Reviewed by Rebecca Warren
In ‘Deep’ James Nestor kicks off with his previously published and somewhat sensationalised account of the freediving depth championships in 2011 in Greece – an event he was sent to cover as a journalist despite by his own admission having zero knowledge of the sport. He then launches into a wide reaching account of assorted oceanic research past and present – some of which use freediving as tool to gain closer access to marine life. James is lucky enough to be invited out on some of these expeditions on the proviso that he learn to freedive and so the reader also gets to join him on his own journey into freediving. Along the way he discusses our own connection to the ocean and the philosophy behind open water freediving both as competitive sport and personal journey.
A great storyteller, James’ journalistic writing makes for exciting reading especially when recounting personal experiences such as a trip in a home-built submarine to the depths where daylight does not penetrate and an encounter with a sperm whale.
The large quantity of information and topics covered in the book makes it feel as if there was the potential for several different books within its pages. The writing style leaves the reader confused as to what is fact and what is opinion, with some glaring inaccuracies about safe freediving practise which could be dangerous to the uninformed reader; and the hyperbole contradicting any message on marine conservation, such as his insistence on using ‘man-eating’ in front of the word ‘shark’ on almost every occasion.
In one chapter he meets with the remnants of the Ama, Japan’s all-female freediving community and is received with disdain and hilarity when having bought carbon fibre fins and a custom-made wetsuit (and spent goodness knows how much getting there) he fails to dive below ten foot (because at this point he has made no attempt to learn to freedive). His confession of this and subsequent reflection on his own ego comes across as touchingly honest.
However when he completes the book by chartering a ship to take him out to sea in order to drop an especially constructed container with an electronic copy of the book into one of the deepest ocean trenches (for the fish to read?) in a purely egotistical act of deep-sea littering one feels that despite the book’s title the ocean has taught him nothing about himself.
If you can put the sensationalism and inaccuracies to one side then you can read and enjoy this book. And there is plenty to recommend it as a good read – the pace, the deft characterisation of the individuals he meets and his descriptions of the oceans make it worthwhile. But if, having read it, you become interested in any aspect of it you may want to do your own research.