My worst nightmare had come true. A total silt-out at the bottom of a very deep cave with a slack guideline while on all fours and under the influence of nitrogen narcosis. I also had helium tremors …
I was stuck in the mud, with half of my lights out, twelve hours from the surface and with no visibility.”
South African mega-diver Nuno Gomes is 63 and looking back on his diving highlights and lowlights. Among many other achievements he set the Guinness World depth records for cave-diving (292m, at altitude in Boesmansgat in 1996) and overall at sea (318m, at Dahab in 2005, a record overtaken only last year). Both dives took more than 12 hours to complete in extremely challenging circumstances.
So this is a survivor with an amazing story to tell. And his success and survival appears, on the evidence of his new book, to be the result of scrupulously careful planning, fitness, discipline and total obsession with diving. Luck might have played its part, but Gomes’ aim was always to minimise the unexpected.
“What for a lay person is looked upon as a daredevil act is usually the end result of very careful planning and years of experience,” he says. But his career was waypointed by the deaths of far too many other technical divers he knew – some great ones and others who should not have been doing what they did. All paid the ultimate price for perhaps not meeting the sort of standards Gomes demanded.
Fellow-diver Pieter Venter says his own wife kept asking why he chose a sport in which someone seemed to die monthly. “At first, I thought it’s normal,” he says. “Then, I met Nuno and realised that you can really achieve something without killing yourself in the process.”
For someone so concerned with perfectionism, the construction of Gomes’ book comes as a surprise.
To take the analogy of a cave-dive, it seems to drop straight into the main chamber but then shoot off impulsively into side corridors, go off on further tangents, dipping into the silt and shooting up to the roof before eventually finding its way giddily back to a guideline you feared you’d never see again.
The first half of Beyond Blue suffers most from this wildly disconnected approach, suggesting that it was written at different times but the parts never properly integrated.
The effect is disorientating, but persevere and the going does get smoother by the time the main record attempts are described.
There is so much fascinating content to be found once you get used to the choppy rhythms of this book. Technical divers will enjoy the detail but the gas-mixes, profiles and physiological effects of the dives are well described and easy enough for any diver to follow.
Gomes resorts to quoting other people talking about him when modesty prevails, and at one point a former girlfriend says: “He couldn’t talk about anything else except diving. I had never met anyone who was involved in one activity to such an extent.”
The book reflects this, bodybuilding being the only outside pursuit mentioned until unexpectedly, in the final chapter, the diver opens up about his background and family, and shows awareness of how his single-mindedness might have preserved him, but at some personal cost.
Gomes is critical of one-time cave-record holder Dave Shaw for the dive-planning shortcomings that led to his death at Boesmansgat Cave. He also has a pop at author Philip Finch for then sanctifying Shaw (“uncritical applause”) in his well-known book Diving Into Darkness.
Whatever the truth of that charge, I only wish a writer of Finch’s calibre could have tackled the Nuno Gomes story, bringing his journalistic skills to bear and drilling down into what makes this outstanding diver tick.
Co-author Olo Sawa, in case you wondered, is Gomes’ publisher. But with such a great story to tell, failing to engage a great writer to tell it seems a bit of a missed opportunity.

Review by Steve Weinman

Mayfly
ISBN: 9788362827275
Softback, 263pp, US$15