IT IS 76 YEARS since Hans Hass, one of the foremost pioneers of modern diving, put an air pocket between his eyes and the undersea world for the first time.
The Austrian’s experiences spearfishing off the French Riviera in 1937 and his first two expeditions, to the Adriatic coast the following year and the Dutch Antilles in 1939, are captured in his first book to be published in English, Diving To Adventure from 1952.
Hasss introduction to the undersea world came after an encounter with Guy Gilpatrick, American author of the first book dedicated to spearfishing (The Complete Goggler, 1938) while he was hunting near rocks off Cap dAntibes.
Gilpatrick was held in conversation long enough to recommend a mechanic in Antibes who made harpoons, but warned that on no account should Hass, “go swimming alone in deep water because [of] sharks”.
A Stanley and Livingstone meeting it may not have been, but parting saw their lives take similarly diverging paths: for Hass an internationally feted career in marine exploration; for journalist and aviator Gilpatrick, an untimely death three years later aged 44, in a suicide pact with his terminally ill wife.
Hass had a harpoon made and bought some goggles from a local optician, but from that moment on he is selective in his memory of any advice about deep water and sharks!
By the end of the following summer the 19-year-old Hass had built a watertight case for his camera; obtained the latest fins from France; built and tested in the Danube an open diving helmet modelled on that used by his hero William Beebe; planned, organised and led an expedition to the Dalmatian coast, and embarked on a lecture tour with the resultant photographs.
Hass and his companions, Joerg Bohler and Alfred von Wurzian, then spent several months spearfishing and filming on the remote shores of Curaçao and Bonaire.
The result was Hasss first film, Stalking Beneath the Sea, and the crystallisation of his vision – to explore the oceans in a fully equipped research vessel.
Writing in 1954, the American literary critic Gorham Munson accused Hass of over-dramatising events in Diving To Adventure.
There is no doubt that some of the depths to which Hass says he took an oxygen rebreather in subsequent expeditions appear incredible, but I suspect that Munson was simply a non-swimmer!
On Curaçao Hass describes himself as having a “disagreeable premonition” before one dive, but he decided to swim into deep water anyway.
Spotting a sea bass he knew to be far too large to handle alone, he nevertheless harpooned the fish and was not surprisingly dragged downward.
At depth, but not wanting to relinquish his grip on the harpoon shaft, Hass found himself on the verge of passing out, so he cut the line and struggled for the surface. A nonchalant diary entry at the time recorded only: I remember vaguely that two sharks were beside me as I swam up.
Today, writes Hass, with more experience of sharks, I wonder whether many situations that we then risked without a thought might not just as well have ended differently.
One inescapable theme of Diving To Adventure is the sheer tonnage of marine life that meets an end on the harpoons of Hass and his companions. But we should guard against finger-pointing.
Diving To Adventure represents the very bloodline of the sport we enjoy today, and a lifetime after the events it recalls took place, the book remains a classic, and a page-turner from start to finish.


FIRST PUBLISHED IN ENGLISH IN 1954, Men And Sharks describes Hasss 1942 expedition to the Aegean. It was the first time he used a rebreather on an expedition, and perhaps also the first occasion on which such equipment was used to conduct marine research.
Hasss account and photographs of his 1939 expedition to Bonaire and Curaçao were well received by the public, but he had detractors. “More than once,” Hass writes, “our pictures [were] called posed shots and our experiences with sharks an April Fools joke.”
So it was decided to make a movie with “so many sharks swimming up and down in front of [their] noses that they would have to own themselves beaten”.
As well as Hasss perceptive descriptions of the undersea landscape, his infectious joy at using his rebreather is evident in almost every description of his diving. “Uncontrolled delight took possession of me. Never had I felt so free and unhampered under water,” says Hass after his first dive.
Hass had earlier collaborated with Hermann Stelzner, Drägers Technical Director, to modify an oxygen rebreather he had developed in 1932 for the military. The breathing bag was moved to the back of the jacket, allowing Hass to adopt a more natural position in the water and work more freely with camera equipment to the front.
The constant-flow regulator was replaced by a manually operated button valve to permit closer control of both buoyancy and consumption.
Its maximum operating depth was prescribed as 10m, but in the Aegean Hass regularly took it well past 20m. He was to pay the price for doing so on more than one occasion.
Early in the expedition, Hass encountered the effects of illegal dynamiting by local fishermen.
Explosive charges were hurled from boats, often killing whole schools of fish targeted from the surface using glass-bottomed boxes. Within seconds of each explosion large sharks appeared to gather up wounded fish, “obviously trained not only to the sound but to the location of the blasts.”
In this way, Hass and his team exposed reel after reel of shark footage, sometimes making up to eight dives a day. But this work-rate and the lowering autumn sea temperatures undoubtedly contributed to near-disaster.
Although Hass had already experimented on himself by remaining on the seabed beyond the first signs of oxygen poisoning – “just to see what would happen next” – he was caught unawares while filming off Santorini, a volcanic island in the Cyclades.
Hass recalls: “We were swimming over completely black, bottomless water.
I found myself breathing uncommonly fast. But except for the biting cold… I felt fine.”
On his way back to the surface and 5m below his buddy, Hass passed out.
“An electric light switch seemed to have been turned off in me,” he wrote. “There was a sudden end without the slightest transition.”
Luckily his colleague turned just in time to see Hass start sinking into the depths. Hass regained consciousness an hour later. He had bitten clean through his rubber mouthpiece.
On that same day, 19 October 1942, perhaps even as Hass was being dragged from the water, Hermann Stelzner suffered a massive heart attack and died in his office in Lübeck, Germany.
What is clear to the reader of Men And Sharks or any of the early works of Hans Hass is that even though he struggles constantly with numerous and potentially lethal technical problems, it is always the act rather than the process of diving that drives and inspires him.
Men And Sharks is one of those rare diving books that reminds us that the latest kit purchased, dives logged, sites ticked off and air miles covered in a season are means rather than ends in themselves, and that we should guard against these aspects of diving today subsuming both our purpose and perspective when we venture into the sea.


