Cold water comforts
Frank Allen has been looking at two coffee-table books about marine life in British and Norwegian waters: one an outstanding example of its kind, the other, like the curate's egg, good in parts
I HAVE to say that I am not a great fan of "coffee table" books. Usually produced in large formats and filled with lots of pretty pictures, they are, in my opinion, best left on coffee tables. Few deserve a place on a proper bookshelf.
I am therefore greatly indebted to Diver for asking me to review Linda Pitkin's Under Northern Seas - but for this assignment, my prejudice against books of this sort would have caused me to miss an outstanding piece of work.
At first sight the book passes the coffee-table test - it is large and very colourful - but there the resemblance ends. As well as being wonderful to look at, it has plenty to say, and anyone who has ever put his or her head underwater will find it a fascinating read.
The book's nine chapters lead you gradually out from the tidal zone to the open sea, stopping at offshore rocks, reefs and wrecks along the way to examine typical marine life. The photographs used to illustrate this journey are quite outstanding and must be among the best ever taken of life off British and Norwegian coasts. They combine to form an exceptional collection and are a genuine delight to look at.
Photographers will also appreciate the photographic index at the back of the book, which gives exposure and location details of each shot. This is a thoughtful touch and adds greatly to the enjoyment of the collection.
An entomologist and biologist by profession, Linda Pitkin might have been tempted to present her book as something of a scientific treatise, but she skillfully avoids the trap. Instead Latin names are kept in the background and do not interfere with an enjoyable, interesting and unpretentious text.
The text also contains several fascinating snippets about one or two old friends. Did you know, for example, that some flatfish have eyes on the left side of their body while others prefer the right? That most wrasse start out as females and eventually change sex? That female conger eels swim to 3000m or more to spawn, and that "dead-man's fingers" are actually soft corals? Neither did I.
Under Northern Seas is a book that will appeal to all who regularly dive off our shores, but care should be taken about where it is kept. It belongs on a bookshelf, not on a coffee table.
Under Northern Seas by Linda Pitkin, Salamander Books, 0171 267 4447. Hardback, 25.
IN 1995 Alan James spent most of his time travelling and diving off the British coastline, making a trip many would envy. His travels took him from the Channel Islands to Scotland, with various stops along the south coast of England, the Scillies, Lundy and St Abbs. As might be expected of an underwater photographer, he recorded his journey on film and Beneath British Seas is the result.
Among the many photographs in this book are some fine shots of the marine life he saw along the way, and anyone who has struggled with a camera off our shores will admire the way the author has portrayed some of his subjects. Particularly good is a close-up shot of a plaice's face, which has the soft and crumpled look of a well-worn slipper. The picture will make it difficult for this unfortunate fish ever to be taken seriously again.
The general balance of colour and mood achieved in most of the photographs is very effective, which makes all the more puzzling the decision to include one or two that are clearly not up to the mark. This apart, there is much to enjoy in the collection.
In a book of 144 pages, mostly taken up with 173 photographs, there is not a great deal of room for text, so the writing has to be good if it is to claim the reader's attention. Unfortunately, it is here that the book falters, for the text does not match the quality of the photographs and is very thin fare indeed.
For me the author misses the point of his own book every time he wastes limited space by writing about himself, his camera equipment, and photographic jiggery-pokery. If needed, all this could have found a better home in the chapter entitled "Underwater Photography", where it might be skipped by those more interested in the stated subject of the book.
An equal irritation is the puzzling use of the word "image". Throughout the book the author chooses to take "images" rather than photographs.
While Beneath British Seas is unlikely to win any literary prizes, it should nevertheless be of interest to anyone familiar with the sites visited and photographed by the author.
Beneath British Seas by Alan James. Airlife Publishing, 01743 235651. Hardback, £19.95.
We shall dive them off the beaches...
Kendall McDonald on a guide to the wrecks of 70-odd vessels which didn't survive the D-Day assault on German-occupied Normandy
THERE are four boats to my knowledge currently taking groups to dive the French-coast wrecks of D-Day, but little has been written to help divers experience the best of this famous battleground of June, 1944. That has now changed with Mark James's excellent book, D-Day Wrecks of Normandy.
This flexi-cover book is remarkable for three things. First, it is Mark's first book. In fact, it is his first-ever piece of writing about his 20 years of diving.
Second, he has managed to tell the story of D-Day clearly and concisely in one chapter, leaving the remaining 190 pages to diving over 70 wrecks that didn't survive the landings or even reach the beaches, out of the 3000 vessels that sailed for France.
