Book Review: Raising the Dead by Phillip Finch

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Sometimes a dramatic story, coupled with a skilled and perceptive narrative can take us to another world. Raising the Dead, by Phillip Finch does just that; it takes us to places we are very unlikely to reach in our life time. In truth, after reading this book and getting a glimpse of their underwater world I have no desire to enter it!

The book tells the true story of two exceptional cave divers – Dave Shaw and Don Shirley. It charts their lives and experience up to, including and after a remarkable dive into the Bushman’s Hole. The dive site is a remote sink hole on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, about 500 kilometres south west of Johannesburg, South Africa. It is one of the largest freshwater caverns on earth.

When Dave Shaw dived to 270 metres to the bottom and discovered the body of a diver who had disappeared ten years earlier, he created history. According to Phillip Finch, “Shaw became the fifth sports diver in history to exceed 700 feet (213 metres) and survive; more men have walked on the moon.” (p.4-5).

To recreational divers, like many of us, a dive to 270 metres is beyond our comprehension. Certainly, when torches and dive computers implode due to the surrounding pressure of the water. When rebreather controllers (the sophisticated electronics that control the amount of gases injected into the breathing loop) are crushed and the diver loses all data, it tells us the equipment has reached its limits.

When a diver is suffering from decompression sickness and is vomiting through a regulator; when he is tied onto the shot line in case he loses consciousness and drops into the void; when he is so tired, he doesn’t have the energy to draw gas into his lungs and has to purge gas into his mouth by pressing the diaphragm on the regular; when he is draining bail out tanks at an alarming rate; when he still has dozens of decompressions stops and hours of decompression time ahead of him, it represents a nightmare scenario.

However, Raising the Dead is more than a tale of amazing individuals pushing the boundaries of human ability and technical sophistication. It is a story of friendship and respect, camaraderie and understanding, belonging and empathy.

The book has many tender, poignant and tragic moments. In a few hundred pages it succeeds in creating empathy with Dave Shaw and Don Shirley and describing the bond between them. You want them to survive. The book also brings home the impact of serious injury and death on relatives and friends. Raising the Dead is more than a memorable account of an amazing series of dives. It makes us think about the implications of our actions and the risks we take.

You do not have to be a diver, or even technical diver, to appreciate this book and the exceptional talent of Dave Shaw and Don Shirley. The author painstakingly explains the technical details associated with cave diving and diving to extreme depths. It contributes to our understanding and appreciation of the planning and techniques required. The collection of photographs supports the narrative and the index allows the reader to return to people mentioned and events. It is a compelling read.


Phillip Finch was a journalist. He progressed from being a junior reporter on the Washington Daily News, to the San Francisco Examiner and later became a columnist for the Peninsula Times Tribune. He was the author of more than eighteen books.

Phillip was an experienced cave diver; he died on 31st January 2012.

  • Raising the Dead (2008) London: HarperSport by Phillip Finch
  • ISBN 978 0 00 726524 4   (310 pages)

Find out more about Professor Fred Lockwood, who is also a published author, at www.fredlockwood.co.uk.

Fred Lockwood

Fred Lockwood

Dr Fred Lockwood is Emeritus Professor of Learning and Teaching, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He is also a PADI Master Scuba Diver and dived in the waters of Central America and Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, Australasia and the Pacific Islands. Follow Fred at www.fredlockwood.co.uk.

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