HANS HASS IS TO RED SEA diving what Hillary and Tenzing have become to Himalayan climbing. He was one of the first to venture there with diving equipment and underwater camera, and this 1952 account of the trip was instrumental in popularising the region as a diving destination.
Hass arrived in Port Sudan 10 years after his first attempt to dive in the Red Sea was thwarted by the outbreak of WW2, and with warnings of ferocious sharks and, “heat unbearable by a European” still ringing in his ears.
Today the heat and sharks are a positive attraction, and the diving from the Sudanese coast is widely regarded as the best in the Red Sea.
But it remains a destination for the more determined diver and the Foreign Office country travel advice makes grim reading from a security perspective.
The expedition gets off to a comical start. On his first outing, nervous after a long lay-off from diving and anxious about his first encounter with Red Sea sharks, Hass is faced with a 100m swim over deep water to a reef.
Having had his request to move closer to the reef wall turned down, the apprehensive-looking Hass considers feigning illness but, as he notes mournfully in the book, “I had already put on my swimming trunks”!
So with fins thrashing and clutching the long side of a picture-frame (he couldnt bring his harpoon shaft with him on the aircraft) he made his way towards the reef. “Never before,” he says, “had I taken such a blind leap in the dark.”
With confidence restored and using a felucca, a slender 5m sailing boat employed by local fishermen, Hass made first descents at some of todays classic dive-sites, such as the wreck of the Umbria, the reefs around Mohammud Qol, Wingate, Angarosh and Sanganeb Atoll. And he did so alone, acknowledging early on in the book that he took huge risks in doing so, particularly given the lengths to which he went to obtain decent photographs.
At one point, having speared two fish in the hope of attracting sharks within camera range, Hass became tangled in a mess of harpoon lines.
With struggling fish pulling in opposite directions, water flooding his mask, his camera-strap twisted across his throat, and the sling of his light meter flattening his breathing bag, he began to sink away from the reef wall.
He kicked out, struggling to arrest his descent, and in doing so freed one of his fins. More by luck than judgment, he managed to regain the surface.
Some of the language used, whether by Hass himself or by Jarrolds during translation, will raise eyebrows, particularly terms used to refer to the Sudanese and their language.
But if Under The Red Sea is a blast from the past in cultural terms, it is a breath of fresh air in every other respect. The reader will rejoice in the absence – in connection with the Red Sea – of words such as, “bargain”, “crowded” and “undamaged”.
If there is such a thing as the diving equivalent of “slow food”, Under The Red Sea is it. Hass evokes a vivid sense of the reader being the first to peer into this beautiful, occasionally hostile but above all, pristine undersea environment.
Under The Red Sea makes us ponder just how far we have come in our ability to explore the oceans.
For Hass the early challenge was simply to remain under water with his camera. For us the challenge is far greater – to preserve and renew that world. Simply “going diving” is no longer enough.

The three books by Hans Hass reviewed above were part of a series issued by Jarrolds Publishing – the fourth was We Come From The Sea. These are now out of print, but copies may be found through Classic Dive Books, which stocks some 2400 titles, www.classicdivebooks.info, or by searching online.