Between the Devil and the Deep
By Mark Cowan and Martin Robson
The gruesome true story of the bends, seen through the eyes of a diver pitched into a natural hell; paralysed and trapped underwater with nowhere to go but sink back into the deep.
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Deep underwater lurks a mysterious disease all divers know. A man-made illness, it has gone by many names over the years: caisson’s disease, diver’s palsy, the chokes. The wives of Greek sponge divers christened it Satan’s Disease. Today, medics call it decompression sickness. You know it as the bends.
Microscopic bubbles, smaller than the point at the end of this sentence, explode in your body like those from an uncorked bottle of champagne. They can turn your blood to foam; kill you swiftly; paralyse you while you sleep and cripple you for life; or, as one diver described it, twist you into a screaming lump of agony with awful pains in your joints.
That’s the devil British deep diver Martin Robson faces each time he goes underwater. The former Royal Marine Commando has spent most of his adult life exploring submerged caves around the world, snaking through constricted passageways and floating free through vast cathedral-like chambers with stalactites hanging from the ceilings like chandeliers.
In the winter of 2012, Robson was part of a multi-national expedition that travelled to a remote body of water known as Blue Lake, in the mountainous borderlands of southern Russia, on a quest to find a submerged cave system not seen by the human eye. On the final day of the expedition, Robson dived more than 700 feet down, deeper into the lake than anyone had been before. It was a dive fraught with danger and risk. As he returned from the bottom disaster struck. Just 75 feet down, Robson was ambushed by the bends. Bubbles exploded in his spine and took his legs in an instant. He was paralysed from the waist down.
An unnerved man would bolt. Robson had to decide, right there and then, whether to take his chances on the surface where he would find sunlight and warmth, where comrades were waiting for him, where there was life. As far as Robson was concerned, the surface was no friend. He knew if he went up he would be helpless in the grip of nature; he would probably die before help arrived.
Instead, Robson gambled on an underwater practice most doctors believe is a suicidal act of madness. Trapped by the lake’s icebox grip, unable to move his legs, and with a dwindling supply of breathing gas, he sank back into the deep. Soon, the only hope he had of saving his life and his legs would rest in the hands of an elderly Russian doctor, a dramatic mercy mission organised at the highest levels of the Russian government, and an experimental, nine-day treatment.
Between the Devil and the Deep is the first book to tell the terrifying true story of what it feels like to get the bends by taking you inside the body and mind of a man who suffered the unthinkable. Journalist and diver Mark Cowan recounts in chilling detail the natural hell Martin Robson found himself in, the desperate life or death battle to beat the horror inside his body, his partner’s anxious wait for news, and the rescue mission scrambled to save him. Cowan explores the history of decompression sickness, the science behind what causes the disease, and the forgotten divers who pushed the limits of physical endurance to help find an answer; one of the most secret dramas of the past two centuries.
Between the Devil and the Deep is a real-life thriller of risk and reward, of horror and hope—and of Robson’s sheer dogged insistence on staying alive.
Martin Cave Diving
Special thanks to Santi Diving and Fourth Element who heavily supported the Blue Lake project.
Mark Cowan is a UK-trained journalist with more than 20 years’ experience in newspapers and television. He spent twelve years on the police beat charting the war on crime for a stable of tabloid, broadsheet and Sunday titles in Birmingham, and was also embedded with the British Army during peace-keeping efforts in war-torn Kosovo. Cowan has also worked on both one-off and multi-part crime documentaries for the BBC and ITV channels.
As Crime Correspondent for the Birmingham Evening Mail and Birmingham Post, Cowan covered issues as diverse as street gangs and gun crime, home-grown terrorism, race riots, football hooliganism and honour killings. His work has appeared in numerous scuba diving publications and he has written separately for the European Union on issues surrounding humanitarian aid.
Cowan has spent the past five years researching the story of Blue Lake, gaining unprecedented access to the people involved in the real-life life or death thriller. He has conducted extensive, taped interviews with Martin Robson, interviewed many of the expedition’s key participants, spoken to experts in decompression sickness, and tracked down pioneers of deep cave diving. He has also followed the 175-year trail of scientific study into the bends from the original documents of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the European Union-funded research of today. A scuba diver for fifteen years, diving instructor for eight, and a technical decompression diver for six, Cowan brings his own wealth of diving experience to the book.
Martin Robson is one of the world’s leading instructors on technical, cave and rebreather diving with clients worldwide. A former Royal Marine Commando and senior Fire Officer with both Kent and London fire brigades, he has been cave diving for more than 20 years, leading explorations and tours of systems in France, North America and Mexico. In 2003, he discovered a new passageway in the Durzon cave, in France, more than a mile into the cave and one hundred metres underwater. Only a handful of people have ventured there since.
