Once in a while I jump off my usual track of reading history and biography. It could be a novel, a memoir, even science fiction. Or underdogs. Laura Hillenbrand’s wonderful Seabiscuit and Unbroken come to mind. Last week it was scuba diving of which I knew absolutely nothing about….
In 1991, a group of divers, including Richie Kohler and John Chatterton, set out to explore an unknown object lying 230 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean and discover an apparent historical impossibility: a World War II German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. Consulting both the United States Navy and the German Navy both lead to complete denials of the possibility of a World War II-era U-boat wreck in that area. Historical records claim the closest U-boat wreck to be hundreds of miles away.
Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson chronicles the seven year quest to learn the identity of the mysterious wreck, dubbed "U-Who" by the dive team, the identities of the men aboard her, and how she came to rest on the ocean floor near New Jersey.
Shadow Divers is a quest story, and, as those often are, a story of obsession. The techniques for deep sea diving were new and catch as catch can. For lots of reasons it was very very dangerous.
John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, the two heroes of the story transform what started as an artifact-hunting expedition into a life-consuming obsession that busted both their marriages, nearly killed them, actually killed three of their fellow divers, caused fights and broken friendships, and cost them a great deal of money before they finally succeeded. In spite of the authors best efforts to explain what would drive these men to do what they did it all still comes off as a mystery. Perhaps obsessions are mysteries like that. In the end, common sense and rationality have nothing to do with it. It was an interesting if ultimately unsatisfying exploration of the human mind.
Shadow Divers is, however, real-life action/adventure, a portrait of near-insanity, and an exploration of what our inner demons can drive us to. If you enjoy or appreciate ships, history, or discovery stories, or can’t get enough Krakauer you should consider this book. For myself, I don’t believe I’ll be trying deep wreck scuba diving anytime soon…..