Sometimes it's hard to tell by the title what a book is all about. "Submerged -- Adventures of America's Most Elite Underwater Archeology Team" certainly sounds interesting, but I wasn't quite sure about to the exact nature of the volume. Turns, out it is the recollection of the founder and former chief of the United States National Park Service Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, a group of National Park Service divers, scientists and other professionals seeking to document and catalog shipwrecks. The "SCRU team" is thus a legitimate part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, yet it is one that's about as far removed from stereotypical deskbound civil service as one can imagine. Over a period of 25 years, author Daniel Lenihan created and crafted a team of divers whose skills and sense of adventure was second to none, yet also a group that combined astonishing underwater feats with a keen sense of archeological and anthropological imperatives.
Lenihan describes his own introduction to cave diving as one of the pioneers who developed and advanced the state of the art when the sport was young and so many died in their often ill-conceived pursuits that the government considered closing off the Florida cave systems. Like most divers, young Lenihan was intrigued by finding and recovering artifacts but, unlike most, he quickly discovered that removing them meant destroying perhaps their most intrinsic value, that of learning from the past, the setting where they were found, the condition they and their surroundings were in. In the early 1970s he studied anthropology at the University of Florida, then joined the National Park Service as a "Park Ranger/Archeologist." Lenihan's quest essentially became a fight against the mindless destruction of shipwreck sites by treasure and artifact hunters by finding and documenting them so they could be properly protected as national cultural resources, just like those above ground.
The book, divided into three parts ("Caves, Dams, Shipwrecks, and Dreams;" "The SCRU Team;" and "Reaching Out") and 22 chapters, documents Lenihan's lifelong quest, their early missions, and how his team's influence and reputation grew until it was called to work in all parts of the world, often in conjunction with the US Navy and other governmental entities. We learn about the development of underwater surveying techniques, ranging from simple measuring and triangulation all the way to sophisticated high-tech scanning and mapping systems later on.
Lenihan describes such diverse operations as diving the frigid waters around Isle Royale (a national park in Lake Superior) to map and document the wealth of shipwrecks surrounding it; to doing the first actual underwater survey of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor; to locating wrecks around Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico; to potentially hazardous dives to the USS Saratoga at the bottom of Bikini Atoll that was used for nuclear tests in the 1940s and 50s; to discoveries around Micronesian islands. He describes almost impossible-to-get-to excursions into Kauhako Crater on Molokai; underwater searches in the Aleutians where tactical side-maneuvers had played a large role in the outcome of the more major seabattles of WW II; grisly rescue and recovery missions in poorly accessible locations where even Navy divers deferred; and making sure French divers properly surveyed and protected a sunken Confederate raider, the CSS Alabama, in the English Channel off the coast of France. Learning, developing, training, passing on always figure large in Lenihan's work, as does a healthy respect of the dangers of diving, and the ensuing meticulous preparation and following of diving protocol and procedures. There are many other examples, all wonderfully described in Lenihan's style that merges good storytelling with precise technical information and always a nod of appreciation towards those who helped him and his team, plus a good deal of pride in their accomplishments.
"Submerged" presents all of this in a holistic way -- recollections, experiences, reports, suggestions. Lenihan includes adventures of his youth, including cave diving trips to Mexico with such pioneers as Sheck Exley who later perished in one of the very caves they had explored, as well as hopes for the future.
This is a book about diving both as a passion and as a tool for the greater good of mankind, in this instance the preservation of underwater heritage. "My conviction, which has emerged from thirty years of diving, is that shipwrecks and underwater caves are places where one can touch the past in the most special ways," writes Lenihan who also described himself as someone who once "associated with professors and students who thought SDS, SNCC, and Abbie Hoffman were too damn conservative." Out of that counter-cultural mindset grew a sense of responsibility for our submerged heritage, and the drive to make it real, that sets a shining example of what can be accomplished when passion and purpose merge in a career, and that fortunate synthesis Lenihan successfully shares in this eminently readable and highly recommendable book.
SCRU is now the Submerged Resources Center of the National Park Service. Its website at http://home.nps.gov/applications/submerged/ contains a wealth of interesting materials, including additional materials and images of many of the SCRU projects described in the book. Some detailed reports are availabled as PDF files at http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/submerged.htm -- C. H. Blickenstorfer, scubadiverinfo.com