- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

By Daniel Lenihan
Newmarket Press, $25.95, 287 pages, illus.


Unfathomable. The oceans astound us so that our word for the incomprehensible is derived from a nautical term of depth measurement. We tread tenaciously on our earth's surface, while just below sea level, there exists an alien world where dinosaurs' peers swim unfazed by the passage of time. The oceans give our planet life, and they can instantaneously reclaim it, swallowing our pathetically tiny ships whole.
It is this awe of the mighty oceans that transforms even the most mundane objects into treasured and sacred relics once they have been submerged. Those who dare to challenge the depths and recover these crumbs of history are heroes of mythical stature, bringing us treasures from the beast's gaping maw. And they certainly aren't your average park rangers, unfashionably clad in forest green double-knit polyester. That, in a nutshell, is Daniel Lenihan's message in his autobiographical "Submerged: Adventures of America's Most Elite Underwater Archeology Team."
The founder and chief of the U. S. National Park Service's Submerged Cultural Resources Unit (SCRU) for 25 years, Mr. Lenhian and his handpicked team doffed their Smoky the Bear hats and strapped on air tanks, walked the ocean's graveyards, as well as other less glamorous aqueous locales, and brought back these tales.
"Submerged cultural resources" is a technical term applied to underwater archaeological sites, shipwrecks and the like. The rather unfortunate anagram "SCRU" must have been the source of smirks among the paper-pushing bureaucrats in the Department of the Interior, but Mr. Lenihan's unit had the moxie to carry the moniker.
In the book, Mr. Lenihan is his team's underwater Gabriel, tooting his own conch shell throughout the 300-odd pages of his life story. Whenever you anoint yourself the "most elite" of anything, you had better be ready to back up that claim. The author makes his case in anecdotal chapters recounting death-defying underwater adventures in deep and dangerous environments. You never knew there were such scary places within the National Park System.
You won't find anyone from SCRU in a matching neon-pink flipper diving ensemble floating in the warm, azure waters of a Caribbean resort. You'll find them dressed in ragged old blue jeans and coveralls as they swim through the diesel and muck still leaking from the USS Arizona. These gritty rangers tough out the dark, near-freezing waters of Lake Superior's Isle Royale, diving far past prudent limits to document the maritime past of the greatest of the Great Lakes.
When they do get to dive somewhere nice, like the South Pacific, it's only because they are assessing the radioactive status of the USS Saratoga and the other hulks that were gutted by atomic weapons testing at Bikini Atoll.
The work these rangers do is no walk in the park, and Mr. Lenihan's machismo leads them through it. This cowboy's Stetson is his dive mask and his lariat is a reel of nylon string that cave divers use to map routes in watery underground labyrinths. Cave diving would be the underwater equivalent of bungee jumping, if only bungee jumpers had to put on a blindfold and crawl back up their cord with a limited air supply after jumping.
Mr. Lenihan recounts his early days diving in Florida caves, where his own mettle was tested and his diving skills honed, with cocky bravado and drama. He is called in time and again to recover the bodies of those who failed to survive their subterranean experience. When he joins the park service in New Mexico, he passes these intrepid diving skills along while documenting ancient ruins that were covered by reservoirs.
These extreme diving skills apparently gave SCRU its elite status among other archaeologists, who generally spend most of their time in not very dangerous places like libraries and museums and every once in a while dig a perfectly square hole in the ground somewhere. What those bookish fellows do is archaeology, which is to interpret and relate the material remains of our past. When it's done well, archaeology is mind numbingly obsessive, compulsive and anything but adventurous.
Mr. Lenihan's stories don't fill your gullet full of history and archaeology. He sets the scenes and shares the magical feelings of diving among the past, but spares the reader details of the sites and finds. The theme here isn't the tale of the wrecks, ruins and relics. This book is about the diving, not so plain and not so simple. The author shares the problems and pitfalls he faced on his far from ordinary path with the colorful vernacular one expects from a sailor's sea yarn. At times he lets the reader in on the wonder and mystical adventure of diving these historical treasures. Other times, he flaunts the experiences with a daring tough-guy sneer and self-glorifying smugness.
The NPS archaeologists are the good guys, though, and they deserve a little trumpeting. The past is a limited resource; there is only so much of it sunken or buried out there. Treasure hunters tend to be glorified by the media because gold and silver make people go "oooh," but really what they are doing is destroying history to get the loot. The difference between an archaeologist and a treasure hunter is like a biologist who studies elephants and a poacher who shoots them for their tusks.
While the circumstances may have been more extraordinary, Mr. Lenihan and his team did the unglamorous jobs that all park rangers have to do. They protected our cultural resources for posterity. Their rewards weren't bars of gold or treasure chests packed with pieces of eight, but the knowledge they uncovered. They shared the shipwrecks with us so we could enjoy them, learn from them and learn more about ourselves.

David Johnson has directed and participated in numerous excavations above and under water in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and the United States. In addition to being the director of technology at the Scripps Howard New Service here in Washington, he is a historical consultant for the National Maritime Heritage Foundation.

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