DESCENT: The Heroic Discovery of the Abyss. By Brad Matsen. Pantheon. 304 pp. $25
Ernest Shackleton, Edmund Hillary—these were glorious explorers, men who performed unimaginable physical and mental feats to plant the flag for God and country. By contrast, there’s something unsatisfying about the accomplishments of William Beebe and Otis Barton, who in 1934 conquered the ocean depths by allowing themselves to be lowered a half-mile in a small steel ball. No less brave than Shackleton and Hillary, perhaps, but ingloriously helpless and totally at the mercy of their equipment.
Barton, a New York City trust-fund kid with a bad attitude toward the family plan (he dropped out of engineering school at Columbia University), saw deep-sea exploration as his route to fame and glory. Beebe, explorer, naturalist, and director of the Department of Tropical Research at the New York Zoological Society, had collected and identified creatures of the jungle; now he wanted to do the same with those of the ocean. Beebe had the cred, but Barton—who, after getting no response to his s presence one late December day in 1928—had the blueprint.
Daydreaming through engineering classes, Barton had come up with a design for a steel sphere thick enough to resist water pressure at great depths. Of course, it would need windows of some kind, an oxygen system, telephone contact, a spotlight, and a cable and winch to lower and raise it. To sweat the details, Barton hired the eminent shipbuilding firm of Cox and Stevens, which, after much trial, error, and subcontracting, turned over a finished product. In 1930, Barton carried it by tugboat to Nonsuch Island, Bermuda, where the Zoological Society staffed a research station. There Beebe waited on the Ready, a tug refitted with two winches to handle the three-ton cable.
Beebe christened the four-and-a-half-foot globe the “Bathysphere,” using the Greek prefix for deep, and without further ceremony the Ready, towed by a barge, headed for deep water. Beebe and Barton squeezed inside the sphere and waited for the hatch cover to be tightened. Hampered by the forced intimacy, they watched through a tiny porthole as the Bathysphere lurched downward and the multicolored world darkened to a purplish blue. At 800 feet, Beebe began seeing what he’d been hoping for: weird, fierce, luminescent sea creatures no one had seen before. But a small leak and other glitches dictated a speedy end to the Bathysphere’s maiden voyage.
Barton and Beebe continued to dive together intermittently for the next four years, with Beebe cataloging marine life in the deep and Barton attempting to film it. Yet never did collaboration evoke so little gratitude on either side. Beebe came to view Barton as a whiny dilettante; Barton saw Beebe as a publicity-
hogging egotist. Shortly after a historic half-mile dive in 1934, the two men parted company and never spoke again. Barton made a movie from his amateur underwater footage, Titans of the Deep, which flopped. He roamed the globe for another 60 years, backed by his trusty trust fund. Beebe left the ocean, frustrated by accusations that he hadn’t really discovered any new deep-sea creatures, and went back to his beloved jungle.
Brad Matsen, an expert on marine and environmental topics who produced the National Geographic ocean series The Shape of Life, writes engagingly about the technical and scientific contributions of Barton and Beebe, as well as their personalities—and egos. The courage of these two explorers revealed the ocean floor, yet the terror of descent taught a larger truth as well: No man can conquer the sea.