Book review: The Darkness Below

Well known British author details his switch to rebreather diving

Author: Pat
5th February 2012

Rod Macdonald’s new book is a grippingly detailed account of his switch to rebreather diving.

A sequel of sorts to his 2005 book, Rod Macdonald’s weighty new tome ‘The Darkness Below’ brings us bang up to date with his latest exploits. If you haven’t read the first one (I haven’t), don’t worry – the author opens with a lively account of his life before sub-aqua, and subsequent discovery of what would prove to be his life’s calling as a deep wreck diver.

With so many explorations under his belt, the book reads more like a collection of short stories than one volume split into chapters. Just as with all satisfying stories there’s a narrative to follow, in this case the transformation from Open Circuit to Rebreather diver.

we are repeatedly taken on voyages past 50, 60 metres

What makes Rod’s writing so likeable is that the ego is nowhere to be seen. Far too many diving books paint central characters as competitive daredevils or brash macho types. Not so here: time and again the author acknowledges his own shortcomings, mistakes, and fears – fear being a word often absent yet surely relevant for anyone pushing the envelope of a sport.

Because while he may refrain from describing it as such, pushing the envelope is precisely what Macdonald has been building up to for the last 30 years. The writing style may be accessible but the diving certainly isn’t, and we are repeatedly taken on voyages past 50, 60 metres into freezing, pitch black water, often with little or no visibility and entrapment hazards all around.

This is not the account of a depth junkie; rather it’s a love of maritime history and passion for discovering virgin wrecks that makes Rod tick. On a dive, the picture that emerges can be as confusing as a wreck itself: high hopes, early morning starts, a long voyage in a bouncy RIB out to a mystery target, dropping down a shotline full of expectation to find a baffling mess of something else entirely. In ‘The Darkness Below’ we share the author’s own disappointment as the expected U-Boat turns out to be another sunken steamer, and yet Rod is never disappointed: it’s just another mystery to solve, albeit not the one he and his friends were expecting.

While Macdonald’s home town of Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire forms a base for much of the diving, there are some fascinating asides too. Particularly thrilling are a descent into the Corryvreckan Whirlpool in Scotland, a natural maelstrom fraught with dangerous downcurrents that, frankly, you’d have to be mad to consider diving. And there are overseas tales of diving the HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales in the South China Sea, two iconic battleships remembered poignantly for the huge loss of life.

Recurring throughout the book, the author describes his wariness of Closed Circuit Rebreather (CCR) technology, which largely came to the fore in the 1990s and is standard kit these days for anyone venturing past recreational depths. But the clamour becomes a roar and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that Rod is gradually seduced by the benefits of these amazing machines, and how they go on to transform the sort of diving that characterises his life.

‘The Darkness Below’ is an adventure story, but it’s also a humble and honest account of one man’s passion. And by making inaccessible places accessible to all, Rod Macdonald has made a huge contribution to understanding our maritime heritage.



‘The Darkness Below’ by Rod Macdonald is available now from major retailers. It is also available direct from Whittles Publishing via

You can learn more about Rod and his adventures at

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