Martin is still an active rebreather, technical and cave instructor. He is one of the IANTD's leading Instructor Trainers and has been a member of IANTD's Board of Advisors for several years. He also works as a Technical Field Consultant and Designated Instructor Trainer for PADI and was instrumental in the development of its Rebreather courses. He also co-authored the PADI rebreather training manuals.
Robson is a sought-after speaker at technical diving conferences around the world and has presented at The Natural History Museum, Rebreather Forum 3, EUROTEK, OZTek, TEKDiveUSA and BALTICTECH. Robson has also contributed articles to UK, US, Russian and Finnish dive magazines. His expeditions are supported by a number of worldwide equipment manufacturers. They include Analox, the world’s leading maker of gas analysers; Otter, which produces diving dry suits; Fourth Element, which makes thermal clothing for divers; dive computer manufacturer Liquivision; and Ambient Pressure Diving, makers of the Inspiration rebreather.
Baltic Sea, 1964
HE lay there, incapacitated on the stretcher, in the grip of something he had brought back from the deep. A universal tremor had seized control of all his joints and he was in a bad shape. Every part of him convulsed: his arms, his legs, his hands, elbows, knees. Even his jaw shook uncontrollably. He had never known anything like it before, might never see anything like it again, and couldn’t do much of anything beyond lie there, trembling.
Before him, squeezed into the cylindrical metal pressure pot onboard the Soviet salvage vessel Spasatel'noye Sudno 87, were members of his dive team. They were like brothers to him, he knew them so well. They had lived and trained and sailed out to sea together for years. They had dived into the cold depths of the sea together, been to places where no other human had set foot, beyond the limits of what was thought humanly possible. As a diver medic, he had schooled them on the dangers down there and what they should do if they surfaced with pains in their joints. He looked up at them staring back at him with worry on their faces, but his bright blue eyes did not plead for their help. He had his own plan.
I have no right to ask you to do this, Gennady Mikhailovich Sokolov said to the men.
We know, replied junior doctor, Vitaly Kushnir.
He knew—they all knew—what was being suggested and what had to be done.
Follow the Read More button below to see the rest of the prologue...
Kabardino-Balkaria, Russia, January 2012
A GENTLE wind rolled in from the distant snow-capped mountains, between the trees and across the mirrored surface of Blue Lake towards the dive centre. The muffled whirr! of a compressor engine groaned away in the background and divers with unfastened dry suits hanging at their waists carried aluminium diving cylinders which complained with a clank! when stacked on the ground. Air hissed from the valves in staccato bursts as divers checked the cylinder contents. Two guys in matching red dry suits and woolly hats loitered on the concrete platform extending from the centre’s main doors on the lake’s northern shore talking about the dive ahead. Visiting the lake was their annual pilgrimage to herald a new year of exploration. A cameraman from Russian television news channel МИР 24 towed a reporter who stuck a microphone under nose of anyone who looked important. The pale winter sun had ushered the darkness from the sky a few hours earlier and possibility was so thick in the air it could almost be brushed away with the hand.
Through the double doors, where neoprene hoods and gloves hung from pegs, and along the tile-floored corridor, past a whiteboard and its unintelligible squiggles, beyond the storage boxes and duffel bags filled with gear, towards the drone of the compressor at the end of the corridor, British explorer Martin Robson crouched over a wooden bench examining his sophisticated rebreather, lost in the percussion of diving.
The compressor groaned on. The building was carved, like an underground bunker, into the banks of the lake’s north shore. The main corridor, tiled in white like a sterile cave, was the artery for the centre’s operations. Along one wall stood benches used by divers to prepare and don their gear. Various rooms branched from the corridor; a sparse kitchen cum briefing room, a cramped storeroom for equipment, workshop and filling station. At the end of the corridor was a spiral staircase which led to a white-washed apse with a mortar board roof leading to a tree-lined courtyard and patio overlooking the lake. Wrapped with floor-to-ceiling windows and decorated with a panoramic mountain frieze, the building had been completed in 2005. It was originally designed as a scientific centre for research into the lake. Now it stood as an empty edifice to a long-forgotten or unaffordable dream.
The place was a second home to Robson’s new friend Eduard Khuazhev. For the past six years he’d been working as a diving instructor, guide and general manager at the centre.
Vy gotovy k pogruzheniyam? his bass voice echoing along the corridor. Are you ready to go diving?
