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Book Review: Dragon Sea (2007) by Frank Pope

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Dragon Sea, by Frank Pope, tells the true story of the location, combined archaeological survey of a large, five-hundred year old wreck and salvage of over 250,000 Vietnamese ceramic artefacts from the Hoi Ann shipwreck. It also charts the complex negotiation with government departments, legal and cultural bodies in Vietnam, as well as international groups, which had a vested interest in the outcome of the excavations and sale of artefacts.

It was a sensitive and expensive project. The ransacking of ancient Chinese porcelain artefacts from the wreck of the Dutch East India Company Geldermalsen, a few years earlier, had generated US$20 Million at auction but prompted furious international condemnation at the destruction of the wreck site for profit. In addition to managerial and ethical problems, the Vietnamese Hoi Ann shipwreck rested on the seabed over seventy metres below the surface in the turbulent and typhoon prone South China Sea. It would be a testing site on which to work.

At the outset the endeavour seemed to offer so much to everyone involved. The wreck site was a time capsule, sealed on the day of its sinking. It offered insights into Vietnamese culture and ceramics made during the golden days of the civilization. The Chief Archaeologist explained “shipwrecks preserve information in a way that very few land sites could – by freezing a moment in time” (p. 8).There was the prospect of huge financial rewards to the businessman leading the consortium of investors. Divers and technicians, managers and workmen, as well as Vietnamese institutions, all stood to benefit.

In his account Frank Pope combines the excitement of both archaeologists and accountants as pristine artefacts are uncovered and brought to the surface. His descriptions are vivid: “fragile kendis and ewers, vases, and large blue-and-white storage jars had cascaded down as the wood around them disintegrated” (p. 196). The numerous sketches Pope includes in his book are useful, but actual photographs of some of the artefacts and scenes would have been a valuable addition.

Throughout the book a central theme emerges; it’s the cost cutting measures under which the project operated. The author reveals how these pressures and accompanying resentments grew within the team as a result of these measures. For the divers, their work time in saturation (living inside a pressurized chamber breathing helium and oxygen, and working at seventy metres plus) was extended far beyond the recognised limit. Eventually, when they emerge after fifty-nine days of saturation diving, they were “thin and bearded, their skin yellowed and covered in rashes and lesions” (p.259).

Calm waters do not typify the South China Sea – especially as the typhoon season approaches. A recreational diver may experience surge, current and turbulent water; but is not working for twelve hours a day, for weeks, at a depth of more than seventy metres! The effect of surface sea conditions on a dive platform, waves and swell, are magnified underwater. The diving bell and the umbilical attached to a diver are continuously wrenched up and dropped down in the current. Even in calmer conditions the process of negotiating the metal grid positioned over the wreck is problematic. It “was like trying to clamber through a climbing frame on a moonless night with a gale blowing, wearing full dive gear, trailing a cable and carrying a heavy basket of fragile ceramics” (p.209).

Pope skilfully describes the changing atmosphere surrounding the project – both above the water and below. Close, personal friendships become strained as fatigue and adverse weather, financial constraints and day to day problems begin to overwhelm those involved. The uneasy balance between rigorous archaeological practise and the economic need to recover artefacts takes centre stage. The Chief Archaeologist “couldn’t shake the fear that despite his instructions, the divers were ignoring anything that wasn’t ceramic.” The businessman believed the actions of the archaeologist were sabotaging the recovery of artefacts. The crescendo, the sale of the artefacts from the Hoi Ann shipwreck, is not what you may have expected.

Perhaps the outstanding feature of Dragon Sea is the way Frank Pope succeeds in building a relationship between the main characters and the reader. You want a diver to survive, another character to change, broken relationships mended. The closing sections provide a pleasant summary of what subsequently happened to them. However, perhaps the most salutary comment is reserved for the state of marine archaeology in many parts of the world. Frank Pope writes “In most of Southeast Asia, however, it is still open season on the seabed.” (p. 315)


Dragon Sea (2007)

  • By Frank Pope
  • New York: Harcourt Books
  • ISBN 9780156033299
  • 341 pp

Frank Pope obtained a degree in Zoology from Edinburgh University and is Ocean Correspondent for The Times newspaper. He has worked on underwater expeditions under the auspices of Oxford MARE (Maritime Archeological Research and Excavation), including the salvage of Lord Nelson’s flagship Agamemnon. His most recent book is 72 hours (2013); the Royal Navy’s dramatic race to save the crew trapped inside a Russian submarine.


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

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.

Dive Training Blogs

8 ways to always stay connected to diving

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By Edward Kelleher

It happens to many divers (myself included): We get certified, go all-in on the sport of diving, then fall out of diving.  After my initial certification, I did a handful of dives and loved every minute of it. Unfortunately, the shop I certified with closed down, I had no other dive buddies, and life caught up to me. It happens to all of us. I get it. Luckily, I’m here to give you surefire ways of getting (and staying) back into diving!

