Danger -- Shipwreck Below!
If you've ever dreamed of diving into pirate-infested seas in search of sunken treasure of eye-popping historic and monetary value, then stoke the fire, brew a cuppa and settle in with Dragon Sea, Frank Pope's gripping true-life yarn of an expeditionary quest to recover an exquisite hoard of 15th-century Vietnamese porcelain buried in the hold of an ill-fated ship at the bottom of the South China Sea.
The project got under way just before 2000 with an odd couple at the helm. Heading the research and overseeing the logistics of the salvage operation was Mensun Bound, a flamboyant Oxford marine archaeologist whose previous underwater exploits had earned him the nickname "Indiana Jones of the Deep." Meanwhile -- with no academic backing to be had for a venture so ambitious and expensive -- the bills were being paid by Ong Soo Hin, a successful businessman whose motivations had less to do with scientific research than with the possibility of making a financial killing in a record-setting auction payoff from the rare antiquities the expedition promised to recover.
It doesn't take long for their differing perspectives to erode their trust, and for their personal feud to endanger the one goal they do share: a successful outcome to the excavation. Pope -- who, as one of the project's leaders, was himself caught in the middle of many of these clashes -- details the daily strains and stresses of marine excavation: the physically grueling, death-defying underwater dives; the labor-intensive sifting of mud and muck; the painstaking cataloging and tedious conservation techniques.
Diving enthusiasts, art historians, collectors and would-be treasure-hunters will all find much to savor here. The only thing missing, from my point of view, are color illustrations of the bounty they sought and eventually found.
Diane Cole is the author of After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and a contributing editor of U.S. News & World Report.
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