Sir Arthur C. Clarke who died a few days back in March 2008 at the age of 90 was well known as a scientist and science fiction writer. What few people realised, including myself, was that he was a pioneer of scuba diving and undersea exploration
Since my teens I’ve been an enthusiastic reader of science fiction. I read as much of Clarke’s work as I could lay my hands on, always enjoying the real science in his work. Although I recall that he’d written a couple of books set under the sea it wasn’t until I read a posting on the Coral List by Thomas J. Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, that I learnt about his contribution to Scuba and reef exploration.
I thought it might be worth sharing the information I’ve gleaned over the past couple of days with a wider audience, those of you interested in the fascinating world beneath the surface of the sea.
Clarke became interested in undersea exploration in the early 1950s. He moved to the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1956 after he’d first stopped off there while travelling to Australia. Between 1956 and 1964 he wrote several fiction and non-fiction books and articles about the Indian Ocean. With his friend Mike Wilson, he filmed the Great Barrier Reef of Australia; it’s from this that his 1957 novel, The Deep Range, derives. Clarke also worked as a director of Rocket Publishing, London, Underwater Safaris, Colombo, and Spaceward Corporation, New York.
After becoming paralyzed after an accidental blow to the head in 1962, he wrote the fiction book, Dolphin Island, believing it to be his farewell to the sea. Fortunately, after recovering he was later able to accompany his friend Mike Wilson on an underwater adventure six miles off the coast of Sri Lanka, which was depicted in his 1964 book, The Treasure of the Great Reef.
Clarke, a keen scuba diver, was attracted to the island’s rich marine life. In his words, “When I arrived in Sri Lanka, I was a little disillusioned with life beneath the waves. I remember writing at the time that ultimately ocean life was crippled, because fish could not develop fire and fire is the basis of all technology.”
“But when I saw first hand the amazing variety of marine life beneath the waves off the Sri Lankan coast, I found it hard to believe that anything we encounter in space could be more wonderful, weirder or more spectacular.” (Author’s note: My sentiments entirely!)
Arthur C Clarke was a pioneer of inner space, working with Cousteau on the aqualung, involved with the first undersea living experiments and becoming an Honorary Life Member of BSAC (the British Sub Aqua Club).
His undersea adventure stories must have been instrumental in triggering the interest of many children and adults in the underwater world and diving.
“We seldom stop to think that we are still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because, from birth to death, we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.” Arthur C. Clarke
His book “The Coast of Coral” is the first book on diving in coral reefs written in English, and describes his adventures diving along the Great Barrier Reef in 1950, in search of adventure. Although the fame of this book led many to regard him as the first diver on the Great Barrier Reef, Clarke said that when he first arrived there he met Fritz Goreau (another reef pioneer, father of Thomas F. Goreau, grandfather of Thomas J. Goreau) who had beaten him to it, coming out of the water with Thomas F. Goreau’s homemade rebreather. Clarke was said to have greatly admired Fritz Goreau, whose photographs of marine life in the Great Barrier Reef, published in Life Magazine in 1950 and 1951, were the first high quality underwater photographs and the first to expose the public to the wonders and beauty of life in the coral reef.
Following his diving adventures in Australia he turned to diving in Sri Lanka and wrote another fascinating book about diving, “Serendib”, based on the ancient name for Ceylon, which was regarded as such a fortunate place that the word “serendipity” is derived from it. For many years he dived every time he could in what were then the exquisitely beautiful reefs around the island, and watched with great sorrow as these were almost entirely destroyed, largely by mining for construction material in a country with few limestone resources. Clarke was so pained by this, that he could never bring himself to write about corals again, although he continued to be fascinated by them. He was horrified at how the world of reefs he had loved had vanished, practically without trace.
As the originator of Clarke’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” he was very interested in the work of the late Wolf Hilbertz and Thomas J. Goreau on electric coral reef restoration, which he immediately understood. He lobbied the Sri Lankan Government as hard as he could to use it to restore their coral reefs and fisheries. Sadly, they have yet to listen, being pre-occupied with other matters than bringing back their lost corals and fish.
In the words of Thomas J. Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, “Coral reefs have lost another forgotten pioneer.”
A Bibliography of Arthur C. Clarke’s Works Connected With the Sea, Both Fiction and Non-fiction.
Derived from information published on www.arthurcclarke.net.
