BEST DIVES? WHO SAYS?
My favourite dives of the Western Hemisphere? Cocos Island, Socorro Island, parts of British Columbia, the northern islands of the Galapagos, and Walkers Cay and the Tongue of the Ocean in the Bahamas.
Best Dives of the Western Hemisphere, a dive guide written by Joyce and Jon Huber, fails to mention half my choices, preferring to dwell instead on places like the US Virgin Islands, Bonaire, and the Florida Keys - all worthy destinations, but really, the best?
Of course it's subjective, and I suppose that to call a guide Best Places We Have Visited... or Some of the Best Places... is less than compelling, but I believe the title of this book promises more than it delivers.
How a dive at Salt River Canyon in St Croix can be placed alongside one at Gordon Rocks in the Galapagos, and both be rated as among the best mystifies me - and what happened to the Sea of Cortez?
That said, many of the places covered are very popular with the US diving public, and I imagine buyers will be gratified to feel that they have been to all the best places within easy reach of their country.
Is this Hunter Travel Guide applicable to those who start their journeys from this side of the Atlantic? The clue to its philosophy is found early on, where the Shark Wall in New Providence, Bahamas, is described as suitable only for experienced scuba-divers.
This is one of the best and easiest sites in the world, still with healthy corals and a resident population of around 40 large female Caribbean reef sharks which have learned not to fear divers. You can do the dive staying in less than 15m if you like, and there is usually zero current. The authors award it only three stars. They also give three stars to the wreck of the Pamir in Barbados, and then go on to give five stars to Dottins Reef, both of them exceptionally modest dives.
Perhaps they should have called this book Best Dives of the Western Hemisphere for Those Divers Who Learned to Dive Ten Years Ago, Did Three Dives and Have Never Done One Since.
It looks rather old-fashioned, too. It's hefty, but illustrated only with black and white newsprint-quality photographs, plus a few colour plates like an afterthought in the centre.
However, if you're going to be heading to the Bahamas, Bermuda, Turks & Caicos, the Florida Keys, much of the Caribbean, Brazil, California's Channel Islands, Santa Catalina, the Galapagos or Hawaii, it does include some useful addresses and phone numbers, together with lots of other facts and figures.
This book is for those who want to dive in calm, clear water, which is not very deep, and are content to see a few pretty fish. If I didn't know any better, I'd recommend it!
Best Dives of the Western Hemisphere by Joyce and Jon Huber, Windsor Books (01865 361122). Softback, 346pp, £12.95.
If you have a dolphin within you, why not set it free!
Free-diving legend Jacques Mayol believes that we have the potential to awaken the dolphin he says lies dormant within all of us. It's a bizarre concept, but one that many divers may be able to understand.
In his introduction, Mayol makes it clear that this book is no instructional guide to free-diving or yoga, or a study of dolphins. His intention is to "open new windows into the mystery of our mother, the sea, and to deepen the spiritual links that unite us to the sea and dolphins". Read this book with your best open mind.
I started with the chapter on how Mayol became involved in the making of The Big Blue, an inspiration for many divers and free-divers. Here he destroys some of the myths that surround the film's making and tackles in-depth the questions most frequently asked of him.
Interesting, but not nearly as fascinating as some of the other chapters. For example, "The Origins of Apnea" examines in great detail the concept of humans evolving from a sort of aquatic monkey, in an attempt to explain why we have so many physiological adaptations to free-diving.
Equally challenging to modern-day science are the chapters "The Ocean in Man" and "Born in the Water". Here Mayol describes how and why we are so closely linked to the ocean, leading to his concept that in-water childbirth followed by an aquatic lifestyle could lead to the evolution of Homo Delphinus.
Within each chapter, Mayol seeks to intertwine the scientific with the spiritual world. Most of the way he manages this, although at times I felt I was losing the plot. Homo Delphinus isn't brilliantly written, and Mayol does tend to go off at tangents, yet it remains an exceptional read. The challenging
theories presented, and the remarkable photographs and illustrations, provide a rare insight into what makes Mayol the man (or dolphin) that he is.
At almost £60 this is an expensive buy, but fanatical free-divers will buy it and treasure
the words of wisdom of "the Master."
Don't even think of borrowing it off them. Unless you can hold your breath for several minutes at a depth of 20m-plus, they just won't consider you worthy!
