Books: Astronaut of the oceans

Dea Birkett joins an exploratory (and not entirely successful) dive for lost gold; Three Miles Down: a hunt for sunken treasure by James Hamilton-Paterson Jonathan Cape, pounds 16.99
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The deep seems to be taking off. We have the Titanic on our cinema screens, Jacques Cousteau remembered in repeats of his underwater adventures, and now James Hamilton-Paterson attempts to fathom the ocean bed from the deck of a Russian research ship.

It's not surprising that we're plumbing the depths. The surface of the earth has become back-of-the-hand to us. Space has been thoroughly tramped, and pictures of Mars appear on the news. Only the ocean bed is virgin territory. It's rare to be able to claim, as Hamilton-Paterson does, that you are looking at something never gazed upon by a human being before.

He joined a party of British buccaneers who had chartered the Akademik Keldysh, complete with its crew of Russian scientists, in search of the Japanese submarine I-52. The I-52 was a casualty of World War II believed to be lying off the West Coast of Africa. It was rumoured to be carrying bars of gold. This fact alone was enough to make the pirate-entrepreneurs and respected oceanographers risk their lives to retrieve it.

The pairing of the two sets of men was not a happy one. The Russians wanted to enhance scientific knowledge; the entrepreneurs wanted to make money. As Hamilton-Paterson observes, no two people on any quest are looking for the same thing. But they needed each other: one side provided the know-how, the other the cash. Hamilton-Paterson just had to "skulk and take notes".

The book is a raw rendering of these notes, reconstructed as a log of the voyage. In such untouched terrain, the only information comes from science and Three Miles Down is awash with techno-data. Hamilton-Paterson is at his best when writing about the water. Unfortunately, on the deck of a Russian research vessel you could just as well be in a spaceship: "The sea is well seen... but scarcely smelt and little heard".

It isn't until very late that he gets a glimpse of the ocean depths, hitching a ride on one of the MIR submersibles. What this experience does is extraordinary. At the depth of four kilometres, he is reminded of the name of the people from whom his parents bought their house when he was seven; 800 metres further down, he remembers the name of an old schoolfriend. His Russian companion remarks that what he really likes is UHT mixed with Pepsi. You don't necessarily get more profound the deeper you go.

Going down in a MIR is like being an astronaut of the oceans, except more dangerous. At 5000 metres you notice a distortion of the viewing porthole because the 20 centimetre-thick acrylic bulges inwards. Solid materials can be extruded like toothpaste. The mind can only begin to grapple with what such pressure could do to a fragile human frame.

We need a lot of this detail, because the climax is sadly lacking. After 15 days scanning the seabed, they fail to find the submarine.To be fair, it took 57 days of sonar scanning to find the Titanic. But Three Miles Down leaves you with a sinking feeling: it's hard to make a good book out of a quest for sunken treasure that doesn't succeed.

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