The Cavern Kings is a fictional story of three friends who discover their passion for diving the caverns and sinks of northern Florida. Author Jeff Bauer is a licensed NACD (National Association for Cave Diving) cave diving instructor as well as a board member and past president of the NACD, a prestigious organization dedicated to cave diving safety established in 1969, and listing cave diving legend Sheck Exley as a charter director.
Many potential readers of this book are probably divers already familiar with the special demands and requirements of cavern and cave diving. For those who are not, diving in "overhead" environments -- i.e. those where a diver cannot just ascend to the surface if something goes wrong, such as underwater caves -- requires special training and certification. Caverns are somewhere inbetween open water and caves as divers can still see daylight and find their way to safety. This is what "Cavern Kings" is about, how three divers go through the cavern diving certification process. It isn't a smooth ride for them.
Although "Cavern Kings" is billed as a work of fiction, it's fiction that stays very close to reality. We get to know the three protagonists in detail. Josh, the main character who's a dive master and works in a dive shop. Jon, the smart but cautious computer genius. And Frank, the brash salesman and natural athlete who knows everything better and considers himself a ladies' man. We also get to know Kathy, owner of the dive shop where Josh works, and Josh's girlfriend who very much opposes his diving.
The story opens with a close call during a certification dive when a student diver bolts toward the surface. Josh intervenes and all is well, but the incident sets the tone of the book: bad things can happen underwater if you don't respect your limits and don't follow the rules. The three friends find that out themselves when they have a close call of their own in a spring. Frank's adventurous nature results in a situation that nearly ends fatal. It's time for a cavern class, the three decide.
Though Josh's boss and mentor, his girlfriend, and his family are all less than enthused about their plans, the trio goes ahead for a cavern class with cave instructor Drew, who turns out to be a tough taskmaster. We get to know additional characters. There's Asrid, an attractive cavern class fellow student and tech diver from Sweden. And Allen, a gruff paraplegic who hangs out around the dive shop and, unexpectedly, ends up helping Josh correct his finning form and technique. The class and instructor are demanding and things nearly end in disaster when brash Frank appears to break the rules yet again, jeopardizing the entire group's cavern certifications. Turns out it was susceptibility to nitrogen narcosis that affected Frank and not bad judgement, and so the group gets another chance. They pass.
In the meantime, relationships get more complicated. Josh's girlfriend reveals why their relationship can't continue if Josh continues to dive. There's a story behind that. And we find out that Kathy, Drew and Allan have a cave diving past, one that ended in tragedy in a sinkhole in Mexico decades ago, with blame and estrangement to follow.
The three newly minted cavern divers, though, can't wait to get back in the water and do some cavern exploring on their own. A dive at Emerald Sink, though not without its challenges, turns out exhilarating. But on the second dive at the same location, disaster strikes and there's a fatality. The survivors are devastated and try to fathom what went wrong. Who's to blame? How can life go on? The wrenching aftermath of the tragedy is a case study in self assessment, and also brings out the best and worst in friends and families
While events cannot be undone, eventually the real cause of the accident is found. None of the three were at fault. They had followed the rules. The problem was elsewhere, and finding the solution also solved the riddle as to what had happened long ago in that cave in Mexico. Kathy, Drew and Allen, with the anger and painful grudges gone, become friends again. And with his girlfriend gone, for Josh there may even be a relationship with the lovely Asrid in the works.
"The Cavern Kings" is self-published and available both as a paperback and in electronic form. While self-published efforts often lack polish in spelling, grammar and organization, Bauer did not fall into that trap. The book is error-free and meticulously edited. At times dialog and action get bogged down a bit in obvious and extraneous detail, but overall this is a page turner. It's also both a work of fiction and at the same time practically a walk through a cavern diving class. It's quite obvious that the author is a cave instructor himself; there's plenty of advice and valuable detail in this book.
While "The Cavern Kings" isn't for everyone, in addition to being entertained, anyone interested in diving and cave/cavern diving can learn a lot from this book. For serious aspiring caverners and cavers, it should be mandatory reading. -- C. H. Blickenstorfer, scubadiverinfo.com