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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Two hundred feet underwater is a nightmarish place for things to go wrong. Scattered among majestically fallen ships and submarines on the ocean floor are deep-sea divers who bit off more than they could chew. Bernie Chowdhury, himself a survivor of a near-fatal case of the bends, unmasks the culture of deep-sea diving in his riveting book The Last Dive. With remarkable perspective on the perils of his sport, Chowdhury delivers a thrilling tale with powerful emotional resonance.
The crux of The Last Dive is the story of an oft-bickering father and son. Chris Rouse is a demanding perfectionist; his son Chrissy is free-spirited and cavalier. Chris and Chrissy share an intense love of diving and for each other. Referee to their co-dependence is Sue Rouse, wife of Chris and mother of Chrissy. Chris and Chrissy are fabulously talented divers who graduate from cave diving in controlled waters to wreck diving in the open seas. Even the best of divers, however, suffer the worst of fates. Such is the nature of the game.
The Last Dive does for wreck-diving what Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air did for climbing the Himalayas: It uses a dramatically failed expedition to expose a dangerous extreme sport. Each time Chowdhury takes us underwater, whether it be to Florida caves; the Italian luxury liner Andrea Dorea, the "Mount Everest of scuba diving"; or to the elusive German submarine "U-Who"; he creates a setting of tension of dread, of being there. As with Krakauer, Chowdhury's storytelling ability matches his formidable sporting talents.
There are many similarities between mountain climbing and deep-sea diving. Just as climbers get "high" at altitude, so divers wobble under the hallucinatory effects of "Martini's Law": every 50 feet underwater has the effect of one martini on an empty stomach. Many divers descend five martinis deep.
Mountain climbers suffer from altitude sickness; divers suffer from the bends. "Getting bent" occurs when divers ascend from the ocean depths too quickly. Nitrogen bubbles form in the bloodstream, causing extreme pain, paralysis, or death. In order to avoid the bends, a diver must adhere to decompression schedules, stopping underwater at various depths to help the body adjust. Troubles with air tanks or, more commonly, mishaps in exploration cost the diver valuable decompression time. And the mishaps are many: Just as mountain climbers suffer limited visibility in snowstorms, so divers must contend with clouds of silt that limit visibility on wrecks. Divers' equipment is easily tangled with the shards and remnants of sunken ships. In a stressed and drunken state, it is easy for divers to lose the anchor line back to the ship. Searches for the anchor line burn invaluable breathing air. A diver forced to ascend without the necessary "deco" is in a perilous state.
Just as with climbing Everest, egoism, heroism, greed, selflessness, and, finally, tragedy are brought into clear relief by sport-diving ventures. Divers don't think twice of jumping into the frigid ocean to help a bent diver aboard. Sufferers of the bends, such as Chowdhury, have been saved by rushed evacuations to hospital decompression chambers, where doctors risk their own lives to save the victims.
The diving community has its share of eccentric characters and personalities. When not underwater during lengthy exploration assignments, Glenn Butler used to spend his time in a cylindrical bell. "No prison on earth has ever been so remote: Butler could not leave his pressurized world for the freedom beyond the habitat's tiny viewing port, for to do so would have meant excruciating death from the bends." Marc Eyring, a former Green Beret and a highly respected diving instructor, is now named Karen: "I realized that all of my extreme behavior was just a way to overcome my feelings and desires to be a woman."
Chowdhury asks himself the hardest question faced by deep-sea sports divers. With obligations to loved ones, why does he continue to risk his life? Young divers are often driven by the compulsion for artifacts, which they stuff into underwater "goodie bags." The experienced diver John Chatterton put his life at extreme risk to finish the Rouses' job and discover the real identity of U-Who. Chowdhury himself no longer needs to fill his trophy case, nor will he take reckless chances for glory. He will continue to dive, however. Like the bends, it is in his blood. (Brenn Jones)