Chris Mitchell talks to Tim Ecott about his bestselling scuba diving book Neutral Buoyancy and bringing the joys of diving to readers who don’t want to get wet
Scuba diving is a strange sport. It’s one of those things that seems to defy words — trying to explain what it’s like to hover 100 feet underwater and feel almost weightless is something few writers have managed to capture. Even within diving journals, there are few attempts to capture the magic of diving in prose; they prefer to concentrate on the practicalities of the sport rather than the poetics.
Tim Ecott’s Neutral Buoyancy, first published in 2002, has changed all that. Critically acclaimed by divers and non-divers alike, Ecott’s book is a history of diving, both with scuba gear and without, and also a meditation of sorts on the pleasure of diving itself which conveys the thrill of being underwater. As such, it’s a great mix of personal anecdote and off-beat historical research, featuring fascinating interviews with a World War II frogman, a freedive champion who can hold his breath for 8 minutes and Hans and Lotte Hasse, the pioneers of underwater documentary making amongst many others. Ecott’s conversations with these eclectic figures within scuba diving’s short history (the aqualung was only invented 60 years ago) are entwined with his own memories of particular dives in different parts of the world. Each of these recollections are used to illustrate a particular aspect of scuba diving, be it physical, mental or spiritual.
I caught up with Tim via email to find out more about how he went about writing Neutral Buoyancy…
Can you explain a little about your background at the BBC and how it led to you working as a divemaster in the Seychelles?
I worked as a news journalist for the World Service, specialising in Africa. That was how I first had the opportunity to visit the Indian Ocean Islands of Seychelles, Mauritius, Comoros and Madagascar – even though I wasn’t a diver then. Over a period of years I fell in love with Seychelles and by the time I came to live there I was an obsessive diver. Diving became part of the reason I wanted to live there, but officially I was on loan to the Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation from the BBC – helping to train the local radio and tv journalists.
Was it there that you got the idea for the book?
I was originally interested in a book about the history of the Seychelles, especially its politics and the President – now the longest serving Commonwealth Head of State. Seychelles is much more than a honeymoon destination, it is a vibrant, passionate, steamy place with all manner of cultural quirks. It has a wonderful natural environment and a turbulent incestuous modern history – the kind of place where people go a little crazy and just can’t leave.
Was it a sudden idea or something that had gestated for a while?
Neutral Buoyancy gestated for about a year, in different forms. I originally thought of it as a book purely for divers, but my agent in London persuade me that a ‘bigger book’, one with a more general appeal would be more marketable.
What prompted you to come back to the UK when there’s so much good diving abroad?
To be frank, I became bored of living on a small island. It was quite a stressful experience in many ways, and the BBC wanted me back. In fact, 3 months after I went back to my old job I realised it wasn’t stimulating me any more, and my wife persuaded me to resign, and take up writing full time. That’s how Neutral Buoyancy came about.
Do you enjoy UK diving as much?
I have had some great diving experiences in the UK, especially off the South Coast. I think of UK diving as almost a separate sport from warm water diving. It is much more challenging, and the conditions certainly make you a better diver.
It’s fairly evident from reading Neutral Buoyancy that your passion for diving was what inspired you to write the book. A lot of non-divers have enjoyed reading Neutral Buoyancy. Did you find it difficult finding the words to convey that passion or was the research more complicated?
Conveying the passion was the fun bit. In terms of the writing process, the ‘underwater’ sections of the book were the easiest to write. The historical and technical aspects took longer, and I worried about them most – I didn’t want people in the diving industry saying that I had made mistakes, or pioneers telling me I had made historical errors. So, I took a lot of care with the less personal sections of the book, hoping to get it as right as possible. The research was very enjoyable however, and it was great tracking down the definitive answers to a lot of the history – you always find that other authors have visited the same ground, and usually there are always errors that get repeated by successive generations of writers. I spent a lot of time in the British Library getting hold of the earliest editions of historical works, private diaries and documents. I also had a lot of help from members of the Historical Diving Society in UK, Australia, USA, Italy and South Africa.
Within Neutral Buoyancy you meet many different characters who have all been major players in one way or another within diving’s short history. Did you find it easy to talk about the almost spiritual element of diving with each of them, or was it only people like Lance Rennka who were comfortable with such ideas?
I found that divers of all age groups were reluctant to discuss that side of the sport. I suppose it’s a natural reaction – people generally don’t talk about the things that are REALLY important to them. But the ‘spiritual’ side of diving is obviously something that readers have commented upon, and responded to. I have the impression that other divers, and dive journalists have become a little bit more relaxed about that side of diving – maybe because of my book!
Were there any areas of research that you had to leave out of the book that you’d like to have included?
Naturally – I would like to have done more on marine mammals and marine conservation. I also had to truncate some sections of history – and remind myself that I wasn’t writing the absolutely definitive history of diving. I amassed a lot of historical data and had to leave a few of the very early pioneers out (mostly from the eighteenth century) – but I hope I have done it in a way which means that all the truly important people are there – especially when it comes to scuba rather than hard-hat or surface supported diving. I also had to make a decision not to go too much into mixed gas diving – because it is a niche within diving and quite obscure for non-divers.
Next page: Tim Ecott interview Part 2