1954. The Deep Range. (Fiction)
It has taken a long time, but humankind has won its battle against the sea. Now, professionals harvest plankton with which to feed the world, but like space, the sea has not yielded all its secrets, and men such as Franklin, the protagonist of this tale, will never rest until all its fathomless mysteries have been challenged.
1963. Dolphin Island: A Story Of The People Of The Sea. (Fiction)
Late one night (in the world of the future), a giant cargo hover ship makes an emergency landing somewhere in the middle of the United States, and an enterprising citizen named Johnny Clinton stows away on it. In the space of only a few hours the craft crashes into the Pacific Ocean. The sole survivor is Johnny, whose life is saved by the ‘People of the Sea’ – dolphins. A school of these fantastic creatures guides him to an island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. There Johnny becomes involved with the work of a strange and fascinating research laboratory, learns skin-diving and survives a typhoon – only to risk his life again, immediately afterwards, in a cliff-hanger of a climax!
1990. The Ghost From The Grand Banks. (Fiction)
A hundred years after the sinking of the Titanic, two of the world’s most powerful corporations race to find a way to raise and preserve the doomed luxury liner. The quest to uncover the secrets of the wreck and reclaim her becomes an obsession . . . and for some, a fatal one.
1956. The Coast Of Coral. (Non-fiction)
World-famous science and science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and photographer Mike Wilson spent two adventurous years exploring the Great Barrier Reef, the mightiest coral formation in the world. Presented here are ‘the adventures and mishaps, successes and failures’ of that underwater expedition, as recorded by Clarke himself. Illustrated with rare underwater photographs, here is a unique look into a region of mystery, of boundless beauty and danger — one of the most intriguing frontiers on our planet.
1958. Boy Beneath The Sea. (Non-fiction)
The marvellous world beneath the sea is not reserved for adults. Mike Wilson, the noted photographer, has taken forty-nine magnificent photographs of young divers and the phenomena they see in the waters around Ceylon. There are pictures of various types of coral and fish. There is a section devoted to the boys’ exploration of a sunken ship, and another on underwater archaeology, showing the boys examining an ancient temple now swallowed by the sea. Watch David and Kevin as they dive. Also see Rodney Jonklaas, famous Ceylonese underwater hunter and biologist as he catches fish.
1958. Voice Across The Sea. (Non-fiction)
A complete, though non-technical, account of the laying of the first transatlantic telephone cable across the ocean.
1960. The Challenge Of The Sea. (Non-fiction)
A study in deep-sea exploration and the possibilities of future developments and explorations of the sea, written by an experienced underwater diver and salvager. The Chapters are: The World of Water; The Shape of the Sea; Men Among Fish; Ships of Tomorrow; Voices from the Deep; The Floating Prairie; The Harvest of the Sea; The Last Roundup; Wealth from the Waves; Monsters of the Night; The Book of the Past; The Submarine Playground.
1960. The First Five Fathoms. (Non-fiction)
In splendid pictures and text the authors show how young skin divers may become masters of the first five fathoms, the most fascinating and beautiful part of the sea. They direct the reader’s first steps to the sea, and explain the use of snorkel, mask, and fins. The book also contains the plain truths about what happens to your body underwater, basic facts about diving equipment, and also the roles of etiquette to follow in a world much different from our own. (Intro by Jacques-Yves Cousteau)
1961. Indian Ocean Adventure. (Non-fiction)
1964. Indian Ocean Treasure. (Non-fiction)
(With Mike Wilson) Describes the activities of a group of divers who found a sunken ship off the coast of Sri Lanka.
1964. The Treasure Of The Great Reef. (Non-fiction)
2002. The Reefs Of Taprobane. (Non-fiction)
Looking for new underwater worlds to conquer, Arthur Clarke and Mike Wilson followed up their expedition to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (described in The Coast of Coral) by exploring the romantic seas surrounding Ceylon. Meetings with dangerous and beautiful marine creatures were only one side of the expedition’s activities. Their adventures included the discovery of many wrecks and the investigation of a 3,000-year-old Hindu temple lying on the ocean bed.
Many of the books listed in this bibliography are completely new to me. I look forward to getting hold of them, reading them, and then coming back to update the descriptions above, in a way relevant to those interested in the seas and underwater life.
I’m indebted to Thomas J. Goreau for both bringing this to my attention and for some of the content of this article.
Any questions or comments, or if there are any particular topics you’d like to see covered here, please feel free to get in touch with me: email@example.com