Classic dive reads should stand the test of time. Any of the books on this list weaves a tale of timeless undersea adventures, and will instantly transport readers into the dive dreams of our forefathers. All the below works remain available today in one format or another. Nevertheless, please keep in mind that these older books include some things nowadays considered unsavory or outdated.
“20,000 Leagues Under the Seas” (Written by Jules Verne in 1870)
That last “s” in the title isn’t a misprint. Though too late now, if the English title were correctly translated from Jules Verne’s French title, “Vingt Mille Lieues Sous les Mers,” it would end with the plural “seas.”
And that’s the problem. Lewis Mercier’s common translation limps along poorly, and also cuts 100 pages out of Verne’s writing. When I read this novel years ago, it bored me. But the novel accurately translated by Walter James Miller and F. P. Walter commissioned by the U.S. Naval Institute reads like a dream. The version recently illustrated by John Patrick, and released by the Paradrome Press, held me in thrall of Verne’s undersea world. Downloaded onto my black and white Kindle, I switched briefly to my phone when the richly colorful renderings of the paintings appeared.
Eminently readable, the novel describes a fantastical submarine voyage with extraordinary walks in diving suits on the bottom of the ocean. Published when electricity existed only as a carnival curiosity and electric submarines had yet to be invented, Verne’s future predictions are even more wondrous for their accuracy.
Considered one of the all-time best science fiction novels, it’s not surprising that “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” has remained in print for 147 years. However, it’s Verne’s beautiful marine-life descriptions that will remind you of the exquisite underwater world from your best dive.
“Secret Sea” (Written by Robb White in 1947)
This adventure novel will thrill the wide-eyed kid in you with its hunt for sunken treasure, bad guys and an underwater battle with a monster octopus. Did I forget to mention there’s a brash ragamuffin crewing the boat?
You’ll be surprised by how quickly the fun story engages you even as you realize everything will turn out fine in the end. At 325 pages, it’s still a fast read and a physically small book, so perfect for travel.
The author published 27 novels and many Hollywood scripts, including a few recently remade movies. The diving by hardhat and a “self-contained outfit with an oxygen bottle and caustic soda regenerator” is a means to an end, but makes this novel an entertaining dive read.
Divers and non-divers alike worldwide know of Jacques Cousteau, the famous father of underwater exploration. “Silent World” solidified his place in the public eye, becoming an international bestseller. It was the first popular read revealing the undersea world to the public.
Though composed in English, his narrative occasionally makes it clear that English was not Cousteau’s native tongue. However, the quirks add to the otherworldly quality of the book.
Cousteau’s dive descriptions echo some of the best and worst of modern diving, from sun-filled underwater reefs to the darkness of oxygen toxicity. However, the surprising and sometimes ugly treatment of marine life clanks as a jarring note, albeit one more common in days’ past. Regardless, this book is practically required reading for divers, with Cousteau briefly touching on dive principles, marine-life behavior, his co-invention of scuba diving and tales of his exploration as a “manfish.”
“Ordeal by Water” (Written by Peter Keeble in 1957)
Containing vivid descriptions of ponderous diving dress and almost insurmountable marine salvage, this book illustrates the hair-raising experience of a British Navy salvage diver in World War II.
Though biographical in nature, the paperback features an easy writing style that’s honest and sometimes funny. The jerry-rigged innovations which surprisingly succeed inspire awe.
Skip the book’s forward because it contains a number of spoilers. Instead, jump straight into the action in the Eastern Mediterranean. The book predominantly features diving with dangerous excursions as the norm. A few of the dive experiences remain true to this day, but you’ll shudder through the brutal realities of old-school hardhat diving.
Worth including on this list are these last two books. They’re unique in their own way, though they feature far less diving than the ones above.
“Under the Waves Diving in Deep Waters” (Written by R.M. Ballantyne in 1886)
Harkening back to a simpler time, this swashbuckling adventure written for teens contains pirates, treasure and love. It also happens to include hard-hat diving as the hero’s job. Ballantyne has written a nice vacation read that still works for adults and it’s free on a Kindle.
“Beneath Tropic Seas” (Written by William Beebe in 1928)
Written by the director of tropical research for the New York Zoological Society, this large, floppy paperback details Beebe’s expedition exploring the coral reefs of Haiti. While Beebe experienced more fame for his co-invention of the bathysphere, his books endured as best sellers.
While the cover looks modern, the printing remains old fashioned. The book survives only as a reproduction, with the original imperfections included. Nevertheless, it remains pleasant and sometimes waxes poetic. While Beebe took a scientific focus, he lovingly detailed the underwater world although the diving comprises only a small part of the book.