A review of The Bathysphere Book, Effects of Luminous Ocean Depths by Brad Fox – an extraordinary book about an extraordinary man
William Beebe was a respected scientist, a friend of presidents and poets, an explorer, an author, one of the first aerial photographers, fought in the First World War trenches, defined himself as a Buddhist/ Presbyterian, and mixed a mean cocktail. He was also the first man to dive to the deep ocean in a Bathysphere.
It is those dives, in June 1930, on the Atlantic island of Nonsuch, that are the subject for Fox’s unusual book. This is no straight, linear narrative. Using expedition logbooks, illustrations from Beebe’s scientific assistant and lover Gloria Hollister, grainy photographs and plenty of literary licence, he builds up a moving and gripping account of venturing into a world no one had ever seen before.
It is impossible for us, even today, to fathom the strangeness, the incomprehensible nature of life at 1,000 metres beneath the surface. Just think what it was like to be the first human to experience this alien world, particularly a man as highly intelligent and richly imaginative as Beebe. At times he is dumbfounded by what he sees through his small window into this strange, dark world.
As he and Otis Barton, the engineer who designed the Bathysphere, slowly descend, Beebe gives a running commentary to Hollister via a telephone line to the surface. Extracts of these are some of the most evocative moments in this captivating book.
It is often said, probably unfairly, that astronauts were chosen for their lack of imagination. Anyone who could comprehend the full scale of the achievement of reaching outer space would probably not be able to function under such pressure.
Beebe certainly had a curious and open mind – at times, you feel he going to implode with the sensory confusion he experiences. His struggle to find the language
to explain even the subtly changing colour of the darkness he perceives is wonderful to behold, never mind the jaw-dropping awe inspired in him by the creatures he encounters.
This book delves into the reasons why we explore, and revels in the joy that touching the unknown can bring. Somewhere in this, at times rather pretentious narrative, lies the secret of why even the most ordinary of scuba dives fills us with a deep sense of wonder. A great book about a great man