Homo Delphinus by Jacques Mayol, Idelson-Gnocchi (001 352 5911136, www: email@example.com). Hardback, 364pp, $95.
Wreck and life duo with Sussex appeal
My first edition of Dive Sussex is dog-eared and its covers are missing. It has travelled with me on three dive boats for nearly 15 years and been thumbed through by hundreds of divers. So I was pleased to receive the third edition.
A revision needs to be more than cosmetic, but new information and amendments to old information have been provided. It's a must for the Southern club RIB and hardboat diver wanting a day's diving rather than a long journey to the West Country.
The new edition has come a long way in quality of presentation, paper and graphics, and makes the first seem very dated - especially the Fenzy adverts! It is divided into coastal areas, and some of the most changeable local area information has been revised and moved to the appendix.
There follows an extensive section on launching and shore-diving sites, but the boat-diving site section is the most valuable part of the book for me, compiled after extensive research and collation of reports from divers, fishermen, skippers, and the Hydrographic Office.
In my experience, the Hydrographer always seemed keen to attach a name to a wreck on the scantiest of evidence - reports from sinking ships, using dead reckoning, compass bearings and so on - rather than call it an unknown. However, we are gradually re-attributing identities and some of these are reflected here, including the Blanefield, Quail, Minion, Vasco and Northcoates.
Many dive reports are based on information that is 15 years old, simply because there is nothing newer. So beware: some wrecks have collapsed and disintegrated further, and most have some net caught on them, despite the accuracy of DGPS, so consult the skipper.
Information on deeper wrecks, with the exception of the Moldavia and Duke of Buccleugh, is limited, though new clues as to identities have been gleaned from bells, china, boiler and shipbuilder's plates,
shellcases, etc. Within the next couple of years, there should be enough for another edition!
Robert Irving's Sussex Marine Life provides an excellent accompaniment to Dive Sussex. It represents the findings of the Sussex Seasearch Project, in which more than 200 divers participated over five years.
As a non-marine biologist, I had no trouble identifying many of the 190 species described from the 350 high-quality colour photos. The sections on the geology, habitats and local seabed are an interesting introduction to the core of the book: identification and description of species.
A page is devoted to each species, including two or three photos. A few of the pictures are a bit lacking, though this reflects the technical difficulties of photographing mobile, shy creatures in the worst tidal zone. We do have periods of clear water in Sussex, but they are unpredictable. A concise description of each creature, its habitat and occurrence is included.
The ring binding is in keeping with the purpose of the book, as a reference manual. It's a must for any underwater naturalist.
Dive Sussex by Kendall McDonald, Underwater World Publications (0181 943 4288). Softback, 208pp, £14.95.
Sussex Marine Life - An Identification Guide for Divers by Robert Irving, Marine Conservation Society (01989 566017). Softback, 178pp, £15.
Daveboy might be in his element but he fails to make a splash
This book and the TV series it follows originated with the idea of taking a major celebrity to some of the world's best dive sites. Given David Jason's huge popularity and well-publicised interest in diving, an informative and entertaining diving book might well have resulted.
Regrettably, in trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, this has ended up as a travel book with some diving thrown in. It revolves around the frustrations of filming the series within a tight time-frame in which everything seems to go wrong - equipment lost in transit, constant jet lag, foul weather and illnesses.
Believe it or not, our hero suffers flu, food-poisoning and a bad back, all in the space of two weeks!
Repeated details of Jason's symptoms do not sit well with the light-hearted style of the book, and this aspect bored me at times. We are also given potted history and geography lessons on most of the countries visited and Jason is taken to meet the wackiest locals his researcher can dig up. The frequent anecdotes about these characters and members of the production crew might have been funny first-hand, but do not translate well into print.
I also found the underwater pictures rather ordinary. Many are washed out and very obviously posed, with Jason hanging on to some unremarkable lump of rock, staring straight into the camera while apparently trying to smile, despite a mouthful of regulator!
As a book about diving, this, like the TV series, is a great opportunity wasted. However, there are surely masses of David Jason fans around with no interest in our sport who will readily snap it up.
David Jason: In His Element by David Jason & Niall Edworthy, Andre Deutsch (0171 316 4450). Hardback, 160pp, £17.99.
