Inside the First Deep-Sea Dive in History
In 1930, a colorful band of researchers in the Atlantic taught us how to plumb the ocean’s depths
Midmorning on June 11, 1930, a barge called the Ready, bearing the staff of the Department of Tropical Research, floated off the coast of the island of Nonsuch in the Bermuda Archipelago. Men in white sailor’s caps and overalls gathered around a four-and-a-half-foot steel ball called the bathysphere as an enormous winch lifted it off the deck. The men stabilized the ball as it wheeled outward, dangling above the surface of the sea. It had three front-facing holes grouped tightly together like eyes. Suspended and swinging on the cable, it seemed to peer down at the choppy water.
The bathysphere would be the first submersible to bring humans down into the deep ocean. The plan was to drop it repeatedly in the same place, going lower and lower, studying the column of water directly below. What creatures lived down there? In what numbers? Would populations dwindle as they moved deeper? The ocean was so vast and unknown, whatever insights could be gained would mark an epochal expansion of biological knowledge.
DTR scientist Gloria Hollister watched the winchmen lower the steel ball into the sea. When it splashed down and disappeared, she took a seat, picked up a canvas-bound notebook that served as the expedition log, and readied herself.
Photos show her with a focused expression, a telephone receiver shaped like an old hunting horn attached to her neck and a small speaker pressed to her right ear. She kept her chin slightly tucked as she listened and spoke and took preliminary notes. The wire from her receiver ran off the edge of the deck and into the water, attached to the bathysphere now sinking toward the ocean’s depths.
Inside the ball, curled up and occupying themselves with various tasks, were two skinny men: Otis Barton and William Beebe. They had to be skinny because the opening to crawl into the bathysphere was less than two feet wide. Barton, who’d designed the ball and overseen its production, monitored the water seal of the 400-pound door, the functioning of the oxygen tanks that provided eight hours of breathable air and the cartons of soda lime to absorb the carbon dioxide exhaled by the occupants. He checked the telephone battery and the blower that circulated air.
As they sank, the temperature inside cooled, and water condensed on the ceiling of the ball, dripping down to form puddles at the bottom.
The ball was fitted with two three-inch quartz windows. There were supposed to be three, but one of the quartz panes was faulty, so its opening had to be plugged with more steel.
Beebe, a bird scientist and proto-ecologist, curled up as close to the panes as possible. Entranced by the undersea world, he was highly aware of his status as witness to something no human had ever seen. An energetic man with infectious enthusiasm, he was already famous for his popular books describing trips around the world tracking pheasants, for an expedition up the Himalayas and for risking his life to observe an erupting volcano in the Galápagos. He was 52 years old, bald and bony and almost knock-kneed, with a thin but stately voice pronouncing his observations as he descended. He’d been all over the world but never lost his New Jersey accent, so worlds and birds came out woylds and boyds.
The winchmen unwound the cable, and as the bathysphere descended further the light began to shift. The warm tones of the earth’s surface were absorbed by the water. At 100 feet, Beebe held up a red color plate to test the spectrum and found it had gone completely black—that warm frequency no longer reached his current depth. Fish swam into view in the cool brightness of the greens and blues of the water outside. He called out what he saw to Hollister, who continued to jot down his statements in her expedition notebook:
100 ft Red gone, color plates black.
200 Pilotfish around bait, 6 inches long,
pure white with 8 jet black bands.
250 No red or yellow in sunlight. More
jellies, tail of Pilotfish seen again.
300 Otis saw Pilotfish, fish many-colored
at surface but looks white.
400 Two strings of Salpa.
Shrimps look pure white.
500 Transparent fish with only food visible.
550 Temperature 75 degrees. Large Leptocephalus.
Many Cavolinia. Several Myctophids.
650 Flashes of light in distance.
800 Pretty dim. Meter wheel reading 237.
900 Several mists of little Shrimps.
As they descended, this interplay continued: the shifting of the spectrum until the world outside the steel ball was blue, blue and nothing else, slowly fading to black but still bright with a strange brightness Beebe could not put into words. Their spotlight cast a dismal yellow glow out the quartz windows, but now at a thousand feet it dimmed quickly.
