In June 1931 subscribers to The National Geographic Magazine read of an astonishing journey. William Beebe of the New York Zoological Society and his companion Otis Barton had descended a quarter of a mile into the ocean—to “Davy Jones’s Locker” as the article announced—and lived to tell the tale. A revolutionary vehicle, a “bathysphere,” designed and built by the pair following a sketch by Theodore Roosevelt, had made the voyage possible. Although not taken seriously by most scientists at the time, the descent began an era of exploration that would ultimately reveal to us a hidden nine tenths of our world.
The historic expedition took place eight miles off New Nonsuch Island, Bermuda, on June 11, 1930. Crammed into a steel ball weighing two tons, with only a round six-inch window to peer out of, Beebe and Barton (who was too busy managing the bathysphere to look out) found themselves suspended in a blue-black world that was then as unknown as the dark side of the moon. Beebe, who transmitted his thoughts and observations to a barge on the surface via telephone, related:
Since…the Phoenicians dared to sail the open sea, thousands upon thousands of human beings had reached the depths at which we were now suspended, and had passed on to lower levels. But all of these were dead, drowned victims of war, tempest, or other Acts of God.*
What Beebe saw on that trip—and reported with such vividness—was a glowing world of creatures so astonishing that for decades many doubted his veracity. The clear sea stretched endlessly, and was so full of luminescence that it sparkled like the night sky. Cavalcades of black shrimps, transparent eels, and bizarre fish approached the descending sphere, and when Beebe used his spotlight to see them, great shadows and shifting patches of light hovered just out of view, leading him to postulate the existence of giants in the Bermudan depths. And below the bathysphere? There, said Beebe, lay a world that “looked like the black pit-mouth of hell itself.”
Is it the geography of Christian belief that has made us upright apes so dread the ocean deep, yet strive so mightily to explore the cold and (so far as we know) lifeless heavens? Not all human beings think as Beebe did. The Greenland Inuit, for example, believe that paradise lies at the bottom of the sea, for that is where their food comes from. It is the cloudy, frozen mountains and sky that they fear and shun. Whatever the cause, human beings know more about the surface of that dead rock we call the moon than the living depths of our own planet’s seas. We still know very little about the deep ocean floor.
Just what we have missed out on as we have pursued our heavenly dreams is revealed in two new books—Claire Nouvian’s The Deep and Tony Koslow’s The Silent Deep. So much of the knowledge they contain is new that until very recently it would…
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