There are old divers, the dive school saying goes, and there are bold divers. But there are no old, bold divers. Cave diving pioneer Sheck Exley seemed destined to prove them wrong in more than a quarter of a century of stunning, record-setting explorations and accomplishments, but
grim reality eventually caught up with him. Caverns Measureless to Man, a must-read for anyone interested in cave diving, was published after his death, 900 feet underwater, at age 45, on April 6, 1994.
To get an idea of what this man did and meant to his community, imagine someone of the stature of basketball's Michael Jordan not only setting record after record and being the undisputed best, but also writing the rules of his sport; pioneering its plays and procedures; inventing, testing and improving equipment; and serving as ambassador, lecturer, and commissioner, all at the same time. That's what Sheck Exley meant to cave diving, and few will argue with that statement. If you read dive books, his name will pop up.
While Exley was a talented writer and left behind a wealth of manuscripts, some published, Caverns Measureless to Man is his definite legacy. It is a fascinating account of a life spent in the pursuit of a single passion, and many would say obsession (who else would celebrate 20 of 21 New Year's in a row in an underwater cave?) -- diving caves, ever deeper. In twelve thrilling chapters Exley describes dive after dive, experience after experience, adventure after adventure, mostly in Florida, but also Mexico, South Africa, the Bahamas, Bermuda and other places. There is background information on the caves and settings, there are maps created by Exley himself and meticulously marked with depth, dates, penetration, and names. There are also a good many black and white pictures and even a set of 16 color images. And though Caverns at times reads like an adventure book, there are also dive profiles; comprehensive listings of progressive world records for underwater cave depths; interesting dives, surveys and records; a complete list of all of Exley's dive
partners, including the year of the first dive and how many dives they had; and a 29-page index.
If there's one criticism, it's perhaps that Caverns offers almost too much of a good thing. We experience cave after cave, sump after sump, blue hole after blue hole, and things often jump from one location to another without as much as a subtitle. Yet, each dive is so fascinating, there is so little repetition, and Exley such a master of describing his world that it never gets tedious. And the section on the record deep dives at Mante in Mexico is just riveting, as much as anything I ever read on space exploration. The book is also superbly edited without a single error. Yes, that is rare.
In 30 years Sheck Exley logged 4,000 cave dives. He was a meticulous, safety-conscious planner and perfectionist who continually and systematically advanced the state-of-the-art in a methodical -- not reckless -- manner. The book reveals numerous clues as to the nature of cave diving and philosophical insights. "The unconquerable was conquered," wrote Exley after they seemingly had explored every inch of a challenging site. "We were happy with our achievement, but we felt a sense of loss. Now there would be no future expeditions in the Manatee Springs Cave System, no renewal there of that strange yet somehow intimate companionship of divers and impossibly remote, virgin cave." Or, "Maybe it just goes on forever," as Exley marveled after a record penetration of 10,939 feet at Cathedral in Florida, a place he so loved that he bought the property that included the primary entrance into the system. Those words speak volumes.
Interestingly, while Exley relentlessly pursued his passion, wrote, lectured, taught, shared, and exhibits great pride in his many depth and penetration records, we learn almost nothing of the man himself. Elsewhere he is invariably described as an attractive, charming, reliable, easy-going individual who was open and inviting to friends, yet also intensely private. In Caverns itself, there are maybe a half dozen statements about himself, if that. The usual childhood/family/career background is absent. That is not to say that we learn nothing about
Sheck Exley, the man. For example, he admits to a fear of heights and was prone to seasickness. He mentions feeling uneasy, early on, in such inoccuous places as diving over the canyon-like wall of the underwater sink of Kings Bay at Crystal River, though it is only a couple dozen feet deep, and descending into sumps on a chair where in the darkness he pretended it was
only a few feet, and not the vast distance it actually was. Or that he always felt butterflies in his stomach when he was in a restriction underwater and couldn't see.
In the end, this is a book about a very special man and a world that only very few ever get to experience. It was written by a legend and highlights achievements while towering over the self-congratulatory, ghost-written celebrity drivel we're so often subjected to. -- C. H. Blickenstorfer, scubadiverinfo.com