  1. Take a refresher/inactive diver class with your local dive center. This will introduce you to the local shop and staff. If you’ve been out of diving for 6 months to a year or so, take a refresher. Make sure your skills are still strong before going for a dive. Safety first.
  2. Take a class. Any class. Putting yourself back into “student mode” can spark more interest and focus rather than just going for a regular dive. If you haven’t been diving in a number of years, it may be time to retake the open water class.
  3. Look at some new gear. This doesn’t mean you’re upgrading all of your equipment, but it’s smart to stay on top of current gear trends and see what’s new or different. With many classes now requiring dive computer usage, it may be time to purchase one.
  4. Join a social media club page. There are TONS of groups on social media for scuba, both local to your area and international. Join a couple! Bounce some ideas between group members. See who’s going diving. Trying to get a dive in? Put it out to the group!
  5. Join your local dive club! Much like social media club pages, your local dive club may have its own group page! Meet the locals, coordinate dives, and keep an eye out for meetings and social events! A good dive club brings divers of all skill sets and backgrounds together in a fun and inviting atmosphere. The best thing you can do as an active diver is surround yourself with other active divers. You may not want to go on every dive, but you will definitely get more opportunities to jump in the water.
  6. Try the local dive scene. You’d probably be surprised to learn what sort of diving your local area has. Many divers don’t know until they actually start trying to dive local. I never would have heard about Dutch Springs if I wasn’t a diver. Additionally, the diving conditions you’re picturing may not always be the reality. In the northeast, offshore conditions are MUCH better than many would think for NJ/NY area. Trust me.
  7. Take a trip! Whether through your local dive center or on your own, travel! If necessary, you could take your refresher course on your trip as well.
  8. Get a friend or family member into the sport. There’s nothing better than enjoying a dive with a good friend or family member. Sure, you’re recruiting your own dive buddy, but you’ll have someone close to you to share the experiences with!

Life is too short to get certified and not dive again. Get active with your local dive scene and get in the water. Your new dive buddies are waiting!


To find out more about International Training, visit www.tdisdi.com.

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Miscellaneous Blogs

Book Review – The Final Dive: The Life and Death of ‘Buster’ Crabbe (2007)

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It was the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Cruiser Ordzhonikidz, supported by two destroyers, had brought Soviet leaders Khruschev and Bulganin to Britain for sensitive meetings with the British Government. The ships were moored in Portsmouth harbour and the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, had expressly forbidden any clandestine inspection of them. However, on the morning of 19th April 1956 Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabbe, an experienced naval diver, slipped into the cold waters of Portsmouth harbour. His top secret mission was to photograph the hull, propellers and rudder of the Ordzhonikidze. He was never seen alive again.

A badly decomposed body, with head and hands missing, was discovered by fishermen in Chichester harbour months later. It was claimed to be the missing body of Buster Crabbe – but many had doubts. The incident marked the start of a controversy that claimed the posts of several high ranking naval, government and intelligence service personnel. The author of The Final Dive, Don Hale, claims it is one that still rages and which may not be resolved even when secret government files are released in 2057.

Don Hale, an acknowledged campaigning journalist and former Journalist of the Year brings all his experience and skill to unravelling this longstanding scandal. He has drawn upon official reports and private letters, statements from government representatives, fellow officers and friends to piece together Buster’s life and events leading to his disappearance and subsequent investigation. He speaks of “inquiries blocked by intrigue, constant cover-ups and government bureaucracy coupled with threats relating to the Official Secrets Act” (p. xi). If you like reading about subterfuge on a grand scale you will enjoy The Final Dive.

Don Hale’s meticulous account of the life of Buster Crabbe is supported by dozens of black and white photos and extracts from numerous official documents. It reveals how an amazing series of civilian jobs, wartime activities and friendships with high ranking government officials, British intelligence officers, American CIA operatives. . . and now known spies, prepared him for his final dive and perhaps his fate. One of Crabbe’s acquaintances was the author Ian Fleming – of James Bond fame. Indeed, it is suggested that Fleming based the character of 007 on Buster Crabbe. After reading of his exploits, both before WWII, his bomb disposal work during the war, and afterwards it is easy to see why. Certainly, those who worked with Buster Crabbe “all agree he was fearless.” (p.59). After reading of his exploits one wonders if he was too fearless.

In the later stage of Buster’s life, prior to his disappearance, Don Hall recounts “a constant merry-go-round of overseas assignments” (p. 118) for Crabbe and how he “began to receive increasingly hazardous commissions” (p. 136). It culminated in the morning dive in Portsmouth harbour. Hale’s forsensic-like account of the events surrounding the final dive and aftermath reveals absolute panic and bungling behind the scenes as official answers conflict with known facts. He describes how “The whole incident still seems bathed in secrecy, with the true facts deliberately buried in bureaucracy, and supported at the highest level by an incredible cover-up operation”.(p. 205).

A final comment by Don Hale adds to the intrigue. He states “The only part of the Crabbe puzzle about which I am not certain is not who sent him – we know the answer to that – but why on earth he was he sent, possibly at considerable risk?” (p. 248). After reading The Final Dive: The Life and Death of ‘Buster’ Crabbe you will no doubt have your own ideas.


The Final Dive: The Life and Death of ‘Buster’ Crabbe (2007)

  • By Don Hale
  • Stroud: Sutton Publishing
  • ISBN 978 0 7509 4574 5
  • 260 pp

Don Hale was a professional footballer before becoming editor of several regional newspapers. He has received numerous national and international awards for investigative journalism including Journalist of the Year. In 2002 he was awarded an OBE for his campaigning journalism in the Stephen Downing miscarriage of justice case. He has championed several others who have been wrongly convicted.

His other books include Town without Pity (2002), Murder in the Graveyard (2019) and Mallard: How the ‘Blue Steak’ Broke the World Speed Record (2019).


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

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Explore the amazing triangle of Red Sea Reefs - The Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone on board the brand new liveaboard Big Blue.  With an option to add on a week at Roots Red Sea before or after. 

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This trip will be hosted by The Scuba Place.  Come Dive with Us!

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