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Friday, April 22, 2011

Underwater Archaeology: Shipwrecks, Deep-Sea Mysteries, and History

We geeks are an eclectic bunch, and we don't all like the same things, but odds are you'll find us watching Discovery or the History Channel instead of American Idol, I don't know another popular show. The following "underwater archaeology" ebooks feature the sorts of mysteries and adventures you might find on those "less cool" channels.

All priced at $12 or less, these ebooks offer insight into shipwrecks, historical under-seas explorations, and underwater archeology.

Recounting his 25 years as founder and director of the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit the underwater archeological team of the National Park Service Lenihan (Wake of the Perdido Star, with Gene Hackman) offers an entertaining mix of maritime history, memoir and adventure tale. Started in 1975 to keep fortune hunters from looting national water parks for sunken treasure and damaging vital historical material, Lenihan's unit has explored the wondrous (and deadly) sinkholes in Florida and Mexico; studied shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, Micronesia and places in between; and investigated the remains of the USS Arizona and the ships sunk by nuclear bombs near Bikini atoll. 

While the author is an authority on sea archeology and naval history, he and his divers are also underwater cowboys and cowgirls, thrilling in the dangers of their extreme sport. A sharp, engaging writer, Lenihan describes the terrifying aspects of his work the bone-chilling cold, impenetrable clouds of silt and the notorious bends with a good dose of black humor. (A surreal trip through an old impoundment house submerged in the reservoir of Amistad Dam in Texas is especially haunting.) Fast paced, full of amiable characters, the book will appeal to divers, maritime enthusiasts and anyone fond of nautical hijinks and swaggering seafarers.

A legendary naturalist and a wealthy engineering student come together in the name of science (and glory) in this highly readable look at the discoveries that made William Beebe and Otis Barton international celebrities of the Depression era. Journalist and nature-doc producer Matsen (Planet Ocean, etc.) shows how Barton, who'd long dreamed of undersea adventure, convinced the already-famous Beebe that his diving device will be the key to Beebe's success. Barton would pay for the bathysphere—a four-and-a-half-foot steel ball dangling from a wire rope and ventilated by its occupants waving a palm leaf fan—and thus go along for the ride. The men were personally incompatible, but they made an effective team; from 1929 to 1934, they made more than 20 dives off Bermuda and many improvements in their vehicle. Matsen devotes greater energy to Beebe, noting how his scientific credentials were often questioned—a bon vivant, he wrote for Ladies' Home Journal as well for Science. Matsen also pays tribute to the duo's support team (which Beebe often did not), including wildlife artist Else Bostelmann. From interpersonal conflict to the first radio broadcast from the ocean's depths and the intricate negotiations with National Geographic Society that enabled them to make their last dive in the depths of the Depression, Matsen's account is a thoroughly researched, fluently written addition to the history of science.

Deep-wreck divers are used to operating with almost no headroom and in zero visibility, navigating by touch alone; it is a compliment to be told "When you die, no one will ever find your body." Despite the dangers, wreck divers are typically weekend warriors, men who leave families and jobs behind to test themselves at two hundred feet down. Kurson's exciting account centers on two divers, John Chatterton and Robert Kohler, who in 1991 found an unidentified U-boat embedded in the ocean floor off the coast of New Jersey. The task of identifying it leads them to Germany, Washington, D.C., and the darkest corners of the submarine itself. Some of the most haunting moments occur on land, as when the divers research the lives of the doomed German sailors whose bones they swim among. Once underwater, Kurson's adrenalized prose sweeps you along in a tale of average-guy adventure.

Shipwrecks of Madagascar recounts the stories of about a hundred notable shipwrecks off the coast of Madagascar from ancient to modern times and the fate and adventures of survivors. It covers ships of the mighty Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French East India Companies, of numerous pirates who visited or settled there, of the British and French Navies, of the sailing vessels and steamers of the 19th century, and of more recent times. Shipwrecks are unknown relics for most people. This captivating book provides an interesting history into the many that occurred and helped shape Madagascar into the country it is today.

In 1679, a French ship called the Griffon left Green Bay on Lake Michigan, bound for Niagara with a cargo of furs. Neither the Griffon nor the five-man crew was ever seen again. Though the Griffon’s fate remains a mystery, its disappearance was probably the result of the first shipwreck on a Great Lake.

Since then, more than six thousand vessels, large and small, have met tragic ends on the Great Lakes. For many years, saltwater mariners scoffed at the freshwater sailors of the Great Lakes, “puddles” compared to the vast oceans. But those who actually worked on the Great Lakes ships knew differently.

Shoals and reefs, uncharted rocks, and sandbars could snare a ship or rip open a hull. Unpredictable winds could capsize a vessel at any moment. A ship caught in a storm had much less room to maneuver than did one at sea. The wreckage of ships and the bones of the people who sail them litter the bottoms of the five lakes: Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior. Ed Butts has gathered stories and lake lore in this fascinating, frightening volume. For anyone living on the shores of the Great Lakes, these tales will inspire a new interest and respect for their storied past.

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