Appeared in DIVER November 2009
UntitledSteffi Schwabe, by her own admission, can be a bit scary. One of the world's leading cave-divers, this 6ft-tall German-American scientist has her own high standards of diving. I saw this when diving with her on DIVER regulator tests in the Red Sea - woe betide anyone suspected of diverting even a few grains of sand onto the corals. She isn't a woman to be trifled with.
Cave-diving was traditionally a male preserve, but Steffi has beaten the guys at their own game, as when she was first to plumb the mysterious Black Hole in the Bahamas.
As she points out several times in this autobiography, she has won few friends among the cave-diving fraternity for this reason, and lost others along the way.
In fact she is thoroughly jaded about men, and the book is strewn with examples of male inadequacy. Even her late husband, cave-diver Rob Palmer, she describes as "stupid and selfish" for the way in which he died after a series of deep air dives in the Red Sea. His behaviour as recorded here, from his personal habits to his general unreliability above the surface, doesn't exactly cover his memory in glory.
For all that, Steffi was devastated by Palmer's loss. Months later, their mutual acquaintance Rob Parker turned on her, shortly before dying in a Bahamas cave. Her dive-team kept the news that he was missing from her for hours, which left her furious, convinced that they would never have treated her late husband in this way.
Tagged "The Black Widow", the impression is that Steffi then retreated into her beloved cave research. And in the Black Hole of Andros, she took the initiative in passing through "the Floor of Fire", a layer of hot hydrogen sulphide that turned metal black, to see what lay beneath it - an act of real courage.
This incredible dive was featured in DIVER some years ago, based on an early draft chapter of this book. A Black Hole dive later featured in the TV series Oceans - it's not mentioned here, but Steffi was seriously vexed with the BBC for not crediting her with that ground-breaking dive.
Living In Darkness, published by the US non-profit organisation dedicated to caves, is generally a good read, but it doesn't feel well-rounded. It gives the impression of having been written in uneven sections that were then edited by different people, some well, some poorly. There are discontinuities and mistakes (the same name spelt differently in the same sentence) and the cave science chapter I found impenetrable. Nor are we brought up to date with Steffi's current work, which she is apparently saving for another volume.
The author is also a barrister, so she knows what she can and can't say. And she saves for her conclusion a bitter chapter called Silent Death, naming names of developers (HWL of Hong Kong) that she says are destroying Bahamian cave systems, and holding the government to blame for complicity.