DIGESTABLE BEATS MANUAL
Give someone who has an initial interest in diving the BSAC Sport Diving manual, and you might put them off for life. The same goes for the PADI Open Water Diver manual.
Manuals form part of a structured course. When someone has a casual interest in an activity, they need something which is attractive, easily digestible and "sells" the idea.
The Diver's Handbook by Alan Mountain sets out to do that. It is bright, colourful, invitingly laid out and attempts to explain all about diving, without being daunting to anyone who might pick it up and flick through a few pages.
In no way is the subject trivialised - all the information is there. In fact I would risk saying that all the information you will find in the Sport Diving manual is there, but presented in a way that the training agencies might care to note.
Neither text nor photography is startlingly innovative, but the design puts it all together in a very digestible way.
One or two photographs of divers under water have that stilted, wide-eyed look so popular with publishers of US magazines, but the rest are of the highest quality. Scuba-diving here looks fun and bright and modern.
If you want to know about computing, a computer manual is no place to begin. If a non-diver asked me for a suitable book for starters, I would not hesitate to recommend this big softback.
Strangely, New Holland has also brought out another, very similar book. Scuba Diving, by Jack Jackson, is part of a different series of how-to-do-it books on a wide range of activities. With fewer pages (96 as opposed to 160), and in a hard cover, its style otherwise mimics that of the other. Even the photos have the same look.
The publisher tells me that The Diver's Handbook would appeal to the more serious diver (I beg to differ) whereas Scuba Diving fulfils the role of being part of a set. I wonder how many people buy a set of books on how to participate in disparate outdoor activities? They might look good on the bookshelf but the collectors would seem to be rather sad.
Taken as a stand-alone volume, my reactions to Scuba Diving are similar to my reactions to The Diver's Handbook, except to point out that some subjects have been omitted in Scuba Diving.
The Diver's Handbook by Alan Martin, New Holland (020 7724 7773). Softback, 160pp, £12.99. Scuba Diving by Jack Jackson, New Holland. Hardback, 96pp, £12.99
What happened to the Affray?
No one will ever make the perfect video for wreck divers. But Innes McCartney comes pretty close with The Mystery of HMS Affray.
His 30-minute production tells of the loss of HM Submarine Affray during a training exercise in the Channel in April, 1951. It took 60 days before the sub was found in 86m near the Hurd Deep, though long before that, all hope had been given up for the 75 men aboard.
Navy divers then found that the snorkel mast was snapped off and lying head-down over the side. This fracture was almost certainly the cause of the sinking. It would have let tons of water into the sub and filled her within moments.
McCartney handles the story of this disaster in a sensitive manner, as befits its "war grave" status, and those planning wreck videos could learn from it.
I liked his technique of setting the sub's building and basic statistics in type like sub-titles, but over the relevant pictures. I also appreciated the clear and serious commentary given by Patricia Hornabrook, which fortunately triumphs over the somewhat ill-fitting tinkling piano background music.
There is good colour film taken in a sister sub, showing how modern the internal fitting was, and I presume that this was Naval archive film, as McCartney's production is "in association with the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport" and "a proportion of the funds from the video will be donated to the HM Submarines Centennial Fund".
The 1998 underwater film of the wreck is taken in the deep dark by a team of technical divers, led by McCartney. Lights were, of course, necessary, but the result has good colour quality. We are led around key external features: bridge, binnacle, speaking tubes, navigation lights, closed hatches and where the snorkel broke away in its collar.
Defective welding was originally blamed for this but the mystery remains? Was there an impact? A battery explosion? We shall probably never know, but whatever the cause, the result was 13 tons of water per minute bursting into the sub's interior, and the death of all the crew.
This is a welcome first in an historic ships video series being produced by Innes McCartney for his Periscope Publishing company.
The Mystery of HMS Affray by Innes McCartney, Underwater World (020 8943 4288). 30min, £14.95
OCEANS OF INTEREST
The first thing I like to do with a book is scan the biographical information on the authors, usually found on the back or inside the cover. The review copy of The Oceans was a publisher's proof, so that bit was missing. Hardly necessary for someone as legendary as Sylvia Earle, and a quick websearch soon established that Ellen Prager is also an established oceanographer, with the US Geological Survey.
The Oceans covers enormous scientific ground, the geological and biological history of three-quarters of the world no less (and a fair impact on the remaining quarter), with added snippets on the history of oceanography as a science. Prager and Earle don't just present geological and biological history as facts, but also summarise the chains of evidence that have enabled scientists to reconstruct this history.
I found the book fairly easy to read and the fully formatted published copy will no doubt be easier still. For someone with a scientific background it is, if anything, a little over-explained in places. Perhaps the target audience includes school students. Still, better over-explained than leaving the readership lost in technicalities.
The Oceans doesn't contain anything that will turn a reader into a better diver or help plan dives - it addresses the marine environment on too large a scale for that. But it does provide a comprehensive background on why the oceans exist as they are today, and how development by man is irreparably changing the marine environment. Stimulating reading for every armchair scientist between dives.
The Oceans by Ellen J Prager with Sylvia A Earle, McGraw Hill, 01628 502500. Hardback, 334pp, £15.99
As easy as ABC
The former Dutch colonies often known as the ABC islands, Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, offer diving that can be both stupendously exciting or rather dull. It all depends on the dive-site and your disposition.
