Finding the Bathysphere in an outdoor scrap yard under the Cyclone in Coney Island was like coming across a Mercury space capsule among rusting tools and nicked furniture at a flea market.
-from Descent by Brad Matsen
It’s been said that we know more about the depths of space than we do about the depths of Earth’s own oceans. I think that might either be an exaggeration or a statement that has to be made with a lot of qualifiers, but there is a valid point there. We tend to take the ocean for granted. Astronauts are national heroes, and everyone who was old enough at the time remembers where they were when men landed on the Moon. And yet Jacques Cousteau’s first test of scuba gear was known to only a few people—admittedly it was during World War II and taking place in occupied France. Very few people are familiar with the first and only manned dive to the Challenger Deep, a point in the ocean that’s so deep if you were to drop Mount Everest into it the peak would be a mile under water. And then there was the first bathysphere. On June 6th, 1930, William Beebe and Otis Barton descended to 803 feet, the first human beings to reach that depth and return alive.
Brad Matsen’s book Descent captures that moment, as well as chronicling the relationship between Beebe and Barton which, in spite of what they shared, seemed destined to fall apart. It was a symbiotic relationship: Beebe was older and a successful explorer who’d written exciting best-selling books. He was also a hard worker and serious minded scientist in spite of lacking academic credentials. Barton was young, ambitious, and a talented engineer who needed Beebe’s money and prestige to be able to finance his design for a deep-sea diving vessel.
Barton was interested in setting records, while Beebe was interested in the new science of oceanography. Where previous explorers had simply been interested in collecting specimens, Beebe had observed animals Africa with an eye to understanding their relationships, how they lived. Turning from land to sea, Beebe took to helmet diving and wanted to study undersea life in the same way. Instead of only studying fish hauled up by lines and nets, Beebe wanted to observe them in their natural habitat, recording their behavior and their depth. Helmet diving allowed him to do this some, but the bathysphere—a name Beebe came up with himself—let him see animals at depths no helmet diver could ever reach. It’s not an exaggeration to say the bathysphere helped change our understanding of the ocean and its life.