The beam switched off, and the water outside filled with miniature explosions. Tiny shrimp. Beebe had seen them carried up in nets, lifeless. Now he could see them for the first time in their native habitat, lighting up the black depths with quick oxidations of a chemical produced in their bodies called luciferase.
When the explosions ceased, the strange brilliance returned, and it was as though there had never been another color in the universe. He was sure he could read by it, but when Barton held up a page, he couldn’t make out a single word. Beebe turned back to the circular window, continued to observe and speak, and Hollister on the deck recorded it all in the lined pages of the log:
1050 Blacker than blackest midnight yet brilliant.
Air splendid. 20 little fish might be Argyropelecus.
1100 Thick rat-tailed long pale white Macrourid-like fish
with six lights went around bend of hose.
1150 Beam of light showing clearly—light on.
1200 Idiacanthus. Two Astronesthes.
1250 Fish 5-inch-long, shaped like Stomias
3-inch shrimps absolutely white.
Argyropelecus in light beam.
2 luminous pale white jellies.
1300 6 or 8 shrimps. 50 or 100 lights like fireflies.
Small squid in beam of light,
seems to have no lights, went down to bait.
Cyclothones. Two-inch shrimps.
1350 Light very pale.
Temp. 72. Meter wheel reading 403.
1400 Looking straight down very black.
Black as hell.
Then a huge flash of light. Like a strobe light illuminating something outside the window. What had caused it? He could see nothing now but shrimp and jellyfish, but a form was etched in his mind.
It had been a thick, eel-like creature, fanged. He’d seen a mouth wide open, small jagged teeth like nails through a board, but the mouth gaping. What kind of terror and hunger had he just seen? A slipped gear in the grind of reality, and he’d been thrust briefly into a nightmare of fluorescent tearing and gnashing. And then it was gone, and he was back in the ball.
Outside were the familiar undulations of jellyfish.
A feeling came over him that he’d seen enough. He told Hollister to let the crew know it was time to haul them up to the surface. When they reached 150 feet, the crew could see the vessel underwater.
The winchmen dropped the bathysphere back on board and unscrewed the bolts to release the skinny men into the afternoon sun. Beebe emerged into the now unfamiliar daylight. He unbent his knobby knees and stamped his feet on the deck of the boat. He looked off at the low hills of Bermuda in the distance and knew something in him had permanently changed. Later he would try to pin down what it was. Something to do with the light he had seen.
The yellow of the sun, he wrote, “can never hereafter be as wonderful as blue can be.”
The bathysphere made 15 dives that summer, and almost 40, reaching 3,028 feet, by the time the expedition was wrapped up in 1934. As they went deeper, the dives became front-page news around the world. An NBC crew arrived at one point for a live deep-sea broadcast.
Over the course of the expedition, the DTR team identified dozens of new species, though they saw several only once. Visibility through the quartz windows was inadequate for photography, so staff artists like Else Bostelmann and George Swanson produced illustrations based on Beebe’s descriptions—Hollister’s too, when she made her own record-setting dives. Often, these striking images were the only visual evidence of outlandish, never-before-seen creatures, such as the comically grotesque angler Beebe named Dolopichthys tentaculatus.
Beebe was aware of the scientific value of the expedition, but he also sensed that its truly transformative effect hinged on bodily presence in the deep. The difficulty, the risks involved, the discomfort of being cooped up in the ball with Barton—all that sharpened his sense of contingency and interconnectedness. It made the world more vivid. In the face of his doubts that any of that could be transferred, with the help of Hollister, the staff artists and the rest of the team, he wrote article after article, book after book. Perhaps he could convey something of what he’d seen and felt, bringing our imaginations, if not our bodies, to rest for a while among the marvels of the deep.Excerpted from The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths, by Brad Fox. Copyright © 2023 by Brad Fox. Used with permission of the publisher, Astra House. All rights reserved
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