Intrepid explorer’s vainglory tad tedious

Intrepid author David L Mearns's The Shipwreck Hunter reveals he could do with exploring modesty.

David L Mearns
Allen & Unwin

By Rob Kidd

The kumara does not speak of its own sweetness.

But David Mearns is not a kumara — he is an American and he finds the unfindable. He goes where no men have gone before. He is the Neil Armstrong of finding sunken vessels on the all but untouched sea floor.

And, might I remind you, 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by water.

If The Shipwreck Hunter is a true reflection of Mearns’ career, it has been an unblemished one. Several times during the 11 missions the author outlines in the book, he makes a controversial decision against the advice of other crew members.

The odds are stacked against him, but Mearns is a meticulous researcher who is not afraid to go with his gut if the mood takes him. He is never wrong.

It could be the tall-poppy mentality, but it gets a little tedious hearing about someone’s repeated successes.

Life is not perfect, but Mearns’ appears to be.

To be fair, his precis of the various histories behind the shipwrecks he finds are really readable. He does a solid job providing context to  each project he covers, but when he gets into the methodology, things get cloudy.

Mearns studied as a marine scientist and gradually became adept in the use of side-scan sonar.

After reading 400 pages I’m still not sure what side-scan sonar is because he is not really into dumbing things down for nautical dunces like me. Too often the intrepid explorer gets so carried away with the minutiae of his work, he would surely lose all but the most determined readers.

Yet there is also something endearing about how immersed in his watery world he is.

Of course, Mearns had to go into the scientific nuts and bolts of his work, as well as the political and social implications of effectively discovering mass grave sites.

But I guess I wanted more weird anecdotes thrown in. Given dozens of people were at sea for weeks on end, there must have been drunken episodes, mindless pranks and practices that kept boredom at bay. Alas, that surface is never scratched.

There is no doubt Mearns has done some important work and brought closure to hundreds of families with his finds.

It is just a shame we get the sanitised version of his voyage.

- Rob Kidd is an ODT reporter.

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