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We Come From The Sea
Adventure Under The Water and Science In The Sun

by Hans Hass
Hardcover 1959 Doubleday & Company, 288 pages
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 59-8264
6.25 x 9.25
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Before Jacques Cousteau there was Hans Hass, and many older Europeans are probably more familiar with Hass than with Cousteau. I found this book at a library book sale at a faire in Folsom, California. It both brought back memories and made me realize how far diving has come since then.

Hans Hass, born in 1919, is an Austrian marine pioneer who began diving in 1937, started underwater photography in 1938 off the shores of Dalmatia, and did his first underwater video in 1940. In 1943 he bought a yacht with the purpose of launching expeditions, but it was seized in the war. Hass, together with his wife Lotte, did a lot of pioneering research and observation on sharks, and is the author of some 70 TV documentaries as well as four major movies and over two dozen books. Hass wrote "We Come From The Sea" (original version in German with the title of "Wir Kommen Vom Meer") in 1957 about adventures in the early 1950s.

The author, who has a philosophical streak similar to Cousteau, frames the book with an opening "we come from the sea" that briefly touches on the evolution from sea to land dwellers, and closes it with "we go back into the sea" where Hass examines the emerging technologies that make exploring the oceans possible.

The book begins with a description of a 1950 expedition to the Red Sea where Hass and his team encountred whale sharks. Having just snorkeled with hundreds of whale sharks off Isla Mujeres in Mexico in Augist of 2011, I was amazed at the similarity of my observations with those Hass made almost 60 years ago when virtually nothing was known about the species.

Hass then discusses what he calls his "preoccupation" with sharks and other predatory sea creatures in his expeditions. The emphasis here is on Great Whites, but also hammerheads and other large sharks, with numerous dscriptions of experiences and encounters, as well as advice on how to deal with sharks. In the process, Hass becomes interested with the way fish communicate and he discusses various theories and experiments in a chapter entitled "Fish Talk."

I could also relate to a chaper entitled "Problems Great and Small" where Hass contemplates all the various things that can and do go wrong on dive trips, all the little and not so little things one encounters, and that what seemed inoccuous before a trip can loom large later when on the sea or underwater. This chapter also includes a description of the aftermath of Hass's Red Sea experdition, where his movie "Under the Red Sea" was quite successful and enabled him to purchase another expedition vessel, the 143-foor sailing ship Xarifa. Xarifa had been built for a member of the SInger (sewing machine) empire but had ended up a cargo ship that Hass bought for 120,000 Swiss Francs. He mentions that the total cost of getting the Xarifa rebuilt for his purposes was 600,000 Swiss Francs.

Before Xarifa was finished, however, Hass and his wife were invited on a lecture tour to the US and, while there, decided to fly to Australia to dive the Great Barrier Reef in 1952/53. Hass describes it as "my Mecca, the place I most desired to see." The book devotes three long chapters on his Great Barrier Reef diving adventures, including experiments with giant clams, turtles, sharks, etc. From today's perspective, one might expect Hass to have experienced the reefs in more pristine conditions than they are today, but he often describes desolate areas, damage, foul weather, and murky, turbid waters.

In 1953, the Xarifa is finally ready, and Hass sails out with a team of scientists and researchers. The first stop is the Azores where they research Sperm Whales. This, like most other chapters, is illustrated with what at the time were ground-breaking images of underwater life that look impressive even today. In this chapter, as throughout the book, we see a very different approach towards diving as most divers have today. Divers are generally hunters, equipped with spears. And while Hass respects the creatures of the ocean, they are often described as monsters and beasts, and treated as specimen to be caught and analyzed.

A chapter is dedicated to Hass re-visiting old hunting grounds in the Caribbean, most notably Curacao and Bonaire. Here he does photography, research and renews friendships. Of note is that Wikipedia's entry on Hass blames him "for single-handedly hunting the Goliath grouper to local extinction."

The next two chapters are on the Xarifa's visits to the Galapagos and then Cocos Island, both, of course, now considered highly desirable scuba destinations. Those who have been there will find Hass's descriptions and experiences (mostly struggles and obstacles) of interest. As always in his writing, Hass also provides theories and explanations on the island's origins, history and special role in understanding nature and the world. The Galapagos chapter also includes extensive descriptions of his encounters with sea lions, something else of interest to me as we just had such encounters at Islas Coronados in Mexican waters. The Cocos chapter ("Treasure Island") includes interesting ecnounters with tiger sharks.

On the way back, the Xarifa goes through the Panama Canal, then dwells on what Hass describes as the "fabulously beautiful" San Blas Islands, "a charmed chain fringed with virgin forest." Here they also encounter tragedy when a member of the expedition, a very experienced diver, dies on a routine dive. Hass speculates what might have gone wrong, discussing their Draeger rebreather technology (interesting here that the team does not use compressed air, but did all of its dives on oxygen rebreathers).

The concluding chapter, "We Go Back into the Sea" is a description of how man is going back into the sea, this time as "under-water hunters." Hass provides a brief history on emerging diving technologies, but always refers to it as "under-water hunting." He credits American Guy Gilpaatric as the father of the sport, but also cmentions Captain de Corlieu (fins), Gagnan, Cousteau, Taillez and Dumas. Hass's first underwater camera goes back to 1937, his first underwater color photography to 1942. He acknowledges the compressed air revolution, but also describes why they chose oxygen rebreathers as early as 1942 (which Hass claims is "the earliest breathing apparatus hose exitence can be proved by published documents"). Hass stresses that in over 2,000 under=water adventues, they had no problems with pure oxygen at depths to 60 feet, and he felt oxygen rebreathers were safe even for inexperienced divers to depths of 45 feet or so. The rest of the chapter discusses the advances in other paerts of diving such as spear guns, wetsuits, cameras, training, publications, and what diving would all mean in the coming years and decades. He concludes, though, that "probably no skin diver will ever be able to go farther down than hundred fathoms (600 feet) deep."

We Come From The Sea by Hans Hass makes for fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in how early diving pioneers saw the world. Not only does the book decribe the way many dive destinations used to be, it's also impressive how much on the mark Hass was with many of his observations and conclusions. Hass, however, represents, at least in this book, an earlier era of diving, one where there still were monsters and beasts. -- C. H. Blickenstorfer, scubadiverinfo.com

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