Da. Yes. Robson replied in his simple British please-and-thank-you manner. He had been recruited two months earlier to lead a multi-national diving expedition to find the submerged cave system hidden somewhere in the lake outside, close to the physiological limits of human survival underwater and deeper than the crush depth of a World War II U-boat. He might come back from the depths with tales of someplace not seen since the dawn of time or he might come back with nothing more than a long immersion on his dive computer.
- 20th June 2019 Researching Between the Devil and the Deep: Meet the men who saved Martin Robson and save some money yourself
The diving season in Europe and the US is now well and truly underway and the crowdfunding campaign for Between the Devil and the Deep has reached the home stretch. We are now just a handful of percentage points from being fully funded. To help us reach our goal, the publisher, Unbound, is offering our supporters a 10 per cent saving this month if they want to upgrade their pledge, perhaps adding…26th April 2019 Researching Between the Devil and the Deep: Logging a dive at Blue Lake
Here is some Friday reading to get you ready for a weekend of diving. It's the latest insight into the research that I've done for Between The Devil and the Deep, and covers the opportunity I had to dive Blue Lake with Martin. Having spent so long looking at plans, photographs and video of the lake this was finally my chance to dip beneath the surface. I hope you enjoy. If so, please share it…16th April 2019 Researching Between the Devil and the Deep: Blue Lake's Mountain Diver Eduard Khuazhev
If you've been keeping tabs on the crowdfunding campaign for Between the Devil and the Deep you will have seen we're already 83 per cent of the way to our target. Having spent so long researching and writing the book, I'm excited to see the point on the horizon when it can be shared with you all. While you wait, here is another update from our research trip to Russia last summer. The piece features…21st March 2019 Researching Between the Devil and the Deep: Rotten eggs and beautiful blue lake
The whiff of what can only be described as rotten eggs wafted through the driver's open window and into the back of the van where we were seated.
Ah, Blue Lake, our interpreter, Vladimir Belichenko, said. You can smell the lake when you are near.
We’d been on the road from Nalchik for about 40 minutes. We had driven alongside the vast orchard near the river, past the hydroelectric power…19th March 2019 Otter Drysuit offer
Otter have very generously allowed us to sell their Otter Atlantic drysuit for an absolute bargain price of £1250! Your pledge will get you a made to measure Atlantic dry suit, Otter's very latest design, in your choice of colours. You can learn more about the suit on Otter's website. The pledge includes a signed first edition hardback plus limited edition Between the Devil and the Deep t-shirt…13th March 2019 Researching Between the Devil and the Deep: A train journey south to the Blue Lake
Interpreting is hard work. My wife used to do it for work and it takes a level of concentration and ability to shift seamlessly between two languages I still find impressive. The research trip to Moscow and Blue Lake for Between the Devil and the Deep wouldn’t have been as successful as it was without some very kind people who helped organise and interpret for us.
Martin and I were lucky to…12th March 2019 Researching Between the Devil and the Deep: Behind the curtain to meet the doctor
As we enter our second phase of the crowdfunding campaign I wanted to offer an insight into the research that has gone into the book. Over the coming days, I will upload a diary entry covering our most recent research trip to Russia. We were taken to some unique places, met and interviewed some amazing people, covered a fair few miles by train between Moscow and Russia's southern borderland close…28th February 2019 Half way there, thank you
I know this is two updates in one day but I want to say thank you to everyone who has pledged so far. Thanks to you we have reached 50% of our target. We still have the second half to go but this is our first big milestone, thank you.
Martin28th February 2019 Incredible offer from Otter Drysuits
An incredible offer with the help of Otter Watersports Drysuits! They have offered us one of their new Atlantic Drysuits in support of the pledges. This is a once only offer and a chance not only for a book and T-shirt but a fabulous new dry suit at less than the normal retail price!
I know our supporters who see this update have already pledged and thank you so much for that but if you could share…25th February 2019 Lost to the bends and lost in the edit, the story of Walter Trapnell shared in thanks for supporting us
Stock image courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item 6119
Writers, as the advice goes, must be prepared to “kill your darlings” in the edit, cutting the unnecessary scenes, extraneous details and excessive back story to maintain the pace of their work. For non-fiction authors those darlings can be significant, unknown or long-forgotten stories they have worked hard to dig out…13th February 2019 Our first week!
We are just about to enter our second week and alreay we have an unbeliveable 112 supporters backing the project. What can I say apart from thank you so much to all of you. Mark and I are both really excited that after a lot of work and one or two set backs we finally on our way.
There is a tiny taster of what some of the Blue Lake project entailed in the linked video. Sorry it is in Russian!
These people are helping to fund Between the Devil and the Deep.