I don’t know about you, but the idea of climbing through a 14 inch window to be sealed into a metal sphere just 4’6” across and allowing this to be lowered to 3,500 feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean can be classified in the “not for me” section of my imagination. Don’t worry, it isn’t something I have tried or intend to do while I am out here. The connection to Bermuda is that this occurred off Nonsuch Island in the early 1930s.

A few months back on a rainy Sunday the local TV was showing a short documentary film about the underwater pioneers William Beebe and Otis Barton. I was intrigued.

I found out more from a book “Descent”
(not the horror film, board game or role-playing MMO, a plain old fashioned book)

I’ve given you a link because it seems to be a popular title for a book.

Then another book by William Beebe himself

Half Mile Down – available on Open Library

This one is more fun to read and has pictures:

Beebe's drawing of a diver

Beebe’s drawing of a diver

William Beebe was a scientist and for many years had worked for the New York Zoological Society. He was in fact 55 when he undertook the Bathysphere project. He was the David Attenborough of his day, described as “enthusiastic, charming and charismatic” . But he was also “intolerant of mediocrity”, which comes across in his book when he claims that divers should be “inarticulate with amazement” at what they had seen or they didn’t deserve to dive again.

He needed the specific knowledge of Otis Barton, an engineer, for Beebe’s plan was to use a steel cylinder 7 foot long with a glass window. If I had done better at my A level physics I might have been able to explain why that wouldn’t work, but it involves maths and the very thought of it takes me back to exams in the school gym with the impossible-to-climb ropes dangling menacingly above as my sweating hands struggle with the impossible-to-solve problem.

History simplified

History simplified according to William Beebe

The historical context to the Bathysphere is that diving bells had been used successfully since the 17th century. Halley, of comet fame, had designed one to hold 5 people and descend to 60 feet. The deepest a submarine had reached was 383 feet. No living man had sunk below 600 feet. Beebe and Barton reached a depth of 1426 feet on their first dive – ¼ mile.

The Bathysphere off Nonsuch Island, Bermuda

The Bathysphere off Nonsuch Island, Bermuda (illustration from Beebe’s book)

The windows were made of quartz, 3” thick and 8” diameter, through which they perceived the diminishing spectrum and thimble-sized jellyfish. I would have been disappointed with jellyfish. Further down they were rewarded with iridescent lanternfish, flying snails, pilot fish, puffer fish – all of which might seem commonplace now we can visit aquariums with 8-million gallon tanks. Of course they didn’t have iPhones to take photos so Beebe drew what he had seen after each dive. Some of the creatures such as the “pallid sailfish” and “3-star angelfish” haven’t actually been seen since so maybe his drawings contained an element of imagination.

By the mid 1930s the depression meant they ran out of money. The deepest they reached was 3028 feet on August 15th 1934.

William Beebe lived long enough to know about the later designed Bathyscaphe Trieste reaching a depth of 35,797 feet in 1960. He died in 1962 aged 85.  Otis Barton died in 1992 aged 93.

Their legacies include:

Titans of the Deep – a semi-documentary made in 1938 starring themselves

Sounding the Deep – inspired by the story of Beebe
a musically uncomfortable performance from Hull Philharmonic Orchestra
(not to be confused with the meditation music of the same name by David Williams)

More than 20 publications by Beebe on submarine life

Benthoscope – designed by Barton, an updated version of the bathysphere in which he reached a depth of 4500 feet in 1949.

Now in 2014 there are plans for a manned exploration of the Mariana Trench and other projects on how to live underwater for longer periods of time. It is as exciting as outer space, but seems to get less publicity.

You can find out more about the bathysphere at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute: BUEI, a museum almost hidden away, but well worth a visit, especially if its raining outside.

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