Going back to basics
Aimed at the beginner, or perhaps somebody thinking of taking up diving, this book is rather like a slimmed-down Diving Manual.
Similar books have appeared before, but this one, dealing with everything from "what is a snorkel?" to Differential Global Positioning Systems and the use of tri-mix, is bang up to date in terms of content.
I particularly liked the sections covering basic pool and lung training, which are covered in a simple style with a fair bit of detail and some clear line drawings.
Of necessity, many of the more advanced areas are fairly sketchy, but the author points out that the book is not a substitute for proper training manuals and is meant primarily as a guide and overview.
One section, "Where to Dive", covers all the major diving areas of the world from Sipadan to Malta in around three pages flat. The information is so limited that it left me feeling it was included to help pad the book out. There are a few minor inaccuracies, too. One reference to UK diving - "the water temperature is pretty static at around 16°C" - made me wonder whether the author knows something about global warming that has escaped the rest of us!
Despite this, and some rather muddy black and white photographs, this is a well-produced, well-written book which does a pretty good job in providing a basic introduction to the sport.
Scuba Diving by Colin Brittain, Crowood Press (01672 520320). Softback, 144pp, £14.99.
Deep Water is about a family salvage company that grew from nothing into a world record-breaking, major international operator. It describes in intimate detail how, from the humble beginnings of scuba diving from an inflatable, author Moya Crawford and her husband Alec upgraded to a Norwegian fishing boat and finally, by raising and rebuilding a sunken trawler, ended up with their purpose-built Redeemer.
Their list of salvage feats is even more impressive. Starting with RMS Oceanic, stablemate of the Titanic which sank off the Shetland Isles in 1914, they moved on to HMS Argyll, a Devonshire-class cruiser lost in WWI. This was when Alec decided that the way ahead was to develop a remotely
operated system. He designed and built his own hydro-electric grab, furnished with its own video TV camera.
The application of this revolutionary tool on the wreck of the Francois Vieljeux, sunk in 1250m with a cargo of copper ingots, was to prove to be their greatest and most successful venture to date. This amazing exploit has tripled the world depth record for commercial cargo recovery and,
at the same time, provided them with a sound financial basis on which to build for the next venture.
This is essential reading for any diver who thinks he could make it into salvage work!
Deep Water by Moya Crawford, Thomas Reed Publications (01225 868821). Hardback, 320pp, £19.95.
Walkers on the historical tightrope find the right balance
"Blow the facts, give us the story" is, according to legend, the favourite saying of news editors of tabloid papers.
This is not, however, a style to be adopted by the authors of books about historic shipwrecks. They have a tricky balance to keep - to retain the ordinary diver's interest without upsetting the underwater archaeologist. Go too far one way and you're a vandal, swing too far the other way and risk being a bore.
That is why I approached Historic Shipwrecks, Discovered, Protected and Investigated by Valerie Fenwick and Alison Gale with some caution. I feared that this one would be very heavy on minute archaeological detail, because Valerie Fenwick is the archaeologist Editor of the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Alison Gale moves in maritime heritage circles.
I was completely wrong. A pair of more accomplished tightrope-walkers would be difficult to find - they have struck an excellent balance. The result is an interesting book for both the uncommitted diver with some interest in wrecks and the dedicated underwater archaeologist, who will be able to find little fault with it.
The book covers 47 wrecks which have been designated in the 25 years of the Protection of Wrecks Act of 1973, dating from the 12th century BC scrap merchant's ship near Dover to the British experimental submarine Resurgam, lost in 1880.
Surprisingly, the ships are not listed in chronological order, but loosely under headings such as "Untold Voyages", "A Ship for All Seas", "The Pirate Surprise", "Fast Vessels" and "Timeless Traders" - groupings which mean little and, without the first-class index, would make a particular ship difficult to find.
However, that is a small criticism, because the rest of the material about the wrecks themselves is well-presented, together with items of special interest highlighted in panels. Plans, drawings and plenty of photographs, both black and white and colour, add to the overall good impression.
You know, on reflection, I was also wrong about the balance of the book - it is nothing more than a cunning plan to lure more divers into underwater archaeology. It might succeed at that!
Historic Shipwrecks, Discovered, Protected and Investigated by Valerie Fenwick and Alison Gale, Tempus Publishing (01453 883300). Softback, 160pp, £14.99.
Appeared in DIVER - March 2000