Review of Fatally Flawed: The Quest to be Deepest by Verna van Shaik


The story of a woman diver’s successful attempt at a depth record in Boesmansgat sinkhole, South Africa – Fatally Flawed focuses on Verna van Shaik’s personal growth within the ego-driven world of deep technical diving. The account begins with a chronicling of Verna’s progression as a diver, focusing on her struggles as a woman in a community dominated by men. The famous final dive of Dave Shaw, an attempt to recover the body of lost diver Deion Dreyer from the bottom of Boesmansgat, is then recounted as it occurred days after Verna’s record dive. She concludes the story with personal revelations gained as a result of her quest for depth.

Technical divers form a close-knit community. It is small enough that a significant dive by a top diver can have reverberating impacts. Fatally Flawed is a personal glimpse into this competitive world. It climaxes in two such dives: the successful world record attempt at depth by van Shaik and the tragic loss of Dave Shaw in the attempt to recover the body of Deion Dreyer.

Van Shaik accounts her progression to the top level of technical diving within the Wits Underwater Club in South Africa, which closely relates to the dives of multiple record holder Nuno Gomez. She focuses on her personal struggle and motivations to push for the coveted support diver positions during these dives. The difficulties she encounters as a woman are a constant theme.

Van Shaik then describes her own deep dives in several South African sinkholes. She relates the events of each dive to her motivations to continue and offers chilling insights towards what can go wrong and what it takes to chase a depth record.

The climax of the story is the fateful trip to Boesmansgat sinkhole that resulted in successful record dives by Verna and rebreather diver Dave Shaw, as well as tragedy of Shaw’s loss in attempt to recover the body of Deion Dreyer. Van Shaik was the surface marshal for the incident, and gives her story of the events of that fateful dive.

Fatally Flawed ends with van Shaik’s revelations. She describes the insights gained from the achievement and sudden disappearance of her goal for depth, remarking that:

 “With each dive, each meter I learned something new, something more about who I could be and what I actually could do. Diving has become a way to explore who I am. I want the challenges, I want the problems, I want to learn and grow!”

The story is a glimpse into a select community of extreme divers in South Africa at a particular time. It does not presume to extend to the entire diving community, but the honest and personal account of the planning and execution of deep dives will appeal to any diver. It is relatable, partially because of van Shaik’s straightforward style, and any person who enjoys stories of exploration and personal struggle will certainly be inspired.

Van Shaik’s passion and expertise is apparent in her actions, but Fatally Flawed is a nontechnical account of her journey. The tragic loss of Dave Shaw is a significant event in the book, but has a way of nullifying the significance of van Shaik’s own quest. Though tragic, it seems hastily connected to the author’s journey and included mostly because it happened in such close proximity.

For any technical diver or explorer, Fatally Flawed is a worthwhile read.