And third, the author has discovered so many photographs to illustrate his words, yet has managed to hold the price down to £12 (plus £1 postage and packing)
His guidance for diving Normandy is the sort of basic material that divers will welcome. For example, he points out that there are lots of complicated regulations about diving French waters, especially from RIBs, and that the best way to see these wrecks is to go with one of the English live-aboards, skippers of which will keep you out of trouble.
His advice covers most of the Baie de Seine and the D-Day wrecks that lie there in less than 40m, and mostly in the 20-30m range.
He comments that parts of some wrecks appear completely green in your torchlight. This is due to the vast number of shell-cases that the ships were carrying across to the battle. Brass souvenir-hunters should heed his advice that French law makes it illegal to remove anything from the seabed - including shellfish. Penalties for breaking these laws include impounding the dive boat and huge fines. This will not please your live-aboard skipper!
The wrecks described in the book include a German submarine, the U-390, which was depth-charged out of existence by Royal Navy convoy escorts. Only one survivor in submarine escape equipment surfaced from 38m. The wreckage still stands 4m high in parts.
One of the most tragic wrecks in the book, and one of the biggest naval shipping disasters of World War Two, is that of a U-boat victim. This is the 11,500-tonne, 152m-long liner Leopoldville, which a long time after D-Day was carrying 2200 American troops to Cherbourg. After she was torpedoed, a series of communication muddles caused over 800 troops to drown. It is surprising to learn from Mark James that, after all this time, the US and French governments are still considering whether to declare the wreck a war grave. Diving is still allowed on the wreck, which lies on its port side and is very much intact.
Talking of vessels being intact, those whose experience of D-Day is confined to diving the Far Mulberry off Bognor Regis in Sussex, and searching the wreckage in vain for the system of valves that raised and lowered her, will find out from Mark's book where they can go to see the real thing - a complete Phoenix A unit."It is," he says, "in 32m, completely intact and standing 13m high. The unit lies north-east/south-west and is a really fantastic dive with loads of fish life and easy access from the top to the inner compartments, which are complete with all the valves...".
D-Day Wrecks of Normandy by Mark James, 01332 512651. Softback, £12.
Everything you always wanted to know about South-east Asia
Mark Webster looks at two information-packed dive guides, one dealing with Indonesia, the other with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand
THE past five years have seen a steady rise in the popularity of the Far East as a destination for British divers. This is due to increasing awareness of the area, easier access and decreasing air fares.
However, the dive industry there is by no means new, and has long been popular with divers from the USA and Australia. Inevitably this has led to a number of guide books on this vast area, some of which offer more concise and useful information than others.
Two guides that fall into this category are now available from Periplus in its Action Guide series. The first covers Indonesia only and the second ambitiously embraces not only Indonesia, but Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.
Both guides follow a broadly similar format, breaking down the location into areas, each with its own introduction, maps, comments on marine life and conservation, followed by descriptions of specific dive sites.
Diving Indonesia is written entirely by Kal Muller, who is a resident diving journalist in Indonesia, while Diving South-east Asia has several contributors (many of the names will be familiar to travelling divers) providing specialist knowledge of the areas covered.
The introduction to the Indonesian guide is comprehensive, with useful sections on reef ecology and marine life, and several valuable information panels on subjects such as dynamite fishing, clownfish and anemones, and even Ciguatera poisoning! These sections are well illustrated with diagrams and high-quality photography and make informative background reading.
Some of these sections on the diving areas that follow are more detailed than others, and often draw attention to notable details or unusual species found at a particular location. The area maps are accompanied by "at a glance" panels in the Indonesian guide, which summarise the reef type, access, visibility, currents, fish types and any particular highlights the area offers.
This system is refined a little for the South-east Asia guide, which provides a series of symbols and comments in the margin so that you can more readily identify the best sites.
The dive-site descriptions are detailed and honest, identifying both the good and poor dives and reporting on the condition of the corals, likely visibility, strength of currents and density of marine life.
Flores gets some particularly detailed attention regarding the recovery of the dive sites following the earthquake of 1992, which wreaked havoc both above and below water.
Each guide closes with a "Practicalities" section, covering the history of the region, cultures and customs, money, visas, accommodation, transport, medical and a host of other details. This section draws on Periplus's experience of producing terrestrial guides to this area and is essential reading, particularly if you are considering one of the more remote locations.
There is also specific information for each diving area, covering dive centres, live-aboards, weather conditions, local travel, accommodation, price guides, etc.
For both new and experienced visitors to the Far East, these guides provide a valuable source of information. All you need is the time and money to work your way through all the sites available - a labour of love for most!
Diving Indonesia by Kal Muller/Diving South-east Asia. Periplus, 01256 817987. Softback, £11.95.
Appeared in DIVER - March 1998