to find out how things worked; I asked a lot of questions, looked at other games."
The process of designing the Antares, which he did with the help of his naval architect, took on a special significance. "The graphical depiction of the ship was very exciting to me, because the Antares might actually take shape in the future. The difference between fiction and reality is very slim!"
I had assumed the sacred mirror of the CD-Rom's title to be the product of his fertile imagination, too. "No, it is based on a real story. The mirror does exist. A young Japanese sailor stole it from a museum."
Jean-Michel is now exploring the possibilities for cyber-action afforded by the freshwater caves of Yucatan and the Blue Holes of Belize. "It could be a very intriguing adventure," he says, adding that he has plans for several other themes. "It depends on whether we get backing. It will help if this CD-Rom is successful!"
Appeared in DIVER - October 1997