In Oceans Deep: Courage, Innovation, and Adventure Beneath the Waves
By Bill Streever. Little, Brown and Company, 2019. 303 pages. $28. Ebook and audiobook also available.
Bill Streever, the Anchorage-based writer best known for “Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places,” has now mostly relocated to tropical waters where he and his wife cruise on their sailboat and dive recreationally. His sixth and latest book, “In Oceans Deep,” charts both the history and future of deep-ocean adventuring, from the free diving he enjoys to scuba and saturation diving, to submarines, submersibles and remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs.
Streever’s quest, he tells us at the start, was to tackle “humanity’s presence beneath the waves.” His own enthusiasm for deep-sea exploration drives his narrative, made up of what he learns from experience and interviews and from his research into both history and science. It’s a fascinating, if sometimes technical, journey for readers into a little-known world.
Indeed, much of the pleasure of this book comes from accompanying Streever into his research. His learning is right on the page, as he visits elders who set early diving records or invented diving technologies, tours a nuclear submarine, checks out companies that build and sell submersibles and ROVs, buys and plays with his own ROV, shares his experience of a free dive, rides in a submersible, and accompanies a Haitian fisherman who dives for tiny lobsters.
In a short preface, the author mentions an early attraction to diving and that he once was an oil field diver, working with explosives and cutting torches to assemble underwater pipelines. Later, he tells us, he left that hazardous work to become a biologist employed in Alaska’s oil industry.
The book begins with a visit to one of Streever’s heroes, Don Walsh, who was the Navy lieutenant in charge of the 1960 submersible Trieste’s descent into the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the world’s oceans. (He calls Walsh “the deepest man alive.”) Streever’s burning question for Walsh was why, after that historic dive, no one repeated it until 2012, when the filmmaker and explorer James Cameron, funded by the National Geographic Society, made an independent exploration. Streever writes, “It was as if Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind and then the United States turned its back on the moon.” Streever (and Walsh) argue that our nation is missing out on a great deal of learning about the deep sea and its life.
In that opening chapter, Streever describes in considerable detail Trieste’s dive to 35,797 feet. He doesn’t get an answer to his question of “what happened” to end the ocean challenge, but he certainly recreates the drama and excitement of that early adventure along with profiling the men who risked their lives undertaking it.
The next chapter, “On a Breath,” takes us into Streever’s own training as a free diver, “diving on a breath of air, without a pressure-proof sphere, without tanks or hoses to the surface, reliant only on my body and my wits.” On an early dive in Honduras, he swims to 65 feet to take a look at the remains of an 18th-century shipwreck. “Sixty-two long seconds,” he says, is a short, shallow dive for an accomplished free diver, but “a challenge for a post-middle-aged writer still learning about the sport.” (After more training, he eventually reaches 132 feet.) Streever goes on to detail the sport and the history, physiology and training involved, all of it fascinating. (Of course, free diving didn’t originate as a sport but as a traditional fishing technique, something he also discusses.)
A chapter starting with the development of the diving helmet (“a bucket with windows and an air hose”) leads into the science of decompression sickness or “the bends.” We learn that that ailment was first associated in the 1800s with bridge workers who dug foundation holes by climbing down spiral staircases into shafts. The name “the bends” came from the fact that those workers, often bent over in pain, looked something like fashionable ladies of the time who purposely assumed a posture known as “the Grecian bend.”
Later, Streever documents the progress leading to humans being able to work at depth for long periods, including within submarines. He also explores the latest unmanned technologies — essentially robots that can be directed from the surface. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are now routinely used in industry, as in inspecting a pipeline on the seabed or servicing an underwater valve. But they are also growing in popularity as toys for the wealthy.
Finally, Streever announces that his research brought him to a conclusion he hadn’t planned on. During the years he worked on the book, he kept trying to get an interview with Sylvia Earle, sometimes called Her Deepness for her deep dives. When he finally was able to reach her by phone, his intent was to ask her about the future of diving, from a technical standpoint. But that was not what she wanted to talk about. Known today primarily as an advocate for ocean health, she emphasized to him that divers have both the opportunity and the responsibility to share what they know and to “do whatever is in their power to secure the future of the oceans.”
And so, in Streever’s final chapter, “An Ocean in Need,” the author lines up with Earle’s own conservation cause. He lays out today’s threats: pollution from sewage, fertilizer and pesticide run-off, pharmaceuticals and plastics; big and small oil spills; overfishing; the destruction of bottom habitat and coral reefs; noise; the spread of invasive species; and, most significantly, climate change and ocean acidification. Yes, he says, in agreement with Earle; divers and others involved with our oceans need to act as ambassadors, to educate and activate for ocean protection. This book, in the end, becomes that plea.