The larger island, Curaçao, has a large port with industrial areas but most of it remains as untamed and wild as its smaller neighbours.
Close to Venezuela, the islands offer a year-round stable climate, but they are not the palm-clad idylls of the cliché Caribbean but sun-blasted desert islands covered in scrub, cactus and, in the case of Bonaire, saltpans.
Who cares? We go for the diving and Bonaire is famous for its long-established marine park. Its protected reef walls are covered with colourful sponges and corals. The other two islands offer equally pristine conditions and have learned from Bonaire the benefits of preserving their underwater assets.
Jack Jackson's guide is easily followed and packed with useful information. However, I didn't envy his task of identifying differences between dive sites. Many seemed so samey to me, in their pristine perfection, that I remember joking that the boat always went to the same place - only the names were changed! This guidebook might have helped me focus on the differences rather than be drawn by the similarities.
Of course, individual sites do stand out: the underside of the pier in Kraledijk or the wrecks of the Hilma Hooker in Bonaire, the Superior Produce in Curaçao and the Arashi aeroplane in Aruba. No one should miss the corals fed by the currents around Klein Bonaire, nor a dive-site in Curaçao called Seldom because it is so rarely visited!
Grouping the ABC islands is a good idea. Dividing a trip between at least two of these destinations will provide the variety I felt was missing when staying for more than a week on one island.
This guide is almost perfect, though I still think the best diving is in the turbulent waters off the north coast of the west end of Curaçao, and this area gets no mention.
The Dive Sites of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao by Jack Jackson, New Holland. Softback, 176pp, £15.99
Compelling. Enlightening. Contemporary. None of these words describe Danger in the Sea, a trilogy of supposed "factual" films offered by Carlton Video, two of which focus on sharks and shark-related perils.
In truth, my enthusiasm for shark documentaries - bar those made by the likes of Paul Atkins, Howard Hall, Peter Scoones and a selection of other cinematographers - has been eroded by routinely predictable format and content. And having now viewed the first two films contained in Danger in the Sea, this disillusionment is further cemented.
Indeed, the titles of the two shark films - Sharks: The Killing Machines, followed by The Unreasoning Shark - sound like throwbacks to all those quasi-scientific TV films produced immediately post-Jaws. Even more lamentably, what appears on screen merely reinforces the choice of silly titles. Sharks, frankly, deserve better from film-makers in the 21st century. So do their audiences.
The plot is a clichéd one, following the roaming "project" of a film-maker (John Stoneman) and biologist (Alan Emery) to investigate why sharks sporadically bite folk. Along the way, we bypass - by two decades or so - much contemporary knowledge of shark behaviour and biology, with a dose of erratic editing chucked in for good measure. This is all largely inexcusable.
Lately, wonderfully crafted efforts have raised the benchmark of this genre considerably, notably the BBC-National Geographic's wildlife special Great White Shark (1995). If filmmakers don't aspire to match or better such "industry standards", they shouldn't even bother taking off their lens-caps.
Poorly framed shots of white sharks from inside shark cages; efforts to entice what Carlton describes as "bloodthirsty" Caribbean reef sharks into an on-screen frenzy and some antiquated scientific factoids summarises what these two films are about.
Sharks might well have thought it was safe to go back in front of the cameras after Great White Shark, but Carlton has shown that money-guzzling monsters inspired by Jaws still lurk in the production houses.
Ian K Fergusson
Danger In The Sea by John Stoneman, Carlton Video (020 8207 6207). 75min, £10.99.
Even the most experienced divers call on fish guides to satisfy their curiosity after a dive. This is a crowded market and the choice varies widely in terms of both price and quality. Two of the latest offerings come from New Holland, already well known for its dive guides, and cover two large areas - the Red Sea and the east coast of Southern Africa.
Both follow a similar format, although the Red Sea book, the more recent, has some handy improvements, notably the inclusion of symbols which summarise behaviour, diet and habitat for each species.
One feature I liked were the line sketches of species types divided into simple identification groups - silvery torpedo-shaped fish, bigeye cave-dwelling fish etc. This is very useful after a dive, when you might not be sure of a species classification, as the sketch will generally direct you to the correct section in the guide for a more detailed search.
There is a brief description of each fish with the usual size, colour and distribution details that you would expect. The descriptions in the Southern Africa guide are perhaps a little more staid and less visually attractive.
Both books also include short sections devoted to the hard and soft corals of the region, which are generally well illustrated and provide sufficient information for most needs.
For an acid test, I took the Red Sea guide with me on one of my photo workshops to see how well it worked in the field for my students, compared with other guides available on the boat. It was well-received and voted particularly useful as a "first line", speedy identification source. If you need more in-depth information, you might select a more detailed guide or wait until you return home for further research.
These guides are a handy size - there are weightier and more detailed tomes available, but these are much more expensive. Pay your money, make your choice.
Reef Fishes and Corals of the Red Sea by Pete Harrison and Alex Misiewicz, and Reef Fishes and Corals of the East Coast of Southern Africa by Dennis King, New Holland. Softback, 128pp, £10.99.
Critters by Monique Walker, reviewed in June, is now available in Britain through AquaPress (01702 462466)
Appeared in DIVER - June 2000